Conferring: The Essential Act of Teaching

“A conference...occurs when a teacher sits down beside a student, finds out how the student’s [learning] is going, and in a very direct, but conversational way, teaches the student something that makes sense at this time.”  - Katie Wood Ray

A 4-Step Process for Conferring: Inquire, Decide, Teach, Record


A conference begins with inviting the student to tell you where they are in the learning and what they might need.

Conversation Starters:

Tell me about….

What is something you need help with right now?

Show me your process for…

Show me where you feel stuck.

Avoid asking questions like, “How’s it going?” It invites a one-word response like “fine.”


Based on what the student has shared in the inquiry conversation, decide on the one thing you will teach this student.  Consider the following to help you make your decision.

What would help this student most at this time?

What would bring quick success?

What would be a stretch, a risk, or a challenge?

What is not likely to come up in whole-class instruction?

It’s also okay to say to students, “Would you give me a moment to think?” If you are just beginning to have these conferences, you may feel unprepared to give on-the-spot instruction. This gets easier with practice!  


Teach one strategy, process, or idea at a time. It may be helpful to model an example or share a resource with the student.

Conclude with:

“Say back to me what we just talked about.” In the student’s explanation, you will be able to determine understanding.

This is better than, “Do you have any questions?” or “Did that make sense?” Students may say yes, even when they don’t understand.


Write down a brief summary of the focus of your conference with each student.  This will allow you to continue conversations over time and remember what you talked about, as well as notice patterns that may inform whole-class instruction.  

At the conclusion of the conference, say, “Okay, so what I’m going to write down is…”  


How long are conferences? Generally two to seven minutes.

Who do I conference with?  Teachers make an effort to conference with all students over time because all students need teaching, not just students who say they need help.

Adapted from:

Ray, Katie Wood, and Lester Laminack L. "Conferring: The Essential Teaching Act." The Writing

Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (and They're All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL:

National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.