Teaching Idea

Facilitating Writing Conferences

Brad Wilcox and Tim Morrison

Sometimes teachers panic when they hear the term writing conferences because they think of working extensively with one child while all the others are left to their own devices. They wonder how they can justify taking that kind of time with individual students when they have so many in their class. This does not have to be the case.

Organizing

Most classrooms have four corners, and some teachers have found it useful to limit conferencing to those corners of the room (Lensmire, 1994), leaving a quiet workspace in the center. You can conduct conferences in one corner. Peers or cross-age tutors can work effectively in two more. Paquette (2009) found that when fourth graders helped second graders incorporate traits of quality writing in their work, both improved; but the ones who learned the most were the fourth graders. In the last corner, try implementing phone conferences. If your classroom has phone access, you can enlist the assistance of adult volunteers without even asking them to come to school. You may be able to find volunteers who speak the home languages of students who are learning English.

Phone conferences are most successful when you make a list of phone numbers for moms, dads, grandparents, or friends who have said they would be willing to take a call at a certain time of day. Have students sign up for a turn to make a call. Instruct children to call someone on the list, introduce themselves, and ask if the adult has time to listen. If the answer is no or if the call goes to an answering machine, the child can call another on the list. Have the child read his writing (or a favorite part of a long piece) to the adult. Because the adult can't see the paper, the questions are usually content focused—as they should be. Coach the child to thank the volunteer, say goodbye, and pass the turn to the next child on the sign-up list. Have the writer return to his desk and make revisions based on the feedback. Calling a volunteer can be a reward for positive behavior. ("Whitney, thanks for using your time wisely. Go sign up for a phone conference.") Students could write thank you notes to the volunteers who helped them.

Training Volunteers

Training peer tutors and adult volunteers can be as simple as instructing them to give a compliment and ask a question. However, if you want to do a little more, we suggest using this acronym—WRITE.  (You may want to come back to these suggestions as you conduct your own conferences as well.)

  • W is for watch. Watch for content before mechanics. Content is the cake, mechanics the frosting. Bake the cake before you worry about frosting it.
  • R is for respect. Respect the author's paper and ownership. As often as possible, allow the student to make changes on the paper. Allow the student to choose which suggestions to follow.
  • I is for involve. Involve the author by asking lots of questions: Why did you do this? What other reason could you give for that? How did you decide on this? A conference is a time for listening, not just talking. 
  • T is for teach. Conferences are an appropriate time to explain the reasons behind the changes you are asking the author to make, but don't make a lesson out of every little thing. Just focus on a few. As you see glaring needs, you may consider teaching a mini-lesson on those topics to the whole class.
  • E is for encourage. Stay positive. No one scolds a seed for not being a flower. You just recognize the potential and nurture the growth.

Recruiting Additional Feedback

In addition to involving peer tutors and adult phone volunteers, try enlisting additional readers who can contribute a sense of audience and provide written feedback for your students. Contact a teacher at a local middle school or high school and arrange to send your students' writing for that teacher to share with her class. Make sure that students' names do not appear on the papers. Clarify your expectations: Do you want feedback on content, editing for conventions, or both? The other teacher can pass one paper to each student for a response. After the papers have been collected, the teacher can return them to you by district mail or in a self-addressed, stamped envelope you provide. Remind your students that these readers have provided feedback to help them. The readers may not have fixed every mistake, and the writers don't have to accept every suggestion.

An alternative is to contact the teacher preparation program at a nearby college or university and enlist help from students in literacy courses. Include a rubric with the writing and have the teacher candidates score the papers. You can send papers electronically using email, and the teacher candidates can made revision and editing suggestions by using software that tracks changes.

Conferencing doesn't have to create fear or frustration—for teachers or for students. As you use peer- and cross-age tutors and invite adults to conference by phone, you give students individual attention without having to work individually with all students on all projects yourself. Enlisting readers from middle schools, high schools, and universities allows your students to receive valuable feedback without creating an overload you can't handle.

Tim Morrison and Brad Wilcox are associate professors in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University, where they teach undergraduate and graduate courses in reading, language arts, and children's literature. Early in his career, Tim taught grades four, five, and six in Pocatello, Idaho and third grade in Springville; Brad previously taught sixth grade in Provo.

References

Lensmire, T. J. (1994). Writing workshop as carnival: Reflections on an alternative learning environment. Harvard Educational Review, 64(4), 371-391.

Paquette, K. (2009). Integrating the 6 + 1 writing traits model with cross-age tutoring: An investigation of elementary students' writing development. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(1), 28-38.