When I was a new teacher, I learned from Lucy Calkins that there are basically four overall methods to choose from when planning instruction: 1) demonstration, 2) coaching, 3) inquiry, and 4) telling/explaining. This four-method framework is useful for thinking about conferring.
Demonstration is just like it sounds. You, the teacher act out, or model, the steps of a strategy in real time, in front of students so that they can see what it looks like and sounds like to do the work.
Tips for Effective Demonstration:
- Think aloud as you model the strategy, repeating the
teaching point with consistent language so it “pops out”
- Focus students on what you want them to notice in your
demonstration. (“Watch how I…”, “Did you see how I…?”)
- Make sure demonstration text is familiar to students.
(Read aloud any unfamiliar texts before a lesson begins.)
- Limit amount of text used to demonstrate. No need to read the
whole book or write the whole story in a minilesson or conference.
- Get yourself into predictable trouble you think students will
have with the strategy; then model how to get out of it.
- Use an easel to display your own writing, making it easy
for students to see you at work. You might write on chart
paper to make it large, or on regular size paper, or in a
notebook, depending on the conference. Leave it on display
after the conference is finished so students can look back at it.
Demonstration (a.k.a. Modeling) Sounds Like…
“Watch how I _______”
“Did you notice how I _______”
“Look at the way I ________”
“Now I’m thinking _______”
“Now I’m going to ________”
“One thing that I do is ______”
Coaching is just like it sounds. While the student is actually in the act of writing, pull up alongside to give reminders, prompts, and support–coaching the student to do the work. Be the voice in their ear, reminding to apply the strategies they already know but aren’t yet putting into action.
Tips for Effective Coaching:
1. Use very lean prompts.
2. Give wait time. Five seconds is usually
3. Coach into independence.
4. Make your teaching transferable to any
5. Be responsive.
6. Be explicit.
Coaching Sounds Like…
“Now it’s your turn to ______”
“Don’t forget ______”
“Now you try ______”
“Show me where you’re going to ____”
“Try it now.”
In inquiry, the students come up with solutions to a problem or question that either the teacher or the students themselves have generated. Instead of the teacher explicitly providing the demonstration or coaching to solve the problem, students figure out a solution.
Tips For Effective Inquiry:
- Coach students to pose an answerable question. Some examples: “How are these two pieces of writing similar or different?” “What makes one example stronger than the other?” “What strategies do you notice this writer tried that you could also try?” “How did this writer make their writing more interesting/ detailed/ meaningful/ easier to read?”
- Leave wait time for students to come up with potential answers/solutions to the question or problem.
- Model your own thinking about the question/problem if needed, but prioritize student ideas.
- Chart student responses to create a list of strategies and a visual reminder to leave behind for students. Include picture support to make the conversation more memorable and the chart easier to use.
Inquiry Sounds Like…
“What do you (students) notice?”
“What makes this example stronger/more interesting/detailed/more meaningful/easier to read than this other example?”
“What could you do if/when…”
“What strategies do you already know?”
“How would you solve this problem?”
“What would you do if…”
“What are you curious about?”
“What do you wonder?”
TELLING & EXPLAINING
In terms of levels of thinking, or depths of knowledge, a teacher-provided explanation of a concept usually requires very little problem-solving or action on the part of the student. However there is a time and a place for simply explaining something. I’ll never forget an experience I had during a classroom visit many years ago in the midst of a nonfiction writing unit. I pulled up next to a second grader to confer with him. He was writing an information book, “All About Farms.” In the course of our conference, it became clear that he had somehow developed a misconception that cows would die if they lay down for too long. He opened up a book from his book box. “See,” he said, pointing to an illustration of cows laying on the ground, “All dead.” Oh boy! I thought. This was a time for a little explanation and clarification–a teachable moment. I explained that the cows in the illustration were actually just laying down. I pointed out that their eyes were still open, and that I knew, from years of experience growing up with cows that they would sometimes just lay down–to rest, or because of bad weather, or whatever. The little boy listened to my explanation and looked more closely at the illustration in the book. “Aha!” he said, and added a sentence to his information book. “Sometimes cows lay down.”
Tips For Effective Telling & Explaining
- Keep it brief and concise. Answer the question that was asked. No more, no less.
- Use a visual aid if you can–an illustration, short video clip, or anchor chart will help with conceptual understanding and/or vocabulary.
- Be engaging! Use a personal example, an anecdote, or analogy to make your explanation more memorable.
- Think of telling and explaining as a last resort most of the time. Use it sparingly and only when it really is the best option.
- Use telling and explaining in service of independence: As long as kids also know how to find information themselves, develop and pursue questions and curiosities, and trust their own ability to solve problems–then telling and explaining now and then can be an expedient tool for moving a conversation along. However, if kids are fragile, or they don’t trust themselves to find an answer, or lack the skills, confidence, or mindset to find information for themselves, then you will need to be even more cautious about providing impromptu mini-lectures and even more vigilant about showing kids how to find the answers for themselves.
Telling & Explaining Sounds Like…
“Let me explain…”
“What this means is….”
“An example of this is….”
“Let me clarify by saying…”
“What you need to know is…”
When it comes to conferring, it isn’t just what you teach, it’s how you do it. Aiming for independence, choice, and fostering curiosity, wonder, and joy are always a top priority. Whether you decide to demonstrate on your own example or coach a student to apply a strategy to their own work, make it a goal to teach in a way that sets students up to be able to independently do the work even when you aren’t next to them.