5 Ways in which Writing Conferences must Differ for ELLs

Conferring is magical.

It’s where student readiness meets teacher wisdom. It’s where Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development comes alive. It’s an intimate space where the various walls built by school systems and bureaucracies break down making way for teaching and learning. It’s the one space where I can even ward off the interference of powerful factors like grades and class culture. It’s where I learn to teach all children by learning to teach one child at a time. It’s the part of the day I look forward to the most. 

My students value it as much as I do. They are usually angry if I miss a conference with them. They complain incessantly and ask for time during breaks. In all the gratitude letters I’ve received over the years, the ones which thank me for helping them find their voice in writing always mention a memorable conference or two. 

Getting better at writing conferences has been a constant focus of my professional learning. I have voraciously read books by Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell and Carl Anderson. Heck, I even made the 8000-mile trip across the globe to the Center for Teaching and Learning to watch the best writing conferences in action. 

As I endeavored to practice what I learned, I found that conferences with a few of my students were more difficult than the most difficult examples in the books. I was stumped by blank stares and students who said, “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” or “Ok, but what should I do now?”

Over time, I noticed that my toughest conferences* were with students whose English language proficiency was low. Most of these students were ELLs. While other students benefited immensely from the conferences and were hungry for more, I found myself stuck in conferences with ELLs. Once I realized that I didn’t particularly look forward to conferring ELLs, I was jerked into action. I had to find out why conferring magic was elusive with ELLs. I had to get better. 

Carl Anderson beautifully points out that conferences are “deceptively simple” in his book how’s it going? The following excerpt from page 156 is particularly useful in conveying the complexity of writing conferences. 

"It takes a lot of thoughtful choreography before we confer in order for conferences to go well. We make several decisions that have major impacts on the quality of the conversations we have with students. We must decide: 
- Where should we conduct conferences?
- What tools do we need to help us confer?
- What do students need to have with them during conferences? 
- At what point (or points) in the writing process should we confer with students?
- Who will initiate conferences?
- How much time should we devote in each conference?"

I would like to humbly add the following considerations to extend Anderson’s list to suit the needs of ELLs. 

1. Make your mentor text bank inclusive

Allison Marchetti wrote about conferring from the same 10-15 mentor texts after attending a webinar by Anderson. What a surprisingly simple and effective idea! I recommend that you make such a bank inclusive by including pieces that are: 

  • In English, but written by diverse authors 
  • In the language of the ELL
  • Written by other ELL students 

I learned this after multiple iterations of my lesson on Strong Conclusions failed because I was using the same texts Nancie Atwell used in her classroom in Mid-coast Maine, disregarding the fact that I was teaching in Pune, India. (See pages 336 – 342 in In the Middle to read the six wonderful poems chosen by Atwell)

When I switched to a poem written by a previous student, the change in the energy was palpable in the room. The lesson was not only instantly successful, but also led to better conclusions in student writing. 

2. Provide multiple examples and practice opportunities

According to Anderson, as writing workshop teachers, “we teach a student about writing work he then tries in his current piece of writing –  and that we hope he will use in future pieces of writing, too.” With ELLs, hope is not enough. 

Application in both the current and future pieces of writing is guaranteed only when ELLs get multiple examples and opportunities for practice. The rule of thumb I use is to keep the practice going until boredom is just a couple of examples away. This way, the student has usually not only understood what’s taught, but is also able to apply it with little difficulty. 

A typical mini-lesson on figurative language, for instance, may usually contain 8-10 examples of similes/metaphors. For ELLs, I recommend that you provide at least 20-25 examples. Better yet, choose the first 5 examples in their home language. 

A typical mini-lesson on balancing thoughts and feelings in a memoir usually includes identifying thoughts and feelings in one mentor text. For ELLs, I recommend at least 3-4 mentor texts, perhaps the first of which is in their home language. 

The same applies to lessons you teach individual students in conferences. 

