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5 Reasons Why Reading Conferences Matter — Especially in High School English

The Attention. Every child needs one-on-one conversations with an adult as often as possible.  Adolescents, by nature of their age, struggle with identity, fairness, stress, and a slew of other issues that contribute to all kinds of problems. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. reports that “9 out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18.” This is not surprising since according to this study, “75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.”

I know there are many reasons for teenagers to partake in these substances. I also know that many students think that adults do not care, or will not notice, if they are in class, participating in class, or lucid in class. One way to show our adolescent students that we care is to talk with them. And face-to-face conversations about books and reading is a pretty safe way to do so, not to mention that we model authentic conversations about reading when we do.

Try questions like:

  • How’s it going? (Thanks, Carl Anderson)
  • Why did you choose this book?
  • Do you know anyone else who has read this book? What’d she think?
  • How’d you find the time to read this week?
  • What’s standing in the way of your reading time?

The Relationship. Once students know they can trust us, they will tell us things about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes beyond high school. According to the Zur Institute, teen internet and video game addictions, violence in the media, online bullying, and violence in the home top the charts as some of the major influencers of teen behavior. On the Zur website, there’s a section titled “What You Can Do.” We find language that mirrors the words and phrases that lead to the most effective reading conferences, like “learn what [it] means to your children by talking with them about it,” and “be genuinely curious about what draws them to [whatever it is],” and “discuss balance,” and “keep the conversation active.”

We hear so much talk in education circles about engagement. Engagement comes as a result of relationships. When we talk to our students about their lives and the things that matter to them, and we help them see that somewhere in some book a character has experienced similar situations, conflicts, and heartaches, we show our students that literature is a living breathing source of hope. This Psychology Today post explains it clearly:  “Books are friends we can choose without restriction,” believed John Ruskin, an English art critic of the 19 Century who influenced Marcel Proust “who developed the idea of a novel that was not just a friend, but a friend who enables us to become intimate both with other minds and with our own.” Proust called readers of his own work “a sort of magnifying glass … by which I could give them the means to read within themselves.”

My students and I talk about windows and mirrors. This is why we read literature:  to learn what it means to be human. How do you see yourself in the characters, conflicts, situations, and how do you see out into a world that is very different from your own? The more we grow in empathy, the better relationship we’ll have with our friends, our families and all other people we associate with — at least the idealist in me will cling to that hope as I continue to talk to students about books and reading.

Try questions like:

  • What character reminds you of yourself or someone you know?
  • What part of the story is the most similar/different to your life?
  • Why do you think the author makes that happen in the book?
  • What does he want us to learn about life?
  • How does this story/character/conflict/event make you think about life differently?

The Learning. There are times when I’ve done a mini-lesson, I feel like I’ve talked to myself. I see little application of a skill I know I’ve taught. Sometimes students completely miss the point of the lesson. However, when I take the time to talk to each student individually, and reinforce the skill in a quick chat, the application of that skill some how seeps into their brains much deeper. And you know those students who are super apprehensive — the ones who have to ask “Is this right?” and show us a teeny bit of work before they will really produce any work? Holding a regular reading conference has solved this problem.

Students know they will get a chance to talk with me about their progress, and they are more willing to take risks than when we talk infrequently. Time for reading conferences, and conferences timed to meet the needs of each one of our learners solves many at-risk behaviors and promotes deeper learning.

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about _____ that we learned in class today. How does that relate to your book/character?
  • Remember when we learned _____, tell me how/where you see that in your book.
  • Think about when we practiced ___, where does the author do that in your book?
  • You’ve improved with ___, how could you use that skill for _______?

The Literacy. Sometimes I think we forget that the purpose of our instruction must be to develop the literate lives of our students. We must provide opportunities for our students to grow into confident and competent readers and writers in order to handle the rigor and complexity of post high school education and beyond. We must remember to focus on literacy not on the literature — just like we must focus on the reader not just on the reading. We must validate our readers, ask questions that spark confidence, avoid questions that demean or make the student defensive, and at the same time challenge our readers into more complex texts. We can learn if a child has read a book, or the assigned pages, with a few quick questions. Then we must turn the conversations to the why, the what, and the how that will get students to choose to take a step up the ladder of complexity.

