I loved teaching guided reading. It was one of my favorite times of the day. I enjoyed getting to know my students on a more personal level, and I really loved watching them grow and develop as readers.
But, what I didn’t love is the fact that my reading groups were NEVER even. As much as I tried, I would always end up with more groups than I was planning, and the sizes of my reading groups would range anywhere from 3-7 (I was always hoping for 5-6).
The biggest challenge for me was trying to figure out what to do with that one student who was in between groups. It seems like every year there would be one or two students whose independent reading levels were not anywhere close to the rest of my students.
One year in particular, it felt extremely challenging to meet all of my readers’ needs. My lowest group of readers came to me reading on a C/D. I had plenty of experience growing low readers, so this wasn’t too scary to me. But my next group was all the way up on a level I/J. And of course I had one student start the year on a level G. I had no idea where to put him.
At first, I tried to do that thing where I put him in both groups. He would meet with my Level C/D group and again with my level I/J group… but that didn’t really work. He needed instruction at his own level. He was bored in the C/D group and was really frustrated with the I/J group.
I could tell he was losing interest in reading and I knew it was up to me to figure out some way that would help him succeed and grow as a reader…
My solution: Reading Conferences
I had never consistently done reading conferences with my students before. I met with students a few times a year to assess their reading levels, but I didn’t use reading conferences as a way to actually grow my readers.
But after this year of conferring with this one special student several times a week and seeing how much growth he made, I regularly made individual reading conferences a part of my reading block. I made it a point to confer with all of my students on a regular basis.
I believe that reading conferences are the single most powerful instructional tool you can implement to not only create lifelong readers, but also to increase students’ reading levels.
What is a reading conference?
A reading conference is a one-on-one conference with a single student. As the teacher, you will come alongside a student as they are reading a book of their choice. During the conference, you simply have a conversation about the book your student is reading. It is through this conversation that you will affirm and encourage your student with something positive you observe about them as a reader. You will also provide a small bite-sized teaching point that is customized to individual needs of the student you are conferring with.
Why should you be conferring with your students?
- Reading conferences are the most effective way to get to know your students as readers.
- It’s more personal than small group and gives you the opportunity to really speak into students’ reading lives.
- Reading conferences can provide you with insights into class trends which will have a positive impact on your reading instruction.
- Once your upper elementary students are fluent and on-level readers, there isn’t as much of a need for guided reading instruction. Your students can spend more time reading independently which will positively impact their reading. You can still hold them accountable and develop them as readers through reading conferences.
What does the teacher do during a reading conference?
Believe it or not, reading conferences can feel intimidating to teachers. As teachers we are expected to be in control and to be able to know what is going on at every single moment. When you confer with your readers, you are giving them control for a brief moment. You are stepping into their reading world, and you don’t always know what you will discover. The following framework can help you easily step into your student’s reading world and make it a meaningful time for you and them.
- Notice– The very first thing you want to do is take time to notice and observe the student you will be conferring with. What do you notice your student doing as a reader? Before you sit down for the conference you can begin collecting data. Jot down some observations about the following:
- What behaviors do you observe in that reader?
- Do they sit down and get started right away, or do they drag their feet to get out a book?
- Do they seem to have a plan for their reading time?
- Do they switch books often?
- Do they take notes while they read?
- What does their body language tell you about them as a reader?
- Explore– Once you have spent some time noticing your reader and have written down some observations, you will want to sit down next to them and begin the actual conference. When you join your reader, you want to invite them to take the lead. This is their time to share their reading life with you. You might want to start your conference by asking some of the following questions:
- Can you tell me a little bit about what you are reading?
- What particular genres have you been reading lately? Why?
- What strategies have you been using with your book?
- How did you decide to select that book?
These questions will invite your students to take the lead. Pay attention to what they tell you. Listen to the words they use and how much detail they add. Listen to their tone of voice, are they enthusiastic about the book they are reading or are they bored to tears and totally disengaged? You might have to ask a few questions to get the conversation started, but listen carefully. You can learn a lot about your student as a reader with just a few open-ended questions.
- Encourage– When your student has finished telling you all about his/her book. You want to make sure that you encourage and affirm something the student is doing well.
- You could affirm them for getting started with their reading right way.
- You could affirm them for having a variety of genres in their book bin.
- You could affirm them for stopping and jotting while they are reading.
- You could affirm them for asking and answering questions while they read.
Whatever it is, you want to provide some form of praise and encouragement. This affirmation tells the reader that they are on the right track and encourages them to keep using those strategies next time.
- Develop– This might be the hardest part of the conference, because you don’t always know what area you need to develop in your students when you sit down for a reading conference. But whenever possible, you want to teach your students a little mini-bite sized strategy or something they can do to improve and grow as a reader.
I promise that the more you challenge yourself in this area the easier it will get. As you are observing, exploring, and affirming your reader during the conference, be thinking about what that individual student could do to become a stronger reader.
- Maybe your reader isn’t selecting the right books, and they are bored with their selection. Your conference would be the perfect time to teach them how to look at the back of the book and preview it to see if it’s something they would enjoy reading.
- Maybe you noticed your reader doesn’t pause to ask questions and think about the actual text they are reading. Your conference would be the perfect time to model how to pause and ask questions and explain the benefits it gives the reader.
- Maybe you noticed your reader read a few words wrong or didn’t go back and correct the mistakes they made. Your conference is the perfect time to give them some strategies to improve their accuracy.
It’s a good idea to leave a sticky note or mini anchor chart with a reminder of your teaching point on it so your reader has something to look back to when they are trying it on their own. If you download my free Getting Started with Reading Conferences guide, there are a TON of templates included. I also love using resources like my Reading Strategies Ring or Reading Response Sticky Notes to use during the develop portion of the reading conference.
- Summarize & Strengthen – The last thing you want to leave your reader with is a reminder of what will strengthen them as readers. This is where you reaffirm what they are doing well and restate your mini-teaching point. This is a great time to give them a personal word of encouragement or let them know you are proud of them. You also want to let them know that you’ll check back in with them next week and you can’t wait to join them again for another reading conference.
Reading conferences should be fun and enjoyable for you and your student. This is your chance to speak directly into the life of your student and help them develop a life-long love of reading.
I love how reading conferences give me the opportunity to meet with every single student. Students gets excited for the one-on-one time, and they quickly realize that I know a lot about them as a reader. It’s a lot harder for them to hide or waste their independent reading time when I have spent so much one-on-one time with them. But also, students get so excited to share their reading life with me and that excitement is what it’s all about.
So, are you ready to go get started with reading conferences in your own classroom? If you have never done a reading conference before, I would encourage you to start small. Don’t try to do all parts of the NEEDS framework at once. Maybe you just start with the notice and affirm and save the rest for the next conference. The important thing is that you don’t wait to get started. You’ll quickly realize how much your students will grow through this extremely powerful instructional tool.