3. Confer over multiple days

We all know that we must teach *only one* teaching point per conference, not more. However, with ELLs, sometimes, one teaching point may require multiple conferences. Consider tenses, for example. ELL writing can have too many tense errors leading many teachers to teach, “Use the same tense in your writing,” which seems like a simple and straightforward teaching point for one conference. Many ELLs understand and agree that it makes sense, yet they cannot follow through. Tense consistency requires students to master many concepts from the following partial list: 

  • The different tenses in English language and how they’re different from their own language 
  • Which tense in English corresponds to which tense in their own language, which tenses don’t have such correspondences 
  • How to use the more difficult tenses like perfect and perfect continuous; more importantly the difference between, say, simple past and past perfect 
  • Automaticity in identifying tenses and changing from one tense to another 

Even a simple piece of writing at the middle school level is usually complex enough to require multiple tenses in one paragraph. The advice to use the same tense is hence simplistic at best. If the rest of the class has mastered/doesn’t need the concepts in the above list at the moment, a series of conferences are essential to ensure that ELLs understand the complete picture and are then able to maintain correct and consistent tense to serve meaning in their writing. 

4. Edit earlier in the game

Waiting to edit until the piece is ready for an editing conference poses unique challenges in case of ELLs. In many cases, I find that some bare bones editing and proofreading is essential in every draft failing which,

  • the student doesn’t get sufficient practice in using the conventions and in proofreading 
  • the original intent and meaning gets lost between drafts because potent ideas can get irretrievably forgotten due to missing determiners and wrong use of tenses, punctuation, etc. Consider the following errors that I edited earlier in the game:  
    • “The practice was common in Indian communities.” vs “The practice was common in some Indian communities.” 
    • “I have always felt lesser and uglier in her presence.” vs “I felt lesser and uglier in her presence.” 
    • “The second method considers the whole person. Which is better for you?” vs “The second method considers the whole person which is better for you.” 

Editing earlier makes both writing easier for the student and conferring easier for the teacher as we go forward with the piece.

 5. Keep a to-teach list for future conferences

Anderson reminds us time and again that, “our job isn’t to try to fix up all that’s wrong with a student’s piece.” When student writing is filled with errors and inconsistencies, as it is often with ELL writing, it’s hard to stop ourselves from wanting to jump in and fix the piece. More importantly, it’s hard to remember to 

  1. continue to look for what the student knows and is able to do, and appreciate it 
  2. find a teaching point with the highest leverage to improve the writing (and the writer)
  3. circle back to the lessons we choose not to teach right now in future conferences 

A simple list has helped me overcome this difficulty. I maintain a to-teach list of teaching points for every child that I update each time I realize that there’s more work to be done, but not just yet. This list has helped me calm my nerves and increased my mental and emotional capacity to do (1) and (2) listed above because (3) is now more guaranteed than before. 

For writers who are self-aware and independent, sharing this list with them has helped increase their control over their learning to a great extent. They then track the items on the list and remind me to get back to them, add items to the list on their own, and ask for self-study resources to learn items on the list on their own. I don’t share this list with students for whom it can be overwhelming to learn that there’s so much they don’t know.

Here’s a screenshot of one such to-teach list. I recommend that you keep this wherever you do other record-keeping for your conferences. 

Conferring is the bridge between the mini lesson and its application in student writing. It is the catalyst for pushing a piece to publishing. It is the precious 180 seconds when the very reason we all decided to teach can come alive. Paying attention to who our students are – ELLs or otherwise – can make conferences all the more rewarding and productive. 

Watch this space for my next post in which I talk about the practical issues arising from suggestions 2 and 3:

  1. How can I find time for extra practice opportunities, especially if it’s only for a small group of students in class? and 
  2. If I confer over multiple days, isn’t the student stuck and unable to make progress in her/his writing? 

What are your special considerations for making conferences – with ELLs or otherwise – better in your classroom? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Aishwarya

*tough for me = tougher for the student

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