Skip to main content Skip to main content

Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5

Conversations With Student Writers

All teachers understand the value of responding personally to student work. But how do you use that feedback to help students improve their writing? In this workshop, you will examine the practical issues of planning and conducting writing conferences. You will also see classroom examples of formal and informal writing conferences.

Katie Wood RayI still find conferring with students a very hard part of teaching writing, though it’s very rewarding. I’ve learned that even if a conference doesn’t go well, and they don’t all go all that well, just engaging children in talking about their process — what they’re writing — is huge teaching.

— Katie Wood Ray, consultant and or co-author author of five books on teaching writing, including The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts)

Learning Goals

In this workshop you will explore how to:

  • use conferences to focus on your students’ growth as writers
  • follow a predictable, comfortable, and inviting structure in writing conferences
  • teach students how to use the language of writers to articulate their own writing process
  • confer informally with your students

Prepare for the Workshop

To prepare for this workshop, you will review the strategies you already use and read three articles about writing conferences from a single issue of School Talk, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.


What Do You Do?

In his seminal book, Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Heinemann, 2003), Donald Graves discusses the most common questions teachers ask him about writing conferences. Some questions are ancillary to the conduct of conferences (How do I find the time? What are the other children doing when I have my conferences?); others relate to the practices within the conference (What is the best way to start a conference? How do I do less talking, and the children more?).

  • Think about how you incorporate conferences with your students into your writing instruction. Make a list of the questions you have about conferring with students. Share the list with your colleagues, or write them in your notebook.


Examine the Literature

Print out the Examine the Literature Response Chart (PDF). Then read the three articles listed below, recording your ideas on the chart during and after reading. When you have finished, save your chart to submit as an assignment.

Conversations With Student Writers (PDF)
In this article, you will learn strategies for approaching writing conferences as conversations.

Anderson, Carl. “Conversations With Student Writers.” School Talk 6, no. 2 (January 2001): 2-5. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Teacher Talk: Developing Voice and Choice in Writing (PDF)
This article focuses on the importance of talk and how teachers might talk with their students, writer to writer, in the pre-writing stage of writing.

Siu-Runyan, Yvonne. “Teacher Talk: Developing Voice and Choice in Writing.” School Talk6, no. 2 (January 2001): 2-5. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

The Writing Conference: Breaking the Silence (PDF)
In this article, you will explore the role of conferences in a writing workshop and identify practical guidelines for structuring conferences and providing feedback.

Fletcher, Ralph. “The Writing Conference: Breaking the Silence.” School Talk 6, no. 2 (January 2001): 1-2. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Analyze the Videos

Key Practices To Observe

“Conversations With Student Writers” and “Teacher-Student Conferences” explore the characteristics of effective writing conferences and showcase teachers talking with their students about writing in effective and meaningful ways. They feature commentary from experts on teaching writing at the elementary level as well as classroom illustrations highlighting the practices of several teachers.

As you watch, look for the following key practices:

  • Conferences are conversations in which teachers relate to students as fellow writers.
  • Teachers provide a predictable, comfortable, and inviting structure for student conferences.
  • Teachers begin conferences with open-ended questions.
  • During their conferences, teachers reinforce the language of writers and model the behaviors they want students to follow in talking about writing.
  • Teachers base conferences on what will help students grow as writers, rather than on “fixing” a piece of writing.
  • During conferences, teachers share specific writing strategies to help students improve.
  • Teachers keep appropriate expectations in mind when conferring with student writers.
  • Throughout their conferences, teachers support the intentions and independence of student writers.
  • Teachers help students reflect on what they have accomplished and set goals for their writing.
  • Teachers rely on quick, informal conferences to see if students are on track with their work.
  • Teachers have a system in place for recording what occurs during conferences.

Extend Your Learning

Examine Your Practice

Learning to talk about their own writing process is a metacognitive skill students need to be taught. Read the following quote, consider your own students, and then answer the questions that follow.

It’s much more useful to teach children to talk you through their process [than to just have them read their pieces] because one of the main things you’re teaching in the conference is how to become articulate about their process and about the products they’re creating. I want children to learn to do that. They understand much better how their draft works if they have to explain it, and the goal is to help students see themselves as writers who can do that.

— Katie Wood Ray


Guiding Questions

  • In a typical writing conference, how much time do you spend on average talking and how much time do you spend listening to the student?
  • Think of students who are reluctant to discuss their work. What are some possible reasons behind their reticence? What are some ways to help reluctant students become actively involved during writing conferences?

Try an Activity

Interactive. (Activity disabled due to Flash content.)

