“I’m just thinking about if I was there right now,” says fourth-grader Zaima, her eyes sparkling as she indicates the paperback on her desk, Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound. “It’s about this girl called Amal. She’s actually from Pakistan like me, which is why I picked up this book. Because of the story of that kind of girl.” Her teacher at the Hong Kong Peak School, Sarah Cheng, nods and asks Zaima to say more. “Well, she lives somewhere in a part of Pakistan, which I do, too. She doesn’t live in Islamabad, but she lives in Punjab, which is another province next to Islamabad. She’s not exactly like me, her village is really very small, but it’s near Islamabad”—she motions excitedly with her hands to show the distance—“and they both have the same sort of markets, like with small stalls.”
Second-grader Shaquan’s book basket is filled with picture books about artists: Radiant Child is a colorful biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat; Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos describes how the Mexican painter was inspired by her pets. Monique, Shaquan’s teacher at a Harlem, New York, charter school, asks what made him pick these books. Shaquan shyly pulls out a pile of crayon drawings from his desk. “I like these books because I want to be an artist,” he answers in a quiet voice.
Ava, an eighth-grade student at Mt. Zaagkam school in Papua, Indonesia, frowns as she discusses the YA (young adult) novel Never Fall Down with Amy Richie, her English language arts (ELA) teacher. “What the author has done, the way the ending works, is he’s resolved the external conflict of Arn surviving the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, but then introduced an internal conflict of him trying to figure out how to deal with regular life after that, going to normal high school.” Amy asks what this makes her think about. Ava shakes her head. “It makes me think about how sometimes people never get over stuff.”
What each of these reading conferences has in common is that the identity, experience, and observations of an individual child were put front and center; the young readers were invited to recognize and extend something within themselves. Moreover, by asking the student to “think about her thinking” (Keene and Zimmermann; Heinemann) the teacher was able to call attention to a real-life purpose for reading. One is to not feel alone in the world, like Zaima’s experience reading about other Pakistani girls. Another could be to explore whom we want to become, like Shaquan did in choosing books about artists. Reading can also help us understand and empathize with lives and experiences we don’t know firsthand, as Ava felt when reading Never Fall Down.
An individual reading conference is one powerful way to teach these real-life purposes. Together with making sense of the words on the page, children learn to recognize and extend their own lines of thinking. When we feel this sort of ownership, reading feels very different than when we are told what to think about— and motivation to succeed increases exponentially. This is important for students at any level but particularly critical for children who are considered “below grade level.” When the unique perspective of an individual reader is prioritized, her self-confidence grows exponentially. As Frank Smith (1987) put it, children begin to feel themselves “members of the literacy club” and become deeper, more critical thinkers.
This is not just a poetic way of looking at comprehension. Gholdy Muhammad, in Cultivating Genius (Scholastic, 2020), recounts how in the 19th century, African Americans formed literary societies of their own in response to anti-literacy laws and policies. They defined one of their primary goals, or learning pursuits, as identity development through literacy. When we consciously balance what the words on the page say with what the reader thinks, not prioritizing one over the other, students feel more engaged and think more deeply. They also develop a sense of their own individual reading personalities. Am I the sort of reader who compares my decisions to those of the main character? Do I question the facts an author includes in an editorial before deciding on my own point of view?
The key to conferring successfully is listening to children, but in a different way than we may be used to. Naturally, it is important to assess through the lens of standards and year-end expectations—but it’s also critical to understand who each individual student is as a reader. “There are many ways for us to convey information to kids,” JoAnn Portalupi, educator and author, advises. “A conference is one place they can convey information to us.”
The not-so-subliminal message we send with this sort of listening is yes, your thoughts matter. Some of the most meaningful moments in life are when we feel understood by another person. Moreover, feeling listened to—really listened to—can help us understand ourselves in ways we didn’t before.
There are, of course, many ways to listen. I’ve found that four principles in particular open doors for students and teachers.
Four Principles of Listening in Reading Conferences
1. Concentrate on learning before you worry about teaching.
2. Be curious. Ask questions.
3. Listen for the strength, not the deficit.
4. Listen for the general in the specific.
Concentrate on learning before you worry about teaching.
One of the greatest sources of anxiety for teachers when they sit down to confer is deciding the perfect thing to teach. There are so many choices—curriculum objectives, standards for the grade, goals for specific students indicated by formal assessments. What is the most appropriate thing to address today? It’s easy to second guess our decisions and feel enormous pressure to get it right. While it’s always a good idea for a teacher to think ahead of what she knows about a particular student—strengths, struggles, possible directions—in the first couple minutes of a conference, it is wise to prioritize learning over teaching. What is this student thinking about, struggling with, excited about, in this particular moment? Is there anything I recognize as a pattern? Of course we want to address predetermined goals for individual children, but it’s important not to let these good intentions get in the way of listening to and learning from the student.
Jason Coleman, a fifth-grade teacher at the International School of Ghana, tells of the pressure he felt in his early conferences. “I was driving myself crazy worrying about finding the right thing to teach, to the point where I wasn’t even listening to the kid! So I decided to go one round with each student without teaching them anything. I just listened and took notes,” he explains. “It was amazing how much more relaxed I felt on the second round! Because of those first conferences, I had lots of ideas about possible directions and was able to really focus on what the student was saying. It was much easier to come up with meaningful teaching points.”
Be curious. Ask questions.
