A Peek Inside Conferring Toolkits Blog Series · conferring · strategic conferring · writing workshop

Questions to Reflect, Expand, and Select

Our 31 second hallway conversation. Click here to listen.

Humans have the natural tendency to complicate things. I, too, have at times been sucked into the vortex of the complexities of the many, many ways one can choose to move a writer forward in a conference. If we are not intentional, we can easily rush into many teaching points, instead of only one. We can overwhelm ourselves and our students. If we are not careful, we can miss the most important reason we sit with a student―the opportunity to listen and learn.

When I meet with a student, I pause to consider the miraculous possibility that sits before me, before I speak. I remind myself to listen and learn. It is a conversation from one human to another, writer to writer, and we are, both of us, learning from each other.  

I begin with a question.

Responding with Questions

According to Children Want to Write, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle, Susan Sowers identifies three key prompts that are internalized by students when we respond to their writing.

When we respond, we can ask questions to…

1. “Reflect. Here the listener describes what he or she has heard. (Don) Graves calls this ‘receiving the piece.’”

2. “Expand. The listener asks for more information, filling in possible gaps in the writing.”

3. “Select. The listener highlights what he or she sees as the key information, what Peter Elbow would later call the “center of gravity.”

Conversations between human beings can be complicated, because, well… we are human. Every conversation is unique and carries the chance for unexpected turns and needs. It can be especially complicated when leading EALs, learners of English as an Additional Languages. There is an elevated level of patience and wait time required for students to process not only writing ideas, but language itself.

Below each key is an example of three writing conversations with students in my 4th grade dual language classroom.

Asking the right questions can be hard, because we are researching. We are holding the position of discovering where needs might hide or stand tall. It can be challenging to push a writer forward, without the crushing their creative process or their confidence. It is a complex combination of building relationships, making connections, researching, and finally, pushing the writer into what comes next. All of it a process of learning from students.

When we go into a conference as a researcher, we intentionally give the student a chance to share the processes of their work. Students who have opportunities to make choices, learn to take ownership of their work and progress. When students are decision makers of their writing, writing becomes a part of who they are, not just another part of learning school curriculum.

Our task according Children Want to Write, a collection of Donald Graves’ work, is to place ourselves “in the position of being informed” by our students.

Questions are essential. They do not have to be complicated to be intentional for a student and their writing. We lead our students better when we take time to connect, listen, and learn.

For more on this –

Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing, Children Want to Write, Editors Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle

4 thoughts on “Questions to Reflect, Expand, and Select

  1. You articulate teacher research so articulately here! I was raised as a researcher with The Art of Classroom Inquiry by Ruth Shagoury Hubbard and Brenda Power. Newkirk and Graves also heavily influenced how I talk with and to kids. “Asking the right questions can be hard, because we are researching. We are holding the position of discovering where needs might hide or stand tall.” This line is fabulous – kids hold a wealth of knowledge and vision and it is essential, as you point out, that we learn first from them. Thanks for sharing!


  2. I love how you pin pointed the three ways to help the writer grow! Including the recorded conversation was priceless. The conference with a writer can indeed become overwhelming but these are great ways to focus as a teacher. Thanks for taking the time to explain.


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