An effective writing conference is tailored to needs of the specific student you are working with. Part of conferring involves researching the writer, and deciding on one concise, explicit teaching point that will help the writer improve.
Resources for finding teaching points for conferring abound. Here are just a few:
A Teachers Guide to Writing Conferences, by Carl Anderson
The Big Book of Details by Rozlyn Linder
The Writing Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo
Even with fantastic resources in hand, there is an art to naming a teaching point for a student, in the moment, while you are conferring.
When I’m conferring, I have a step-by-step process I go through to get it just right. When I was newer to conferring, I would stop the conference for a moment and literally draft and revise my teaching point on paper, and then return to the student to continue the conference after I had sorted out exactly how I would say the teaching point.
Here’s my process. For the purpose of this post, I’m focusing just on one part of a writing conference — naming the teaching point. For more on how a full writing conference might go, see the links at the bottom of the post.
Step 1: With the student’s writing goals in mind, name one strategy that will help them move toward that goal.
For example, here is one item from the TCRWP third grade rubric for information writing: elaboration. The third grade end of year expectation is “The writer wrote facts, definitions, details, and observations about his topic, and explained some of them.”
The other day, I was working with a student who was working on this as a goal. One strategy I could teach would be to stop and say more about each fact, instead of just listing them. A strategy is a specific action a student can take, not a general category of something that makes strong writing. So “elaboration” isn’t really a strategy – there are too many different ways to do that. “Say more about each fact” is a bit more specific and will help a student move from the second grade expectation to the third grade expectation.
Step 2: Break it down step-by-step for the student.
“Say more about each fact,” may be a bit more helpful than simply, “you need to elaborate more,” but it will still sound vague to a student who isn’t already doing it. A more effective teaching point explicitly explains exactly how to do the strategy. I might say, “First, I reread my writing and underline each new fact. Then I say out loud a new sentence to go with each fact. Then I add the new sentences to my writing, either using a caret (^) to squeeze them in, or using a post-it if there isn’t enough room.” Using words like “first, then, next…” helps me make the teaching point explicitly clear.
Step 3: Make sure I include the reason to use the strategy or when to use the strategy.
A very clearly stated teaching point doesn’t change a student as a writer if they aren’t sure when or why to use the strategy. They may understand the work for the moment, but when you leave them to practice independently they need to know when and why they will want to use it again.
Stating the purpose of the strategy means thinking like a writer. When do writers do this? Why do writers do this? The best tool you have for this is to practice lots of writing yourself. Think about your own writing – when and why would you use this strategy? Your most explicit, most effective conferring happens when you are speaking authentically with students about your experience as a writer.
The above teaching point becomes much more effective when I say,
“When I’m writing an information book and I really want my readers to be interested in the facts I’m sharing, I don’t just list them off quickly. I slow down and say more about each fact. First, I reread my writing and underline each new fact. Then I say out loud a new sentence to go with each fact. Then I add the new sentences to my writing, either using a caret (^) to squeeze them in, or using a post-it if there isn’t enough room.”
Step 5: Find the “nugget” to leave behind.
A complete teaching point is often a few sentences long. It is very clear, explicit, and direct. Combined with a demonstration and some practice, an effective teaching point introduces students to a strategy that can lift the level of their writing. However, if they only practice the strategy once or twice, it isn’t likely that it will stick or transfer to anything outside the day of the conference.
This is why the last step of naming a teaching point is to find something easy to remember to leave behind with students. I try to find a memorable name for the strategy, a picture clue, or a tool that will help them to continue practicing the strategy long after I’ve moved on.
To do this I boil the strategy down to a little “nugget” to leave behind. Instead of writing down the entire teaching point, I might leave behind a post-it with a visual reminder.
A clear teaching point helps students understand the work, and makes your conference more memorable. A concisely stated teaching point is also is a tool for keeping your conference focused and effective.
For more on how a conference might go, try these links:
Conferring: Writing Workshop Fundamentals by Lanny Ball
Conferring Carl on Writing Conferences by Stacey Shubitz
Conferring With If Then…Then… Then… In Mind by Beth Moore