When students know that we care more about them as the person than we care about what or how much they have read, they will trust us. And it’s trust between the adolescent and the adult that creates the most movement as a reader, a writer, a student, a young person emerging into adulthood. Students will read the rich literature we bless because they know we are leading them into literature that will in turn bless their lives.

Try questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how complex is this book for you? Why?
  • What do you do when the reading gets difficult?
  • Of all the books you’ve read this year, which was the most challenging? Why?
  • How’s it going finding vocabulary for your personal dictionary?
  • Tell me how you are keeping track of the parallel storyline?

The Reward. We can experience powerful rewards as we meet with our students in regular reading conferences. (I wrote about one here.) Every year, after students get to know me a bit, they tell me things like: “We were scared of you at first. You seemed so strict,” and “You intimidated me, and I was afraid to talk to you.” I get how students see me. I’m tall for one thing. For another, I get right to the point and state the learning that will happen in my classroom. Structure and routine are important for the work we do here, and I explain what that looks like within the first twenty minutes of day one. We work bell to bell with very little down time. I get that many students are not used to such habits, especially in our 85 minute classes.

My students experience breakthroughs regularly.  It’s during our reading conferences that they tell me my instruction works. “Miss, I only read two books in all of 10th grade. I was so behind. This year I’ve read SO many. I can’t count. You’ve helped me so much. I wish I could go back in time and read this much in 10th grade,” one girl tells me. Another says,  “I never thought I would like to read. Now, look at me,” as she shows me the copy of Anna Karenina she bought over the weekend. (We’d done a mini-lesson on beautiful sentences, and I talked about the books our mentor sentences came from — not really expecting anyone would want to read that one. Oh, they can surprise us!)

I ask students about their confidence levels in our little chats, and they tell me they know they have grown as a readers. This is the best kind of reward.

Try questions like:

  • How has your confidence grown as you’ve read this year?
  • What do you think is the one thing we’ve done in class that’s helped you improve so much as a reader?
  • How will the habits you’ve created in class help you in the reading you’ll have to do in college?
  • Why do you think you’ve grown so much as a reader the past few weeks?
  • What’s different for you now in the way you learn than how you learned before?
  • Describe for me the characteristics you have that make you a reader.

What kinds of questions work for you in your reading conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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13 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Reading Conferences Matter — Especially in High School English

  1. […] more purposefully, more personally. The irony? I wrote about the need to confer with fidelity here, and my first point is about our students’ need for personal […]

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  2. […] few weeks ago, I wrote this post about reading conferences in high school. Mrs. Thompson wrote that plea at the top of the page in […]

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  3. Kim L February 23, 2015 at 4:22 pm Reply

    Amy, Thank you for including samples of thoughtfully crafted questions to use when conferring. I find that some educators really need the examples as a first step to start
    meaningful dialogue with students.

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  4. Whitney Kelley February 18, 2015 at 12:27 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Along for the Write and commented:
    What I enjoy about Amy’s blog is that she posts what I need to be thinking.
    She does what I need to be doing.
    She points me back to the true North of my classroom objectives.
    I always walk away from time with Amy (whether in person or via her blog) refreshed, refocused and recharged.

    Like

  5. Whitney Kelley February 18, 2015 at 11:00 am Reply

    As always, you are on point and more than a step or two ahead of me. I appreciate that you included the questions. They seem so simple, but after visiting with more than a hundred students each day, even “simple” can seem out of reach. Really, I find my kids are starving for attention. They are surprised and even appreciative (in a weird, teenager kind of way) when I hold them accountable and show them that I am paying attention to what they’re reading and don’t let them get away with “fake reading.”

