The Challenges of Conferring With Our Strongest Readers: Part 1

As I struggled to figure out a group gift for a friend celebrating a significant birthday, I said (whined) to my husband, “I have no idea what we should get her!” You know that friend, that relative, that colleague—the one who has everything? The one who longs for nothing? The struggle is real if you are striving to figure out a gift that’s surprising but meaningful—a gift that’s a bit unexpected but just right.

Isn’t this what it can feel like when we try to confer with those readers in our classrooms who seem to have everything? We sit beside these children, and it often goes like this: They decode the words of their texts effortlessly, orchestrating all they know about letter-sound relationships, phonics, word parts, and cueing systems. They are fluent in ways that make you consider quitting your day job so you can manage their inevitable and lucrative careers as audiobook readers. You ask what they have been thinking as they have been reading, and oh, do they have thoughts—they move gracefully between the literal retelling of events and information to inferential thinking about characters and content to interpretive takes and critical analyses. For a moment, as you listen to them talk about their books, you consider inviting them into your monthly book club meeting because they would certainly lift the level of conversation. 

In a labsite in Katherine Bautista’s fourth-grade class at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, the plan was for me to demonstrate conferences with strong readers to model what we might say when we teach to extend their reading. I conferred with Leonardo*, a strong and prolific reader and English learner. The teachers and I approached this conference with a couple of hunches about what to teach after examining a piece of Leonardo’s written reflection about a book he was reading. According to Ms. Bautista, Leonardo was always enthusiastic about discussing his reading, digging into his texts, and expanding upon his ideas, and we were ready to take on the challenge of figuring out what would be next for him.

Here’s the thing—every time we approach our strongest readers, we do so with the optimism that today is the day we will gift them with a teaching point that nudges them into new reading terrain. We hope today is the day we can teach them something they have never tried before and that makes their reading even stronger. 

I chatted with Leonardo for a few moments so we would be comfortable together in this conference, and then I asked him to share some of his thoughts about his book. He offered some thinking, and I asked him to pause as I turned to the teachers to see what they were thinking . . . and to buy myself some time. 

And just like that, there we were, once again, listening to a child share and show his reading riches, our hope quickly fading that this will be the moment the teaching unicorn appears and magically inspires us with the teaching point that will change everything for this child. So, we ask another question about the book, suggest a random strategy to see if that's the needed tool, or offer a more sophisticated version of "good job!" But we only have a few moments—so we smile, give a thumbs up, and say, “Keep it up!” before going to confer with the next child.

Throughout my own teaching experiences and in my work with schools around the world, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking with teachers about ways to support their most powerful readers. Here are some of the most common challenges teachers have expressed:

But What Do I Believe?

After we list our challenges, it’s vital that we avoid getting mired in them. Although it feels good to honestly express our teaching struggles and confess our inadequacies, we don’t want them to overwhelm us or to lead us to a sense of resignation. To avoid this “dead-ending,” it’s important to make a turn in our conversation. Before we know what to do, we have to consider first what we believe. I encourage teachers to create a quick list of beliefs about conferring and working with our strongest readers, because sometimes, noting our beliefs and values can re-inspire our work and refocus our mission to teach and reach all readers.

Depending on the school, teachers may need support or mentors to get started on clarifying their beliefs. It’s been helpful to begin by sharing a couple of mine: 

  1. All children need instructional support and guidance as readers, no matter how powerfully they score, how eloquently they talk about books, or how accurately they read. They are all on the continuum of new readers experiencing new things, whether they are five, whether they are in fifth grade, or are whether they have just taken their driving test for the fifth time. All student readers have needs and can benefit from tailored support and fine-tuned instruction. Heck, this goes for adult readers too!
  2. The act of conferring with a child provides us with an amazing opportunity for truly seeing the child. There is no teaching moment more instructionally intimate and strategically precise than meeting with a child one-on-one in a conference, and all children deserve to have these connections with teachers and experiences in which they are seen.

OK, But What Do I Teach?

We will get to that in Part 2 of this blog series. But for now, I humbly suggest that those who are curious and intentional about becoming better at conferring with their strongest readers launch a personal teaching inquiry about their current state of beliefs and practice with regard to conferring.  Here are some guiding questions and a challenge for your consideration:

  • What are my particular struggles as I sit beside a reader who seems to “have it all”?
  • What do I honestly believe about reading conferences in general and conferences with my strongest readers specifically?
  • Challenge: Pick a powerful reader or two and confer. See what happens...or doesn’t happen. 

In my next post, I’ll share the rest of my conference with Leonardo along with some practical, authentic, engaging, and helpful ideas for how we can support our strongest readers. 

In the meantime, good luck out there, and if you have questions or comments you would like to have addressed in Part 2, please reach out at kcollins15@mac.com and refer to this post in the subject line.

*The child’s name was changed for this blog post.

Check out Part 2 of this blog series in April 2020.

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Kathy Collins is a co-author with Matt Glover of I Am Reading, published by Heinemann.