Traditional assessment tools in English language arts classrooms include written assignments and tests on the readings, along with the odd presentation or small group book study. For years, my assessments focused on these tools, but I didn’t feel like they were working for me or my students. I’d pass the garbage cans in my classroom at the end of a period and see my written feedback—hours of work—carelessly thrown away. Why was I wasting my time?
I tried everything I knew how to do, but still felt like I wasn’t really doing a great job of moving my students forward or providing authentic literacy assessments.
Then, in the spring of 2014, I attended a professional development session on literacy presented by Penny Kittle, who had just published Book Love. She spoke passionately about the idea that conferencing with students was essential to understanding how well they could read.
I started muddling through reading conferences with my students, and went on to read Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This. Both Kittle and Gallagher praised conferencing as an assessment tool in the writing process, and I began to use conferencing in my writing assessments as well. I’ve never looked back.
Conferencing as a Literacy Assessment
Conferencing has many benefits, but for me the most important is the one-on-one time with students. Although I use it as an assessment tool, conferencing is also a critical method of relationship building with students, which is a necessary precursor to learning. I learn about students’ interests and feelings through their reading choices and their responses to texts. Without conferencing, I wouldn’t have these personal moments with students, which create an atmosphere of respect and trust that doesn’t arise through traditional assessments like presentations and tests.
Immediate, individualized feedback is a significant benefit of literacy conferencing, because the teacher focuses on one student. Conferencing provides an opportunity for immediate correction of errors or reteaching of material if a student needs it. Conferencing can also raise an early red flag regarding student progress, allowing the teacher to respond to a problem immediately, rather than at the end of a unit.
The central assessment benefit to literacy conferences is finding out exactly what students know and what they can do. When we conference, there’s no internet to give students hints about a text, and no parent or sibling to help write their thesis statement. Conferencing provides teachers with a clear snapshot of students’ knowledge and skills.
When students realize this, they become much more focused on their work and take more responsibility for their learning. Conferencing encourages students to be honest about their strengths, weaknesses, and next steps involving literacy skills. It’s a way of tearing down the walls that a student may have hiding behind for years. Although this may be uncomfortable for the student, and may cause issues with parents who’ve worked hard to hide their children’s weaknesses, it’s a way for us, as teachers, to guide students to improve their reading and writing skills.
Getting Started With Literacy Conferences
Many teachers interested in using conferencing as an assessment tool in their ELA classrooms are concerned about the logistics. Common complaints I’ve heard in my own department include: “I don’t have enough time for conferencing” and “What are my other students supposed to be doing?”
ELA teachers spend a great deal of time marking student work. Before I began using conferencing, I rarely left school without a bag full of papers or tests to grade. Conferencing shifts some of the time teachers spend on grading to conversations that take place in class.
Setting up your class with specific routines is key: I start all my ELA classes with silent reading and end with quiet work time. Our periods are 70 minutes daily, and we spend the first 15 to 20 minutes on silent reading and the last 15 to 20 on quiet seat work, with a 30- to 40-minute lesson or activity in between. I don’t conference with students every day, but when I do, it’s at the beginning and end of class, when all students have assigned tasks.
To make conferencing work, you need to have a goal in mind. What skills are most critical for you in terms of literacy assessment? What literacy skills are your students struggling with the most? Having a purpose that is clear to you and the students will make your conferences truly effective.
My reading conferences are often focused on goal setting, tracking or sharing progress through reading logs, reflections, and discussions of what students will read next. I also use conferencing to assess reading fluency and comprehension by having students read out loud and discuss the significance of passages with me.
When students are working on big writing tasks like essays, I conference with them throughout every step of the writing process, which works beautifully to ensure that they’re on track and doing authentic work. As a result, I rarely have issues with plagiarism. When we work on shorter writing pieces, I may conference about a particular writing feature or element I’ve taught, or focus on revising and editing and have students think aloud through this process with me.
Creating a handout to help students prepare for the conference is useful so they know what to expect, as well as to keep you on task. A simple rubric, list of questions, or assessment checklist is fine—the handout doesn’t need to be elaborate.
Throughout the conference, you’ll need to take notes to aid your recall later. At times, I’ve also audio-recorded conferences; I let students know when I’m doing that, and I also let them know that I destroy the recordings once I no longer need them. Having notes or a recording is invaluable when I’m moving quickly through conferences with multiple students in one period and throughout the day.
Conferencing is an assessment tool that can benefit all ELA teachers—and their students.