Friday, March 8, 2013

Recording reading conferences

A month ago I wrote about reading conferences, and I said that I wasn't sure how to keep good records of the discussions I had with students.  Some of my brilliant colleagues, who have been thinking about these kinds of discussions too, have started recording their conferences using a voice recorder. Today I started doing this too, using my ipod.  I have the kids read to me for 30 seconds or a minute from wherever they are in the book they're reading independently, and then I ask them some questions.  I usually start with something like, "What do you think the author is doing in this passage?"  I try to follow up with "What specifics in the passage do you see that make you say that?"  And then we go from there.

A few thoughts after my first day:

1) It's a good thing we get used early to the look of ourselves in mirrors; I'm not yet used to the sound of my voice on a recording.

2) Maybe if I did this more my voice would improve?

3) All of my students have a fair amount to say about what they're reading--that's good!

4) I wonder if they would have as much to say if they were talking about a whole-class text.  I suspect that talking about the independent reading book makes the students the experts, and therefore empowers them--but I don't have a control group, so I don't really know.

5) It takes longer than I realized to get at an important question, or to get to something that makes the students stop and think.  When I wrote about this a month ago, it seemed easy and quick to get to those points; I think I had had an exceptionally good day of conferences just before I wrote that post. (I wrote, "One thing that's striking in doing these one-on-one conversations is how quickly we get to points at which the students need to stop and think before they respond.)  Listening to today's recordings, I am struck by how relatively smooth the conversations are.

6) I wonder if this is partly because in today's conversations I allowed the student to direct the conversations more than I often do.  A couple of days ago I was talking to colleagues about conferences, and we discussed using open-ended questions, so today I tended to start the same way with everyone, and I didn't have the explicit goal of coming up with a question that made the student stop and think. This way of questioning, which was partly modeled on the VTS method ("Visual Thinking Strategies"), showed me more clearly what the student was capable of on her own, but didn't lead to the "stop and think" moments that last month I was apparently so proud of facilitating.

6) Nevertheless, I do get something out of these conversations--they are possibly useful assessment tools.  From conversations today I learned that: student A doesn't know the historical background, so can't get the humor and nuance of the conversation; student B almost never refers back to the text, even when asked repeatedly about "specifics in the passage"; student C makes great connections between this scene and other parts of the book; students B, D and F are not very fluent or accurate in their reading aloud, but B and D nevertheless seem to understand the passage perfectly; student E doesn't seem to remember anything from the book except what he's just read to me; etc.

7) It seems to me that these conversations might be pretty good for diagnosing issues--and for instruction, as I was thinking before--but again, as with all instruction, it is SO INEFFICIENT!

8) My main instructional function in these conferences seems to be to push them toward a closer attention to the text and toward deeper thinking. This is really difficult!

9) I still haven't figured out how to keep a good record of these conferences.  In one sense I have excellent records--I have audio recordings--but in another sense these records are uselessly unwieldy.  From 13 conferences I have about a little over an hour of audio.  I did not try to take notes at the same time--but I probably should, so that I can later check my notes against the audio and improve my note taking...

10) I am still haunted by the sheer slipperiness of trying to improve reading comprehension.  I do think that making kids look more closely at text is a worthwhile exercise, but I also wonder how much my own reading comprehension "skills" have improved in the years since I was 12 or 13.  I know much more (background knowledge, vocabulary, literary terms, etc.), but are my actual reading skills (questioning, inferring, making connections) any better?  I am reading an apparently excellent 2005 overview of the research on comprehension acquisition (Perfetti, Landi, Oakhill), and it seems that their recommendations for instruction center on: 1) Reading more (and making sure the reading is "successful"--i.e. comprehensible input); (2) Instruction that tries in various ways to get students to pay more attention to the text and to their own understanding of it ("monitoring").  I take some comfort in thinking that reading conferences are one way to try to do #2--and that while I'm conferencing, the rest of the kids are doing #1.

I look forward to recording more conversations with students about what they're reading next week, and trying to put together the data into some kind of coherent record.  For now, I'm going to just try to get used to the sound of my own voice.

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