How to Name a Transferable Teaching Point in a Writing Conference

Conferring with young writers is far too complex to boiled down to just one important aspect. But… if you had to name the most important part of a writing conference, what would it be?

I could say that the research part of the conference is the most important part–the beginning of the conversation, when you ask students open ended questions, like “How’s it going?” or “What are your goals today as a writer?”

Or I might say that the most important part of a writing conference is the part where I read over the child’s work, studying and analyzing it for strengths and next steps.

Or maybe it’s the part of the conference where I demonstrate something from my own writing, or from a published author. Or maybe it’s where I coach the student to try out a new strategy in their writing on the spot, during the conference.

Or perhaps it’s the part where I link the conference to the student’s every day work, reminding the student of all the different strategies they could choose from each day, and leaving them with a small chart or visual reminder of all those strategies.

There are many different parts of a writing conference that could be considered the most important, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about one part:

The part where I name the teaching point in clear, concise, transferable language.

This part should be the easy part of a writing conference. After all, every other part of the conference is far less predictable, far more dependent on what the child will say or do at that moment. The teaching point is all up to me.

Although the teaching point is just a few sentences, the briefest part of a writing conference–naming a clear, concise, transferable teaching point that is memorable and applicable to many pieces of writing is something that doesn’t always come easily. Remember – an effective writing conference teaching point doesn’t just “fix up” one particular piece of writing. An effective writing conference transfers to many pieces of writing. As Lucy Calkins has famously said, “Teach the writer, not the writing.”

Here are a few tips for strong teaching points:

Teach a strategy, not a definition or fact. A strategy is something a writer can do, an action.

Instead of …

Try this…

It may help to use a sentence starter such as “One thing readers/writers do is…” This language implies that the new strategy is one of many choices a writer can make. It can also help keep the teaching point focused on just one strategy, rather than multiple strategies at once. It’s much easier to be very explicit when you focus on one strategy at a time.

Like this…

Include the reason for using the strategy, or when to use the strategy. In a workshop model, the student chooses the strategies they will apply to their writing. In order to make these decisions, they need to understand the reason for using the strategy.

It also helps to say it step-by-step or bit-by-bit. Being explicit, breaking down the strategy step-by-step helps students be able to apply the strategy successfully to their own work. It often helps to use more than one sentence for clarity.

Finally, it helps to say the “big” thing before the “little” thing. Since there are many ways to bring characters to life, not just using dialogue, the teaching point can be revised to reflect what is priority as a writer, and what is secondary.

Sometimes, following the opening research part of the conference, I will pause for a moment to write my teaching point down before I say it aloud. If I need to, I’ll refer to my rubrics, checklists, and learning progressions as well as any other resources I might be carrying with me as I confer. Usually I ask the student to reread their own writing, or continue working for a moment or two while I do this. Writing the teaching point down first allows me to choose my words carefully, for clarity, and revise it a bit on paper before I say it aloud, as you see in the above example.

Naming a clear, concise, transferable teaching point this way allows the rest of the conference to fall into place. Once I have said this aloud to the student, I’m set up to demonstrate in an explicit way, step-by-step, and coach the student to try it, step-by-step.

Then, I jot down what I taught the student in my notes, along with any ideas I’m having for our next conference together.