Literacy

The Unexpected Power of Reading Conferences

A high school English teacher has a single accountability measure for her students’ choice reading: talking to them about it.

August 29, 2018
A teacher and a student conferencing together
©iStock/Steve Debenport

Teachers face many challenges when it comes to helping students develop a love of reading, some of which I wrote about in “Putting an End to Fake Reading,” but one of the most daunting is the accountability piece. How do we know if students are actually reading? How do we assess the learning students are gaining from choice reading? How do we include this in our grade books?

I’ve tried many accountability measures over the years, including reading logs of various formats, book reports, assorted handouts, and reading quizzes on Accelerated Reader, but Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Penny Kittle’s Book Love helped me realize why those assessments were so unsatisfying. If I wanted my students to become authentic readers, why was I assigning them activities that real readers—including me—would never voluntarily engage in?

I had to ask myself: What do real readers do? And one important part of my own reading life is talking about what I read with others. So I decided to try an experiment and do away with all accountability measures for choice reading except for one-on-one conferences with me.

The results were profoundly positive.

The Logistics of Conferencing

Although the idea of talking about books with students is appealing—honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I became an English teacher—the first thing I had to tackle were the logistics of the conferences.

In my on-level 10th grade English classes, I allot 10 to 15 minutes of our 55-minute periods for choice reading, and my students range widely in reading ability and motivation. I was worried that juggling everything going on in my classroom would be overwhelming, but with some structure and fine-tuning, I was able to have great discussions with two to three students each day, and to talk with each of my students at least once a month.

At the beginning of the period each day, I greet students and quickly take down the page number they’re on in their books. This serves several purposes. First, it’s a reminder for students to have their books out and open for reading right at the beginning of the period. Also, it gives me a quick way of assessing their progress through their book. If a student has read only a few pages over the course of the week, I know they’re probably in need of some help in either getting into their books or choosing a new one, and a conference is a perfect way to work out which it is and find a solution.

I then grab my reading conference binder and sit down in one of two chairs I’ve arranged in a comfy corner of my room, calling over a student to begin our chat. I’ve established norms for independent work in my classroom, so with occasional reminders, students know that this is a time to work quietly on their own.

Keeping Track of Conversations

To keep track of conferences, I keep a binder with dividers for each class and a note sheet for each student where I record the details of our conversations for future reference.

I always start out by asking each student to remind me what they’re currently reading and what page they’re on, and I ask what rating they would give their book and why. This gives us a jumping-off point for what to talk about next. I also have some reading conference questions to refer to if I’m stuck for something to ask, but the more I conference with students, the easier it is to know what to talk about. I only need to remember my purpose for reading conferences: supporting students in thinking about their books and helping them find books they enjoy.

Assessing Choice Reading

Real-life readers don’t get scored for reading for pleasure, but I do want to encourage students to find books they enjoy and to give them a way to keep track of their own reading progress, so I created a simple sheet for them to record the books they finish, along with their thoughts about what they read. When students finish a book, they complete this sheet and bring it to our conference, and we use it to talk about the book and what they might like to read next.

I don’t have a requirement for how many books students must finish, and these sheets are not scored in any way. I simply save them in the student’s class file for reflection at the end of the grading period. The only score my students receive for choice reading is this reading reflection each six weeks, in which they write their thoughts and feelings about the books they’ve read and what they’d like to read next. I give them completion points, not a grade, for doing the reflection.

The Results of My Choice Reading Experiment

When I began this experiment, I was concerned that, without the accountability of points entered in the grade book, my students would not be motivated to read. My fear, however, was proven beautifully unfounded.

More of my students read far more books than ever before, and with our regular conversations, it’s far easier to notice and support students who are struggling with finding a book they enjoy. I’m able to tap into some student interests—sports fiction and poetry collections among them—and, most importantly, I’ve noticed my connections with students strengthening. And that’s probably the most important thing a teacher can do to improve learning in the classroom.