Writing workshop in first grade can be tricky to implement, but once you and your class have the process down, it can be such a rewarding time. One of my favorite parts of the writing workshop happens during independent writing. It’s the writing conferences!
When you hold writing conferences in first grade, you may get a lot of stares and awkward silences. This is because these conferences are supposed to put the student in the driver seat… and sometimes a 6 year old in the driver seat can be scary!
I wanted to go ahead and share 3 of my favorite tips for running successful writing conferences in your first-grade classroom.
Before I dive into these tips, I want to let you know I have a FREE video training session where I go into deeper detail of all of this (and provide you with tons of writing conference tools for free) – you can grab that here >>> FREE video training on writing conferences.
Tip 1: It’s a personal conversation
Sharing your writing is very personal and writers tend to be sensitive and fragile. When is the last time you had to write a personal essay and share it!? It’s nerve-wracking! To help your young writers feel more comfortable try to treat the conference as a conversation and focus on them, the writer, as opposed to the writing itself.
Instead of asking students what they’re working on, ask them “what are doing as a writer today?” This emphasizes them and their writing process instead of just pointing out what their topic is.
Tip 2: Make it Quick!
The most common question teachers ask about writing conferences, is “how on earth can I meet with all my students?! I just don’t have the time!”
Well, first and foremost it’s important to remember that this is NOT the time for a minilesson. It is a quick conversation. I know, personally, that I could sit forever with each child and talk and talk and talk. To keep myself on track, I always use a timer and I aim for 4-7 minutes per conference. I set my timer for 5 minutes so I can gauge my time and keep things moving!
As for the layout of my writing conferences, I run each one the same way. I follow the same four steps in this order:
listen – praise – ask – exit
Listen: this is where we begin the conference. I ask students how they’re doing and see where they’re at in their writing process.
Praise: as you listen to the conversation, this praising step is vitally important to building student confidence. Lucy Calkin’s refers to this as a “lasting compliment” and it helps students feel energized as writers. When you praise them, you want to name a strength and be as specific as possible (I love your illustrations vs. I love how the setting you drew here really helps me feel like I was there, I can easily picture it now!)
Ask: As the student talks about their writing experience and shares their thoughts, questions, etc. be sure to ask them questions to help guide their writing process. If students don’t seem enthused about their writing, ask them why they chose this topic and walk them through a prewriting/brainstorming session to help them get more ideas to write about.
If students have already begun writing, you could ask them, “What parts of this story do you think are most important?” “How will your illustrations help tell your story?” “What types of details will you add (here)? “How does this story end?” Notice how these questions are also teaching points. You are asking them to think about their own writing and pick out important parts to highlight. You are basically telling them to add details or an ending, but you’re doing it by asking them to look at their writing first and make their own decisions about how to do it.
Exit: This is both the easiest and the hardest part and takes a lot of practice. After you’ve asked your student their guiding questions, leave them. You can record the question or teaching point on your conference sheet and walk away. This will give them plenty to think about on their own and then try to give it a shot. You will be able to check in with them next time and you can see how they did trying it out on their own Exiting is essential to the conference. Otherwise, you could spend 15-20 minutes with each student teaching them exactly how to do it all!
Tip 3: How to get a conference “unstuck”
Sometimes conferences feel stuck. The student isn’t “guiding” the conversation and you don’t know what to say other than to point out everything ‘wrong’ in the students writing. Here are some tips for getting this conference “un-stuck” and moving again:
Look closely: first, you can have students look closely at their own writing and ask them to think about what they’ve been doing as a writer (which part of the writing process are they in? What were they just doing or planning to do?). This gives you both a minute to get in the zone and get a topic for the conference!
Nudging questions: You can go ahead and ask some nudging questions to help guide the conference. Questions like: “What part of the writing process did you just finish? Is there anything you are finding difficult? Is there a book we’ve read that you want your writing to sound/look like? What will you do next? etc.” These help keep the student in the driver’s seat while you can see where they’re at.
Name observations: You can also name some observations you’ve made about their writing so far: “As I was walking over here, it looked like you were adding some illustrations (here). Can you explain what you were doing?” or “I see you added _____ since the last time we chatted. Do you like that addition? Do you feel like it needs to be changed in any way?”
Lastly you can make suggestions for them based on where they’re at in their process. You can reference recent mini-lessons you taught, or mention what other students are adding to their pieces.
Having these questions and guidelines in your writing conference notebook can make your writing workshop life a whole lot easier. To help you out with that, I actually compiled the following writing conference tools for you as a FREEBIE along with a video training that goes into this topic a bit further.
You can grab all your writing conference freebies here: Writing Conference Tips and Tools!
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