Most people who choose to become teachers do so, at least in part, because they are interested in the way children think. Sadly, as the realities of accountability, school and district mandates, and standardized testing take over, it’s easy to lose sight of this initial passion. With so little time and so much to cover, we understandably feel too much pressure from above to allow ourselves the luxury of curiosity.
Yet if our objective is to find the most effective entry point for individual students, being curious about what they are thinking is no luxury—it is a necessity. “Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling,” cautioned Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his seminal 1762 study Emile, or On Education, “and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours for theirs.” In other words, children are not just miniature adults—and it’s a mistake to assume we can help them to understand without first figuring out how they understand.
In a conference, teachers have the opportunity to reclaim that fascination with children’s minds they felt when entering the field. Taking the time to be curious is a win–win. The student feels honored that a significant adult is paying attention, and the adult gets to enjoy each child’s unique perspective. (No small thing—shouldn’t this work be fun?) Formal assessments yield meaningful information about young readers and writers, but they are only half the picture; how that data does or doesn’t dovetail with what we observe up close and personal fills in the blanks. One way to channel this curiosity productively is to ask students to elaborate on their initial thinking, rather than jumping in or moving on after the first words they say. Usually when children are asked to share ideas in school, they haltingly express a thought and the teacher quickly moves on to the next volunteer. But as Ellin Keene (2012) points out, the first thing out of anyone’s mouth is rarely their best thinking. Chances are if a phrase, idea, or word choice strikes a teacher as interesting, it is worth asking the child to elaborate. A general rule of thumb is to listen for the most interesting parts of what students say and ask them to “say more about that” at least three times before leaping in with teacher content.
Listen for the strength, not the deficit.
When a teacher sits one-on-one with a child, the usual tendency is to listen for what that student can’t do. With so little time to address individual needs, doesn’t it make sense to help kids with their struggles on those rare occasions when no one else is around? Yet it’s important to keep in mind that if the usual subject of a conference is what the student does least well, that child is not going to look forward to the conversations.
The sweet spot in teaching is figuring out what a learner is just beginning to understand, but needs scaffolding in order to become independent—and then to follow that lead. Lev Vygotsky (1978) calls this the zone of proximal development— “the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance.” Carl Anderson (2019), in A Teacher’s Guide To Writing Conferences, describes this as “listening for the partial understanding.” What is the young reader starting to notice that she can’t quite put a name to? Which part of what that student said suggests a next step for teaching?
Put simply, it is more effective to confer to the strength than the deficit. This takes practice, to be sure. It’s a shift away from our usual mindset of prioritizing what the student does not know. But when teachers get in the habit of listening for a partial understanding and using it as the jumping-off point for instruction, results can be powerful and lasting.
Recognizing what a student is starting to think about, putting a name on it, and then suggesting a way to go further makes the learning (and teaching) feel like a collaborative effort. And from the child’s point of view, when the teaching point comes from something they are noticing, it creates a feeling of ownership. They begin to look forward to the next conference.
Listen for the general in the specific.
Children are concrete thinkers. “The child often sees only what he already knows,” suggests Piaget (1954). When it comes to reading, today’s lesson is only about the book we are reading at this moment. It’s easy for teachers to look through a similar lens. The problem is, when students move on to their next book, they often don’t see how the strategy from yesterday’s lesson connects to today’s work.
It’s not that there is no value in pointing out particular examples in the book we are working with today—indeed, if our teaching isn’t grounded in the specific, the student is unlikely to know what we are talking about. But the key move if we want our teaching to stick is to start with the specific and then move to the general. In other words, help students understand how what we taught them today can apply to the book they will be reading tomorrow—make the teaching point transferrable.
One way to think about this is that our priority should be to teach the reader, not the book. It’s unlikely a fourth grader will fall behind in her ability to comprehend if she misses some of the nuances in Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming; what matters is that she takes something from this reading experience to apply to the next book, and the book after that.
Listening to specifics with an eye toward the general is for many the most challenging part of conferring well. To do this effectively, a teacher must (again) listen for the partial understanding, usually something specific to today’s book—and then build on it. When articulating this teaching point, it’s important to use general, transferrable language that can apply to future reading. For example, rather than just pointing out the way E.B. White’s description of the barn creates a lonely feeling in Charlotte’s Web, we may use that as an opportunity to teach how setting can convey a mood in other books as well.
The bottom line is, when we discuss with a second grader why it’s important to notice Nate the Great’s traits, he is likely to think that’s a great thing to do when you read Nate the Great. At the age of seven, he probably won’t realize paying attention to the way characters act is helpful in understanding any story. To become skilled independent readers, students need a repertoire of strategies that can be used across many types of books. Listening for specifics in a conference with an eye toward teaching something transferrable is one powerful, personal way to help children make such connections.
Though reading conferences are, by definition, one-to-one teaching, it’s a mistake to think of them as private and confidential. When students have regular opportunities to share their perspectives with other readers in the class, they gain new ways of experiencing text and thinking about the world. Through teachers accessing the spark in each student and taking time to celebrate the class’s diversity of ideas, children widen their own comprehension repertoires and learn to appreciate other points of view. When each reader’s ideas and identity are given equal airtime in a classroom, comprehension instruction can be a democracy of thought.
Dan Feigelson is a national and international literacy consultant who has traveled the globe, leading institutes, workshops, and lab sites on the teaching of reading and writing. An early member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, he worked for decades in New York City public schools as a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, principal, and local superintendent. Dan is the author of Radical Listening: Reading and Writing Conferences to Reach All Students, published by Scholastic.