Respond to Student Writing

One of the most important things teachers can do in a writing conference is avoid overwhelming the student with too much feedback. This activity is designed to help you identify strengths and areas for improvement in an authentic piece of student writing and then decide what to focus on to help the student become a better writer.

Put It Into Practice

The videos, activities, and readings in this workshop illustrate that successful writing conferences begin with questions that lead students to discover what they have to say and that encourage them to talk about their work. Now apply what you have learned to modify or develop your own approach to conferring with students.


Asking Good Questions

List questions that you can use to facilitate conversation during writing conferences. Be sure to include questions that:

  • open up writing conversations
  • encourage students to talk meaningfully about their work
  • invite students to share information about their writing that the reader wouldn’t know
  • ask students to talk about their writing process, specifically, how they decided what to write about, solved problems, or developed the piece
  • probe students’ knowledge of the writing craft and their ability to apply what they know to their own work
  • encourage students to reflect on their growth as writers

When you have finished, save your list to submit as an assignment.

Reflect on Your Learning


What Did You Learn?

Summarize what you have learned about writing conferences from the experts’ statements, classroom examples, and the readings and activities in this workshop. Use the questions below to guide your thinking. When you have finished, save your written summary to submit as an assignment.

  • Which classroom practices from the videos reflect what you currently do?
  • Which practices or ideas are new to you?
  • What changes do you plan to make?
  • What support and/or resources will you need to implement these ideas?

Related Resources

Web Resources

National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE provides research, teaching resources, and articles for teaching writing at all levels.

Print Resources

Anderson, Carl. Assessing Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005. ISBN: 0325005818

The author presents a down-to-earth, practical resource to help teachers learn how to assess student writers and use these observations to shape instruction.

Anderson, Carl. How’s It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring With Student Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000. ISBN: 032500224X

This conversational book is full of enlightening examples and anecdotes and offers excellent advice on talking with young students about writing.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick, Amanda Hartman, and Zoe Ryder White. One on One: The Art of Conferring With Young Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005. ISBN: 0325007888

This book demonstrates how to conduct clear and purposeful conferences that support student writers.

Lee, Christopher, and Rosemary Jackson. Faking It — A Look Into the Mind of a Creative Learner. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1992. ISBN: 0867092963

The author recounts his personal struggle with dyslexia and its effect on his learning experiences.

Ray, Katie Wood and Lester L. Laminack. The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. ISBN: 0814113176

The authors include a chapter on how to confer effectively with students.

Strickland, Dorothy S., Kathy Ganske, and Joanne K. Monroe. Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers: Strategies for Classroom Intervention 3-6.Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2001. ISBN: 1571100555

This book focuses on practical strategies for improving the skills of at-risk readers and writers and second language learners.

Wilde, Jack. A Door Opens: Writing in the Fifth Grade. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993. ISBN: 0435087614

This book examines the author’s teaching practices and includes many examples of student writing in a variety of genres.


Literacy Experts

Katie Wood RayKatie Wood Ray, Ph.D.

Katie is a full-time writer and researcher on the teaching of writing. With a particular focus on the study of writing craft, she leads teacher workshops and summer institutes across the nation related to the teaching of writing. Her professional background includes both elementary and middle school teaching experience; eight years as an Associate Professor of language arts education at Western Carolina University; and two years as a staff developer at The Reading and Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Katie is also the author or co-author of numerous articles in professional publications and five books on the teaching of writing, including Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom(1999, NCTE) and The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (2001, NCTE).

Jack WildeJack Wilde

Jack retired in 2005 after more than 35 years teaching first through fifth grade, most recently in Hanover, New Hampshire. He has two master’s degrees: a master’s of arts in liberal studies from Dartmouth College with a concentration in math and science, and a master’s in education from the University of Toronto. Jack has been a workshop presenter and college-level writing instructor at various institutions including the University of New Hampshire. He is author of A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade.

Featured Teachers

Sheryl BlockSheryl Block
Fourth-Grade Teacher
Simpsonville Elementary, Simpsonville, Kentucky

Sheryl Block has been teaching for 26 years, the first 9 years in special education. Since 1990, Sheryl has provided professional development training in writing instruction in her own district and throughout Kentucky. She is a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Writing Advisory Committee and the Scoring Accuracy Team. She also serves as a writing cluster leader for the north-central region in Kentucky.

About the School:

Located in a rural, agricultural community, Simpsonville Elementary places a high priority on writing instruction — the principal received the Patronus Award, the highest honor given by the Louisville Writing Project (a National Writing Project affiliate). Although the students are primarily Caucasian, Simpsonville has a growing Hispanic population, higher than the state average.

