This overview of the principles and practices of pupil conferencing is based on a workshop I designed and lead at the first UKLA Writing for Pleasure conference in July 2018. Teachers celebrated and enriched their existing practice by:
investigating approaches that underpin a classroom culture which fosters writing for pleasure;
reflecting on the nature of feedback for both parties;
prioritising what makes an impact on children’s writing.
The ‘Shape’ of an Effective Conference
Conferences should be short, instructive and transferable, taking 2-3 minutes but nothing is set in stone. The ‘shape’ of an effective conference might look like this:
- Give children time to start writing before conferencing.
- Pull up a chair next the child whilst they continue writing.
- Read the writing before saying anything.
- Start with specific praise.
- Respond to the child’s writing as a reader.
- Focus conferences on revising the text.
Encourage children to be responsible for the editing – i.e. the secretarial. If you’re quite a way into the writing process (where they often start forgetting these elements), reminding them to address these aspects before you conference with them can be a useful motivator. Revising the text involves altering how the ideas are presented, which will require guidance, moving towards the child being independent.
How to Enhance the Model Depending on Your Context and Experience:
We also considered the following statements, which are a mixture of:
- great pupil conferencing practice,
- where you are with your class,
- where the child is in the writing sequence
- and your school systems.
Orient your body towards the majority of the class, whilst conferencing.
Display / have available writing scaffolds that all children can reference.
Evidence verbal feedback.
Use conferences as AfL opportunities to inform next steps in teaching.
Just a note on ‘evidence’ – I personally like a word in the margin as a reminder to myself and the child about our focus. The impact should be in their writing.
Pupil Conferencing – Organisation
- Select a few children to conference with during independent writing time.
- Draw writers with similar ways forward into small groups.
- Some teachers find it useful to keep a record of these on a proforma for each week / fortnight / unit of work.
- Some teachers find it helpful to record the date of the individual conference / small group session and one word summary.
The Pitfalls of Pupil Conferencing
Rewriting the text with the child might result in a better final outcome but this strategy is essentially over-scaffolding. How can we help children think about their choices as writers? How can we share insights that will lead them to independence? Asking questions, modelling / reminding them of relevant strategies and encouraging children to think about what they are writing is always preferable for doing the writing for them.
It might also be tempting to have a pupil conferencing checklist. However, in practice this often becomes an additional barrier between the teacher, the child and their writing. As Vygotsky wrote so powerfully: ‘What is known must be brought to life in every knower, by his or her own efforts’. Therefore, the child should be at the centre of the writing conference.
Pupil Conferencing Toolkit
So, if a pupil conferencing checklist might present a barrier, what might it be useful to have about your person as you move around the classroom reading, responding and providing guidance? I find the following useful at different times:
- a sand timer – especially if you’re new to this or are inclined toward verbosity.
- post it notes – to leave guidance for the children and to take away AfL information to inform your planning.
- a mini whiteboard – so you can model writing without writing on their work.
- extracts of model texts – that demonstrate some of the effects children are trying to achieve in their writing.
The Nature of Feedback
Tom Sherrington: experienced former head blogged about his own experience of receiving feedback:
“My observer is someone I respect hugely; I know he can do everything he’s suggesting I do. The discussion was very much focused on the pedagogy of maths and the maths curriculum – the details of good questions, child misconceptions. He offered suggestions that resonated as sensible; I don’t think I’d be quite as receptive to non-specialist generic feedback. His reports on the interactions amongst the students were fascinating – they shared their learning perspectives during the lesson and this was interesting to hear. Because the spirit was highly collegial and I was given some positive affirmation at the start, I was ready to hear the constructive feedback; it was precise, non-judgemental and authoritative. I was receptive – and relieved that the feedback wasn’t more critical. I had the opportunity to share some of my challenges and dilemmas.”
Notice that giving and receiving feedback is same for adults and children and can be summarised as BE KIND AND BE USEFUL.
Choose One Focus for Conferencing
If I’ve taught one or more of these strategies as a mini-lesson in the past, I could direct the child back to their notes, review the steps with them and watch them get started.
If I’ve never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit their purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him – referencing previous writing and scaffolds in class.
If there are other children in the class with whom I have shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these children to share one of the strategies with the writer.
Remember, the child should be at the centre of the writing conference:
Keep it simple.
Keep it focused.
Make an impact.
Pupil Conferencing: The Research
- Ackerman, K., & McDonough, J. (2016). Conferring with Young Writers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
- Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
- Alexander, R. (2008).Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
- Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
- Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
- Fisher, R., Jones, S., Larkin, S. & Myhill, D., (2010) Using talk to support writing London: SAGE
- Graves,D.(1984).The enemy is orthodoxy.In D. H. Graves, A researcher learns to write (pp. 184–193). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books. Newman,J.M.,& Church,S.M.(1990).
- Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
- Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
- Mermelstein, L. (2013). Self-Directed Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
- Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
- Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208
- Wiliam, D., (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment Solution Tree Press: USA