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Teaching Students to Get Better at Conferring

In my last post, I wrote about giving students the inside scoop on writing workshop in order to boost their confidence, productivity, and independence. I’ll aim to continue the meta in this post. If writers benefit from understanding the structures and rationales of writing workshop as a whole, they can also benefit from understanding the structures and rationales of one of its most important elements: conferring.

Certainly, you can teach students to get better at helping a partner get better at writing, so to get better at taking on a teacher role. But just as, or perhaps even more powerful, is to teach them how to get better at being the conferee. In order for writers to get the most they possibly can from a writing conference, they have to be active participants. They have to listen well, to make sure they understand the instruction, and to plan how they will put what they are learning into action. If they don’t understand the instruction, they must speak up. If they feel stymied at the end of the conference rather than energized for writing, they must take steps to fix this.

The Minilesson

You might start a minilesson on teaching kids how to get better at being in a writing conference by sharing a story about your own experience as a learner or a participant, and how choosing to be active rather than passive helped you. For example, I might tell the story about a time I took a really hard math class in college. I spent most of the first part of the semester sitting in quiet confusion. When midterm grades came out and I saw I was in danger of failing, I forced myself to take action. I went to the teacher for conferences. I asked a lot of questions. When I still didn’t understand, I asked more. Though the class was still hard for me, I got so much out of it more because I took charge of my own learning. Then, I’d explain that taking charge of one’s own learning is important no matter the subject, and is so important in writing, especially during conferences.


To demonstrate being an active participant in a writing conference, you might ask one student to role play the part of the teacher, while you play the part of a student. Give the student a list of possible research questions a teacher might use at the start of a conference, such as:

– How’s your writing going?
– What are you working on as a writer?
– Can you tell me a bit about your process?

You might post these questions, so that other students can see them, and can use them during the active engagement.

Then, role play scenario one, where you demonstrate what not to do in a writing conference. When the student assuming the role of teacher asks you questions, you might really play up your the role of a reticent student who isn’t doing his or her part to contribute to the conference. Refuse to answer questions, or give very short, unhelpful answers such as, “I don’t know,” or “I”m not really working on anything.” Students will likely laugh, but may recognize some of their own behaviors in your role play.

Then, in scenario two, role play a more productive conference. Once again play up your part, this time giving a wealth of information about your writing process and what you are working on as a writer in ways you hope your students will emulate. For example, you might say, “I’m working on making my introduction more interesting in my information book. It feels kind of dull, and I’d like some help thinking of other ways I could start.” Or, “I have a hard time with setting. I know I’m supposed to add setting details, but I don’t know how to make them interesting.

Active Engagement

During the Active Engagement, let students take turns role playing not-so-productive and productive conferences. If you have time to allow partners to switch parts, do so, as most students will find it hilarious (and memorable!) to play the part of the reticent student.

Debrief, asking students to share what they noticed about the more productive writing conference with their partners. What did the student do to make the conference go better? Note: If you are short on time, you can skip the role-play portion of the active engagement and move to asking students to share what they noticed from your demonstration.

Capture some of what you hear students saying on a chart that will serve as a reminder of how they can get the most the possibly can out of their conferences.

Get the most from a conference chart


As you send students off to work, remind them that remembering to be an active participant will help them not just in writing conferences always (and it will!), but in all of their learning experiences, even when they are grown ups.

Mid-Workshop Teaching Point

It’s crucial to stress and uphold your expectations for the whole class during conferring time. A mid-workshop teaching point might be a good opportunity to let your students know that unless there is a fire or a medical emergency (yes, you are being a bit facetious, but some drama helps to underscore the point that conferences should not be disturbed), they are not to interrupt you while you are conferring with another student. You might also explain any systems you’ve set up for them to get help if needed, such as a place they can sign up for a conference if they are stuck rather than interrupt you if you are working with another student.

Happy conferring, and I wish you many productive writing conferences.



Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

8 thoughts on “Teaching Students to Get Better at Conferring Leave a comment

  1. I think students might really recognize themselves when the teacher acts the part of the disinterested conferee! I think my 3rd graders need help knowing WHAT they are working on as a writer in the first place. I can envision lots of blank stares. So, part of my teaching will be around what writers are doing when they sit with their notebooks in writing workshop. (Brainstorming ideas, looking through notebook for inspiration, drafting, rereading, revising, trying out a craft move, editing…) Anyone else feel like their students might not know what they are working on as a writer? Other ideas on how to teach into that?


    • It’s so true that kids need a lot of content in order to be meta-cognitive in their conferences, such a great point! This really is our big work as writing teachers, to teach them enough qualities of good writing that they have a sense of how and what will make their writing better. I think it takes a lot of practice to really know what they are working on as a writer, so we should be easy on ourselves if our students don’t know this or learn it overnight.


  2. I really don’t know how writing teachers taught before Two Writing Teachers existed. If a student doesn’t “feel energized for writing” after a conference is analogous to the feeling I seek when I read this blog (every day), and come away every day feeling as though I have yet another gem to tuck into my teaching toolkit, and CAN’T WAIT TO TRY!

    Anna, in particular, I love the idea of teaching students to be in the driver’s seat of their learning. I have been teaching my students to be self-directed learners, and this lesson will be a natural extension. Thank you for the ideas. (And, thank you to your writing colleagues as well, because I don’t post each time I read, but I always appreciate the advice!)


  3. Thanks for this reminder to make our expectations clear to students! I’ll be doing a few fishbowl conferences right away so students can notice and name what their friends are doing/not doing during a conference – in reading and in writing! : )


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