Imagine ordering a pizza at your favorite pizza place. Your mouth is watering in anticipation-that is, until your pizza arrives. The waiter brings out a large, lovely golden brown crust. That’s right, just the crust. There is no sauce, there is no cheese, no mouth watering toppings, nothing but a crust. I’m certain that we would all have to agree that a crust just simply isn’t a pizza. A pizza is something so much more than the crust upon which it is built. It starts with a crust, but it’s what is added that transforms it into a mouth-watering pizza.
I often use this pizza illustration to help my young learners understand that reading is so much more than the words that fill the pages of a book. Reading is the thinking that occurs in our brains in response to written language. In simple child-language, reading is thinking. The words on the page, the text, is like the pizza crust. The thinking that we do in response to the text is like the toppings. That thinking is what brings the words to life. Just as the toppings make the pizza, it is our thinking that truly makes reading real. When we use reading strategies (making connections, inferring, etc.) to make meaning of the text, we are adding our thinking just as the pizza maker adds toppings to the pizza.
Reading is a very complex process by which the reader makes sense of the words on the pages of a book. It begins as soon as a reader takes a book into their hands. The words are the foundation upon which the thinking builds. Readers use strategic thinking to form meaning from the text and pictures. As teachers, it is our job to help our learners develop these strategies to launch them into the world of real reading. So, how do teachers help children become thinkers rather than word callers? How do we help develop real readers?
A reader’s workshop is the perfect place to begin this process. A workshop format gives readers the tools they need and the opportunity to learn to use those tools to become independent, strategic readers. It is composed of three main components: it starts with a group mini lesson, followed by independent work time during which teachers confer with individual readers, and finally ends with a time of sharing. During a reader’s workshop, children have the opportunity to read, think, and talk about a variety of texts in a group setting. We share together through read-alouds and think-alouds. We model strategic reading strategies, lead our learners through guided practice with these strategies, and finally release them to give it a try on their own. The students learn to use reading strategies within the safety of the group and then head off for that wonderful extended time of independent reading to practice what they’ve learned about being real readers.
Teaching doesn’t end here though. In fact, it’s just beginning. The group mini lesson is simply a launching point. Teachers are often quite comfortable with teaching the mini lesson and modeling the use of reading strategies. It’s the next phase of the workshop that causes a bit of anxiety. As children work independently to develop and grow as readers, our role as teachers shifts. Our focus now shifts to conferring with individual readers. Conferring with individual readers allows us to meet each reader where they are and take them to the next level. We must notice each child’s precise reading and thinking behaviors and find ways to support their growth as readers.
Conferring is at the heart of reader’s workshop. But, what happens during a conference? How do I know what to say? Conferring is all about purposeful conversations that take readers deeper. Conferring is more than a list of questions. It’s not about asking who the characters are or what the setting is. It’s not about asking a child to share a favorite part. It’s more than a retell. It isn’t that those things aren’t important to know, but conferring is about depth of thinking. It’s about understanding a reader’s emerging thinking. It’s a child’s opportunity to show you how they are growing and to share with you what is going on in their head. Purposeful conversations emerge between learner and teacher during a conference. These conversations open the door to allow for individualized instruction that will move a child forward and deeper.
What does it look like? Conferring is focused, specific, and targeted instruction based on individual needs. I often ask a reader to read a particular passage or a couple of pages (in short early reader texts) from their book. This passage then becomes the starting point for our conversation. We talk about the passage and our thinking. I listen to and validate their thinking. From here I can hone in on a quick teaching point. Together we agree upon a target for their continued work and I let the child know that I will check back in with them in the next few days to talk about how it’s going. This is the accountability factor. Knowing that they are accountable for their work and their thinking focuses their work.
Conferring is like making reading pizza. It’s all about me watching and listening to my learners individually as they show me that they can make meaning from text. Can they take the text and add in their own thinking? Learners are given an opportunity to showcase their thinking and to demonstrate their use of reading strategies. It’s my opportunity as a teacher to affirm and encourage my learners as they attempt to use reading strategies. Additionally, it’s my opportunity to give feedback and individualized instruction to help my learner develop in their use of those strategies.