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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Responding to Writing: Teacher to Student

In this session, participants see how five middle-level teachers use both formal and informal student/teacher conferences to monitor their students' progress and help them improve as writers.

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Workshop 6 Overview

Because of the personal nature of writing, one of the best ways to teach the craft is to interact directly with individual students. To make these vital student-teacher conferences as effective as possible, teachers need to be intentional in their planning and practice. At the same time, they must balance the benefits of conferencing with the challenges of fitting it into their busy classroom schedules.

“Responding to Writing: Teacher to Student” demonstrates how five teachers—Jenny Beasley, Vivian Johnson, Mary Cathryn Ricker, Laurie Swistak, and Jack Wilde—use student-teacher conferences to help their students improve as writers. The workshop provides classroom illustrations of several different approaches to conferring with students including formal one-on-one conferences, informal one-on-one interactions, and formal and informal conferences with student response groups.

Through interviews and discussion, the teachers reflect on their practices: planning effective one-on-one and group conferences, achieving a balance between providing direction and taking over students’ papers, using conferences to assess student learning and communicate expectations, and dealing with classroom management issues related to conferencing.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 6

This workshop demonstrates a variety of techniques for responding effectively to student writers. They include:

  • Teachers help students write for meaningful purposes, prompting students’ interest in developing their writing and establishing a foundation for effective conferences. It is difficult to promote revision when students do not find the writing meaningful.
  • Though teachers respond to a particular sample of writing, the goal of the response is not merely to correct or “fix” the individual piece; the teachers focus also on strategies for writing, ways of thinking about writing that can transfer to other writing.
  • Teachers organize for response in a variety of ways: a whole-class response; a quick, over-the-shoulder comment; a one-on-one conversation guided by the student’s questions and concerns; a small-group conference that focuses on the work of one student but also engages the other students; conference forms; and frequent questioning to help students think and make decisions about their work.
  • As students are getting ready to write or are just beginning to revise a draft, the teachers’ response concentrates on meaning, purpose, awareness of readers, and methods of support. Mechanics are addressed later, as students edit their work. The response is focused, and teachers do not attempt to “cover” everything.
  • In their responses, teachers emphasize that students have ownership of their writing; the writer makes the decisions, even though the teacher and classmates may offer suggestions. In responding, teachers do not “take over.” Teachers often ask students, “What do you think?” or “What have you decided?” Response is student-based.
  • Different kinds of response are offered: description of what is working, questions, suggestions, options, explanations of strategies, personal reactions to the work. Most often the response is oral, but teachers also write notes to the writer, list ideas or techniques on the chalkboard or a flip chart, and provide handouts, examples, and other reading materials.
  • Listening carefully and patiently to students as they talk about and read their work is important in providing response. Teachers are calm and soft-spoken in their conversations with students, which is especially important with students who are early learners of English. Response occurs in a setting described as a community of writers.
  • Though the teachers are alert to the “teachable moment,” they also are purposeful in the way they arrange for response to student writers. Routines are established in the writing workshop, and teachers’ practices are methodical.
  • Teachers maintain positive views of their students. They convey a trust that students can and will think, because the students are writing about matters of concern to them. Response is characterized by positive expectations and a view that writing is valuable—what students do as writers is important. The tone of the response is positive, not critical.

Related Reading

  • “Conferring: The Essential Teaching Act” in The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray, with Lester L. Laminick, pp. 155-171. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)
  • “The Art of Response” by Deborah E. Crone-Blevins in English Journal, July 2002, pp. 93-98. Copyright 2002 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Additional Resources

Note: For more resources related to conferencing and responding, consult “Additional Resources” for Workshop 7: “Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer.”

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

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. ISBN: 0867093749.

Bardine, Bryan A. et al. “Beyond the Red Pen: Clarifying Our Role in the Response Process.” English Journal 90.1 (September 2000): 94-101.

Bissex, Glenda L. “Writing Conferences: Alternatives to the Red Pencil.” Learning(November 1982): 74-77.

Calkins, Lucy M. The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.ISBN: 0435088173.

Crone-Blevins, Deborah. “The Art of Response.” English Journal 91.6 (July 2002): 93-98.

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low States in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning (Spring 1997): 5.

Ferris, Dana R. Response to Student Writing: Implications for Second Language Students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Freedman, Sarah, with Cynthia Greenleaf. Response to Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1987. ISBN: 080583656X.

Gilbert, Mike. “Responding to Writers: What I Value.” English Journal 79.5 (September 1990): 49-52.

Glasswell, Kathryn, Judy M. Parr, and Stuart McNaughton. “Four Ways To Work Against Yourself When Conferencing With Struggling Writers.” Language Arts 80.4 (March 2003): 291-298.

Graves, Donald. “Six Guideposts to a Successful Writing Conference.” Learning (November 1982): 76-77.

Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work: 20th Anniversary Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. ISBN: 0325005257.

Hansen, Jane. “Authors Respond to Authors.” Language Arts, 60 (November/December 1983): 970-976.

Hodges, Elizabeth. “Negotiating the Margins: Some Principles for Responding to Our Students’ Writing, Some Strategies for Helping Students Read Our Comments.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning (Spring 1997): 77.

Jago, Carol. “Responding to Student Writing: Keep Pedaling.” Voices From the Middle 9.1 (September 2001): 56-58.

Kaufman, Douglas. Conferences & Conversations: Listening to the Literate Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000. ISBN: 0325002711.

King, Thomas and Mary Flynn, eds. Dynamics of the Writing Conference: Social and Cognitive Interaction. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993. ISBN: 9993876623.

Kirby, Dan, Tom Liner, and Ruth Vinz. Inside Out: Developmental Strategies for Teaching Writing. 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0867092254.

Murray, Donald. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1985. ASIN: 0395354412.

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

Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435085980.

Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way: Working With Teenage Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. ISBN: 0435084399.

Russell, Connie. “Putting Research Into Practice: Conferring With Young Writers.” Language Arts 60.3 (March 1983): 333-340.

Thomason, Tommy. Writer to Writer: How To Conference Young Writers. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 1998. ISBN: 092684279X.

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

Zemelman, Steve and Harvey Daniels. A Community of Writers: Teaching Writing in the Junior and Senior High School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0435084631.