Conferring with Writers is Like Coaching Skiers: Strength ID and Enhancement

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany years ago, one of my first jobs was as a ski instructor at a local ski resort. During our instructor training, we were taught a technique called “strength identification and enhancement.”

The concept is simple. You observe the skier and identify one very specific thing they are already doing well. Then, you coach them to build on their strength, and to use it to enhance their overall skiing ability.

For example, let’s say a kid is leaning way back on his heels as he skis (which is not a great habit), but is really good at keeping his hands out in front (which is a good habit). One option would be to try to correct the kid’s bad habit by constantly telling him not to lean back, or to bend his knees, or think about his toes versus heels. All of those tips are helpful for some kids. But none of those tips are related to his strength — his hands. Instead, we can compliment the kid on keeping those hands up, and we can coach him to reach forward with his hands, which will help him to put his whole body weight forward, and will help him overall as a skier.

That’s strength i.d. and enhancement — for skiers.

The same exact concept applies to writers. Instead of aiming straight for the skills that kids are lacking, we might be more effective by building on the strengths the student is already demonstrating.

For example, a student who describes the setting in her stories (a good habit) but then tends to summarize all the action in the stories with little elaboration (not a good habit) might benefit from a conference where we compliment the way she used details to describe the setting at the beginning, and then coach her to tuck in details about the setting all the way through her whole story. We might even coach her to add not just any details, but to add details about the setting that match the characters’ feelings.

When we support something that a student is doing well (or at least hinting at), we can aim to:

  • notice and name a strategy that is transferable to any piece of writing
  • name something on the “edge” of what the child can do independently
  • use clear and consistent language
  • show the exact place where the student already used the strategy in his/her writing
  • elaborate on what the student did, make a whole paragraph out of the compliment
  • make it part of the student’s identity as a writer (“You’re the kind of writer who…” or “I bet you do this in all your stories!”

I often keep a little cheat sheet right next to me as I confer, to remind me not to skimp on the compliment. That way, I can do my best to build on what students already know each time I confer.