Lindsay DibertLindsay Dibert
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Danville Elementary, Danville, New Hampshire

Lindsay Dibert has been teaching fifth grade for the past six years. She has served on technology and distance learning teams for the Timberlane Regional School District. Lindsay earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and her M.S.T.E. from the University of New Hampshire.

About the School:

Danville is a small town in southern New Hampshire, and Danville Elementary is one of five elementary schools in the Timberlane Regional school district. The school enrollment is nearly 400, and 96 percent are Caucasian.

Silvia EdgertonSilvia Edgerton
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Herrera School for the Fine Arts, Phoenix, Arizona

A 22-year teaching veteran, Silvia Edgerton has worked with students ranging in age from 6 to 14. She received her bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. A second language learner herself, Silvia leads reading and writing workshops for parents of Herrera School students.

About the School:

Located in the urban core of Phoenix and among the poorest districts in the nation, Herrera is a fine arts magnet school with a comprehensive arts curriculum. Predominantly Hispanic (93 percent), 44 percent of the students are second language learners. The school has a two-way bilingual immersion program in which non-Spanish-speaking students are learning Spanish and native Spanish speakers are learning English.

Mark HansenMark Hansen
Third-Grade Teacher
Clarendon Elementary, Portland, Oregon

Mark Hansen graduated from Swarthmore College with degrees in anthropology and sociology. His first experience in teaching was as an assistant working with fourth- and fifth-graders with severe emotional problems. He went on to teach adjudicated teenagers in a Los Angeles mental health facility before returning to college and graduating from Lewis and Clark College’s MAT program in 2001. He has been teaching third grade for four years at Clarendon, where he is also the Title One Coordinator. He serves on the steering committee of Portland Area Rethinking Schools, and published an article in Re-thinking Education On-Line.

About the School:

Clarendon’s student population of 338 represents a wide diversity of ethnic groups — almost 50 percent of students speak a language other than English in their homes, and bi-weekly parent meetings are held in English, Spanish, and Hmong. No walls separate classrooms, and teachers are encouraged to mix students of different ages for a variety of activities.

Mark HardyMark Hardy
Third-Grade Teacher
Partnership Elementary, Raleigh, North Carolina

Mark Hardy recently returned to classroom teaching after working for five years as a national literacy consultant, both for the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project and independently. Mark spent his first seven years in education teaching upper elementary grades in the Bronx. He is currently at work on his first young adult novel, to be published by Front Street Books.

About the School:

Partnership Elementary is a school of choice within the Wake County, North Carolina, public school system. The school has a diverse student population, with equal numbers of Caucasian and African American students. Each of the school’s 300-plus students has an individualized learning plan, called a Personal Education Plan.

Nicole OutsenNicole Outsen
Fifth-Grade Teacher
North Hampton School, North Hampton, New Hampshire

Nicole Outsen has been teaching at the elementary level since 1996. She began her teaching career in New York City, and has been teaching at North Hampton School since 2001. Nicole presents workshops on reading and writing for the University of New Hampshire Department of Continuing Education and is the author of Teaching Comprehension Strategies All Readers Need: Mini-Lessons That Introduce, Extend, and Deepen Reading Skills and Promote a Lifelong Love of Literature (Scholastic, 2002). She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College, Columbia University. She earned her master’s degree in Teacher Leadership from the University of New Hampshire.

About the School:

Located in a small town with a population under 5,000, North Hampton School serves 481 students in preschool through the eighth grade. The school received a Blue Ribbon Award from the No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools. North Hampton emphasizes world languages, multiple assessment tools, individualization, and service learning. The majority of the students (97 percent) are Caucasian.

Latosha RowleyLatosha Rowley
Third-Grade Teacher
Cold Spring Academy, Indianapolis, Indiana

Latosha Rowley has been teaching for six years in grades 2-5. She serves in her school district’s leadership program, and co-wrote an article published in the NCTE publication Primary Voices, titled “Making Meaning.” She received her degrees from Indiana University and currently attends Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

About the School:

More than 300 students attend Cold Spring Academy, a K-8 program with a focus on environmental studies and stewardship as well as on commitment to community action. Nearly 90 percent of the students are African American.

Christine SanchezChristine Sanchez
Third-Grade Teacher
Tohaali Community School, Toadlena, New Mexico

Christine Sanchez has been teaching for 11 years, two years at Tohaali Community School on the Navajo reservation. Christine is also Navajo and, like her students, grew up on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico. Christine received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Fort Lewis College and her master’s in educational leadership at Western New Mexico University.

About the School:

Tohaali is both a day school and a boarding school — many of its 200 students live in dormitories during the school year. All students at Tohaali Community School are Navajo. The school serves kindergarten through eighth grade, with about two-thirds of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.