Conferring Well—Even When You Haven't Read the Student's Book

A classroom library isn’t just the beautiful centerpiece of a classroom; it’s also the cornerstone upon which literacy instruction is built. Ideally, children will have a chance to choose books from the classroom library each week and spend time reading their choices each day.

That time when they read can be some of the most valuable time in the literacy block. It’s a time to sit with kids, listen to them read, ask them questions, nudge them along, and support their goals. Though many teachers believe in the value of reading conferring and strategy lessons, a question I am often asked is, “But how do I confer with a student when I haven’t read the book they’re reading?” The good news is that you don’t have to read every book in your classroom library to be effective at leading conferences or small-group instruction—you just need to rely on what you know about children’s literature, text levels, and skill progressions to guide you. 

Gather and Read a Few “Touchstone Texts” 

I like to select a few titles (tip: choose popular authors and series!) that are good representations of books at each text level present in my classroom library. These become my “touchstone texts.” While I read each touchstone text, I think about the challenges and supports in the texts, and the work that readers must do to comprehend. In other words, if I read and understand what makes one Level Q book challenging, I can then apply that knowledge to other Level Q books a child might choose to read that I haven’t read myself.

When I’m done reading a handful of books at each level and have thought through these questions as I read, I have a sense of what the reader is encountering in a book I haven’t yet read because I can assume that it is like the touchstone I have read. For example, if a student is reading The Skirt (by Gary Soto), a book I haven’t read, I can think about a book I did read that is of the same text level (N). I might remember that when I read Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon (by Paula Danziger), the main character was well developed with both strengths and flaws, that the plot spanned multiple chapters, that there was a central problem that focused the plot with some ancillary problems throughout, and that the characters each learned a lesson. It is fair to assume, therefore, that The Skirt has many similar elements. This can focus my questioning and teaching in the conference.

During a conference, I can also get a quick gist of the specific book a student is holding. I sometimes quickly read the blurb and think about how the major events, themes, or characters align to what I know from the touchstone (of the same level and in the same genre) that I read.

Understand a Progression of Skills

Related to what challenges and supports are in books at each level is the work that readers need to do. For example, Meet Yasmin! (by Saadia Faruqi) is around a Level K/L. Books at these levels have a fairly straightforward problem and solution plot structure with a problem that becomes clear by around the end of the second chapter. That means I should be able to ask a reader who is a few pages into this or any other Level K or L text, “What’s the character’s main problem?” and the child’s answer, if the child is comprehending, should be pretty immediate. If I then move to a student reading a more complex text, let’s say The Last Summer with Maizon (by Jaqueline Woodson), which is a Level Q text, to ask the same question, I’d expect a more sophisticated response because the text itself is more sophisticated. In books at and around Level Q, there are multiple main problems and multiple causes to the main problem. What would be an accurate complete answer in Yasmin is not the same as in Maizon

Teach Strategies, Not the Book

Remember: the most powerful conferring and strategy lessons are those in which the teacher is offering strategies and feedback that are goal focused. This means you don’t really need to know the student’s book inside and out. You just need to know enough to ask questions and quickly evaluate the quality of the response to choose a strategy. Using a knowledge of text levels by reading and thinking about touchstone texts, getting a quick sense of the book the student is reading, and understanding that skill progressions are all helpful in choosing the right questions to ask will help you do that.

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Jennifer Serravallo's newest book about conferring is A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences. To learn more about skill progressions, comprehension, and text complexity, check out her Complete Comprehension resources or the companion professional book, Understanding Texts & Readers. Jen will also present at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., held from June 23–26, 2019.

Find her online: Twitter: @jserravallo | Instagram: @jenniferserravallo | Web: www.jenniferserravallo.com