    I’m going to be like Amy when I grow up.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. shanakarnes February 17, 2015 at 5:05 am Reply

    I love this! What a practical list of questions for when you’re struggling to sit down with a kid and find something to go over you haven’t talked about before. And I love that you call their vocab list a “personal dictionary!” I just call ours the vocab section of our writer’s notebooks…I will be rechristening it when we finally get back to school.

    Thanks, Amy, for a great post–as always!! You have refueled my energy for writing conferences! 🙂

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  7. Kara February 16, 2015 at 5:46 pm Reply

    This is a great topic and I appreciate the questions. I’ve really struggled with reading conferences because I feel very self conscious about them and have trouble thinking what to ask students. Often I feel the questions I encounter feel stiff. I turned a corner when, after a full week of character analysis immersion a la Wilhelm and Smith (I saw them at NCTE this year–check out Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements), I started asking students whether they would want to be friends with whatever character we were discussing and whether they would want to hang out with that person in their house. I got much more authentic responses from question like that than I had before.

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    • Amy February 17, 2015 at 9:36 pm Reply

      Kara, ooh, I like that bit about asking about friendships. It is time I find my Wilhelm and Smith book again! Thanks for the comment.

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  8. Mrs. Thompson February 16, 2015 at 4:00 pm Reply

    Thanks for the great reminders! My biggest struggle right now is that I have 36 students in each class (60 min periods). There’s not an empty seat in the room! Any ideas? 😛

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    • Amy February 17, 2015 at 9:47 pm Reply

      Your situation with classes sizes was mine last year. I tried a couple things that worked well and some that didn’t. Every year I have to change my conferring plans to make them work with different groups of kids — that goes sometimes class-to-class, too.

      You might try bundle conferences: focus in on the one student you know needs you in similar ways that some of the students around him/her do. Conduct your conference in hushed voices that are loud enough for the students near to hear. You can easily tap them on the shoulder and say “you might want to try this, too,” or something like that. Close proximity makes a difference to classroom management, too.

      I tried having students come to me and sit in my special yellow chair. That was more of a distraction that a help. We need to be in the Power Zone, even when conferring.

      I also like to model for students how to get others talking about their books. This way students can conduct quasi-conferences when I cannot get to them all. After they talk, I have them jot down a summary of their conversations, and these work quite well for my conference notes.

      I will write a post about your very question soon — you’ve got me thinking!

      Thanks for that and for the comment!

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      • MrsBobThompson February 24, 2015 at 10:40 am Reply

        Thanks for taking the time to respond with these ideas! I am working on rearranging the desks so that I can try bundling conferences or getting to a few students at once. I’m looking forward to reading future posts on class-size issues! 😉 Thanks again for the ideas and for putting yourself out there for the rest of us! -Kristin

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  9. Ruth February 16, 2015 at 6:42 am Reply

    Amy, I agree that this dialogue is crucial especially in the high school and middle years and for all the reasons you have so eloquently written. This would be ever so much easier for teachers at those grades, if lower and upper elementary teachers added some of your questions to their already established reading conference practice too.
    As an elementary teacher, I know that in the lower grades the job of a reading conference is to learn to read and then to read better. Many teachers do go further by asking how their students interact with their books. In the upper elementary grades, reading conferences take on aa slightly different purpose, one more aligned to what you’ve described; however, there is still much direct teaching that needs to happen. We generally describe this as the differentiation between learning to read and reading to learn.

    Brava

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    • Amy February 17, 2015 at 9:52 pm Reply

      Ruth, you are right on here: “We generally describe this as the differentiation between learning to read and reading to learn.” And a lot of the problem is that somewhere a long the way, teachers take huge steps away from this idea and start making all the choices about books so that students stop reading all together. Perhaps it’s because the teacher values the learning more than the learner — not intentionally, I know. But the focus shifts so much to the learning (or the literature) that many teachers forget that even students in upper grades need opportunities to learn to read better. Students will not read better if they are not reading.

      I know. Preaching to the choir. 🙂

      Thank you for your insights, my friend.

      Like

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