5-Step Reading Conferences: Maximizing Student Growth

I mentioned in a previous blog post that individual reading conferences are the bedrock of my literacy program. Knowing our students is the best way to be an effective teacher. If we know how our students learn, what their strengths are, where they need to grow, what they love, what they hate, we can tailor our instruction to more individually support our students and their growth. In order to accomplish this, we need quality assessments and ongoing teacher scaffolding through individual conferences.

In today’s changing education policies, one constant is differentiation. There seems to be a direct correlation: The more differentiated our instruction becomes the greater student growth results. As technology companies race to find solutions to more adaptive and personalized learning, the tried-and-true reading conference remains a steady rock to set all our other reading instruction upon.


“I can’t fit one more thing into my literacy block.”

I hear you—our time is limited. However, if I told you this is one of the best ways I found to increase my students’ reading progress, wouldn’t you at least want to try it?

The best times I found to confer with students is at either the beginning of their guided reading group or meeting with individual students during independent reading. I try to keep conferences to 5 minutes. Between these two times, I conference with every child at least once a week. To keep track, I often put my student notebooks in a small bin I keep next to me. Once I have conferenced with a student, I put their notebook at the back. I try to make sure I cycle through the students in the front of my bin first. If there is a student I want to make sure to conference with sooner, perhaps they need more support in one area or need some encouragement while trying a new skill, I simply put their journal at the front of my bin so I make sure I see them again. When I started, I traded some of my small group time for individual conferences. This allowed me the flexibility to try, fail, readjust until I found a system that worked for me. Often, you can individually conference with each child in your group in the same time as it would take to meet with the whole group. When you become more confident, you can add those small groups back in to your practice.

Where to Start

The first step to fully knowing our students as readers is to have a quality assessment through running records. There are many programs available. I currently prefer the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, though the DRA and even the QRI and Reading A-Z can assist you here, as well.  The true power of the assessment comes in analyzing the results. I gave my students the QRI the first year I was teaching, per district mandate, and dutifully recorded the scores. “Okay,” I thought, “Now what?”

I was missing the point of giving them a running record (those poor students! I hope they survived despite me!). There’s two parts to the magic of a running record. One, is sitting down next to your students and hearing them read. I keep track of miscues, repeated readings, and other typical running record notations so I can go back and remember how the learner read for my later analysis (notations are also useful to share the assessment with other professionals). In addition to these markings, I am also making notes to myself. What strategies are they using? Are they using picture clues? Are they tracking with their finger? What do they do when they come to an unknown word? These are just a few questions I may ask myself as a student reads.

While I am still with the student, I want to gauge their comprehension. Usually I start with “Tell me about what you just read” to see if there’s basic recall. Does the student recall the characters’ names, setting, problem solution? Is the retelling in sequence? Can she identify the big idea and some supporting details? How much support does the learner need to give a complete retelling? Then, I move into more of a conversation about the book, targeting questions that students might find within the text, may need to synthesize to draw conclusions, make connections and inferences, and finally more about the author’s craft. Fountas & Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System does a wonderful job of encouraging authentic conversations in their assessments. I’ve learned a lot by using their system and watching the many online videos.

After the session is over (and this can be done at any time if you’ve made good notes), is the time to analyze the text and plan for the next instructional steps. This is where you may do the miscue analysis. Are his errors visual, syntax, or meaning oriented? Knowing this can help you sit alongside students or form groups and support their reading. Which words are they making errors on? Perhaps they don’t have enough of a sight word vocabulary to support their reading or strategies to decode unknown words. These are just a few ideas out of a long list.

If you need suggestions of what to look for in reading, look to your grade levels’ scope and sequence, standards such as the Common Core, or continuums like the one Foutnas & Pinnell published last year. I always like to know the grade levels surrounding my students so I have a clear vision of what skills students should have mastered from the previous year and where they are going for the following year. This allows me to fill in any gaps and to support those advanced learners.

So why did I spend so much time talking about running record assessment on my post about reading conferences? Each of my reading conferences starts with a mini running record. The more comfortable you feel completing and analyzing a running record, the smoother and more streamlined your conferences will become. Plus, having a good foundation of where each student is beginning will help you develop a starting point and further plan.

The 5-Step Conference

Conferring can be broken into five steps. I first modeled my conferences after a page I found in Regie Routman’s Invitations: Changing Teachers and Learners. Depending on the individual need of the student, I may adjust as necessary, but generally, I follow a similar arc for each student.

  1. To start, I always begin our conference by checking in with the progress my student is making independently. This includes looking at the books in his book box and what evidence does he have that he has been working on the goal we created together at our last meeting. I want to make sure, depending on the level of the reader and his independent goals, he has books in his book box to meet that goal. If he is reading a chapter book, I start by asking him what is happening so far in the story. I want to make sure there is good comprehension established (this can become a teaching point). If your class completes a reading response journal, I may also include teaching points to help the student dive deeper.
  2. Next, I complete a running record on the book she’s reading (this could be a “just-right” book, rereading the guided reading book from before, or perhaps even a poem). As she is reading, I’m taking notations in my conferring notebook (pictured above). I take special note of how they’re reading, what kind of errors they’re making and how they’re attacking unknown words. Are they using the strategies we have practiced?
  3. After the reading, I do a comprehension piece. Sometimes this is as simple as a “Tell me about what you just read?” for a retell. Other times, I’m checking in with how she’s incorporating our skills we’re targeting in class. This could be a story map, sequencing, compare/contrast to higher level thinking skills such as inferring and synthesizing information. Often, I will circle back to the lesson goals the class or small-groups may have learned to see how the student is incorporating these new skills or areas the student missed on their assessment.
  4. Then, we have a conversation about the strengths and growth opportunities I see in the student. I really want to find pieces of his reading or work we can celebrate. The conversation then turns to goals. I always think, “What is the next step this student needs to become a better reader?” and guide our conversation there.
  5. Finally, we make a goal. After our conversation about growth, I give the student a couple choices of a goal for them to work on. Perhaps she needs continued work on the current goal, slightly revise it or she is ready to graduate to a new one. I find it is important she embrace the goal so I know she will work on it for the week. Once we’ve agreed on a goal, I write it on a bookmark or sticky note as a reminder for her throughout the week.

A quick note about my conferring notebooks: I keep all my notes in individual notebooks for each student. I admit this is very “old school.” I am looking for a program that meets my needs that I can disseminate the information more quickly to other people who are working with the same student. A few of our students have at least three professionals working with them (classroom teacher, reading intervention, and special education/therapist). It is important to me that we are all supporting students in the same way so I send out weekly emails and try to touch-base as much as possible. As you can imagine, this is very time-consuming. As technology systems evolve, my hope is to move to writing on my Surface, or other device, and using apps, such as Confer, or LMS programs, such as Schoology, to have a more fluid interaction of information. In the meantime, I will keep my conferring notebooks as they’re a great record of student growth, goals, and can be easily grabbed to take to meetings for evidence of progress.

In conclusion, the day I decided to incorporate reading conferences into my literacy block is the day I become a better literacy teacher. By the nature of the conference, you know your students as learners. You can speak to every aspect of their growth as a reader. From these snippets, you gain knowledge that can drive your whole and small-group planning to take instruction to the next level. You get all the benefits of a hefty running record assessment in the fraction of the time.

If you don’t already incorporate reading conferences into your literacy block, I encourage you to try them for a week or two. Know, that they may be longer than mine before you find your rhythm. As you know your students more, the conferences will become more streamlined and focused. Let me know how it goes! For those of you who already incorporate conferences, how are yours different than mine? What tricks do you have to serve students?