A Coach’s Playbook: Conferring With Student Readers

Billy Jean King once said, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” As educators we keep trying to get things right. When I first started conferring with middle and high school readers, I got it wrong…way wrong. I found myself focusing on behaviors of my students that I perceived as barriers to their reading and writing success. I would “whack-a-mole” my way through the classroom during independent reading time asking students to put away make-up, phones, and other homework. I was thinking if I can just get them into their “zone,”Nancy Atwell’s phrase for when students are so engrossed in their books you can feel the peace and joy throughout the classroom, THEN I can slide up next to students and confer. The problem is that my “whack-a-mole” method was not creating trust. It wasn’t creating an environment where students could tell me why they might be struggling to get into that “zone.” Each day of not getting it right, I went home and read from the literacy giants who had failed before me and kept playing until they got it right. From the advice of Layne2, Robb3, and Johnston4, I learned that I needed to set aside my Type A personality, let my students struggle and find ways to get into their “zone,” and take on a coaching stance so students would trust me to coach them as they make moves as readers and writers.

I learned a few valuable lessons as I worked to get conferring right with adolescent learners. More than anything else, I learned that I will never get it exactly right and that students appreciate when we make our failures visible. When we share what we’ve learned and how we are using that to keep working to get it more right, it shows how we are all human and opens our students up to be more vulnerable with us.

Pregame Lesson:  Don’t Take Shortcuts With Preparation

When getting prepared for student readers to find a great first book so they can quickly experience their reading zone and the joy that comes from getting lost in a book, I have students fill out interest surveys.  I love to get to know students’ interests. What activities and hobbies do they enjoy? If they see a movie, what movie did they pick? Do they play video games? Which ones? Are they currently reading something or have a favorite author? What gets them upset? What brings them joy? These questions offer a window into their souls. It also serves as a great tool to pull books from the classroom library and give them a start on browsing what they might enjoy.  I loved looking through the surveys and pulling 5-6 books to sit on their desks as they walked into class. Sure, this was work. It takes time. But I loved how they could see that I was thinking about each and every one of them and took the time to read what they wrote. I learned through a humbling experience, however, that if a student doesn’t give me much to work with, I can’t take shortcuts and make assumptions. One student was really brief in her answers. It appeared she either didn’t want to write or she wasn’t yet feeling safe enough to open up to me. She did remind me so much of a student I had the previous year and I really wanted a stack of books on her desk when she walked in, so I pulled some of the books my former student had on her “favorites” list. To my chagrin, my new student approached me and asked why I thought she wanted to read teen romance? I admitted to her that in my haste to get books on her desk and with little to go on from her interest survey, I went with books a former student liked. She pushed me. “What about me reminds you of your student from last year?” I had to be honest. “You look a lot like her. You dress like her.” FAIL! I sat down next to her and said, “I am so sorry! I don’t know you yet. I want to know more about you and I want to choose some books that could interest you. Thank you for being brave enough to let me know that my assumptions were way off! Would you be willing to take another go at the interest survey?”  She said yes and I knew that my next go around better be better. This, by the way, was a reader’s conference.  And in the end, it was fruitful because it began to build trust between us and she knew that I truly did care about what she would take the time to write on her interest survey.

Gametime Lesson:  Listen First

When we confer with readers, we can sometimes feel the pressure to “teach.” Our first job needs to be to listen. Really listen. To do that, it can be helpful to have a list of questions to get our students talking. Atwellsuggests doing reading check-ins. Roaming through the classroom with a clipboard, pen, some sticky notes, and even a “padded stool I drag along with me now that my knees are shot” (p. 247).  Ask students questions like:

  • Tell me about the book you are reading. What is the title? Who wrote it?
  • How is the writing?
  • What page are you on?
  • How in the “zone” have you been?
  • What helps you stay in your reading zone?
  • Do you have an idea of what you will read next?
  • Is this book “book talk worthy”?
  • So far, how would you rate this book?

As we check in, we want to show each student we are really interested in what they have to say. Each detail provides great formative data to help us coach them further as readers.

Gametime Lesson:  Quality Over Quantity

When we speak with our students, we need to be intentional with our language and the quality of time we spend with each student. This quality is much more important than how many students we can get to in each class period. We, of course, want to keep track on our clipboards whom we have talked to so that all students get some of our coaching time, but our focus needs to be on the quality of that time versus the amount of time and amount of students we see each day. “Language is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive. It actually creates realities and invites identities. Saying, ‘you are so smart’ is very different from ‘you are so thoughtful’” (Johnston6, p. 9). We want to be thoughtful ourselves about how we position our students in our coaching conversations. I don’t want students to think that I am going to put a value judgment on what they say or expect them to perform in our conversations. Instead, I want authenticity, reflection, and opportunities for students to invoke my curiosity; perhaps even selling me on the book so I will pick it up to read if I haven’t yet. Gallagher and Kittle7 remind us that what we say relates to what students learn. A few examples provided for us include (p. 17):

When we say. . . Students learn. . .
“I brought this book from home. Do you think you might be interested in reading it?” We think about them outside class, and we believe every student in this class will be a reader.
“What craft moves do you notice in this text?” We pay attention to great writers.
“What are you thinking?” We value their ideas.

Postgame Lesson:  View Gametape

When students are comfortable with our procedures in class, when we have built trust so they can be vulnerable, take risks, and fail, then we can set up our cameras and take some game tape. Nothing is more valuable than looking back on instruction, especially conferences to reflect on the language we use. Is our verbal language constitutive? Does our nonverbal language communicate complete attentiveness? How well are the rest of the students managing their independent reading time? Game tape is not for “gotcha” moments, but instead reviewed to promote game time adjustments. How might I shift my language to invite more generative thinking from the student I am conferring with? What mini-lesson or read aloud text might be helpful for a whole class discussion on managing our own distractions? What themes am I hearing across several recordings that might influence my next moves? If we really want to follow our coaches’ lead in analyzing game tape, we would gather our colleagues and our team (students) to watch, reflect, and set goals.

There are so many lessons to be learned as we fail forward. Ultimately, if we can see and own our coaching mistakes, we will continue to champion readers forward.


1 Atwell, Nancie. The Reading Zone. Scholastic, 2007.
2 Layne, Steven L. Igniting a Passion for Reading. Stenhouse Publishers, 2009.
3 Robb, Laura. Teaching Reading in Middle School. Scholastic Inc., 2000.
4 Johnston, Peter H. Choice Words. Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.
5 Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. Heinemann, 2015.
6 Johnston, Peter.
7 Gallagher, Kelly, and Penny Kittle. 180 Days. Heinemann, 2018.