As I turned the page of the big book, I glanced over at Peter and could see he was lost. I was conducting a choral reading activity with a small group of students and Peter’s mouth had stopped moving; his eyes were glazed over. He had started kindergarten slightly below grade level in literacy, but after a few months of foundational work, he was able to decode CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words like “cat.” Peter was getting hung up on words that didn’t follow that pattern—he couldn’t apply what he had learned to new words on the fly.
“Everyone continue reading,” I said as I calmly slid around to the part of the rug where he sat. I knelt down, and he looked at me and whispered, “I don’t know all the words.” I began reminding him of some strategies he could try if he got stuck in a quiet voice. “Make the sound of the first letter of each word and skate through it, slowly blending the sounds together to make a word.” I modeled this a few times for Peter, gave him a chance to practice it on his own and scaffolded support as necessary.
Soon Peter was smiling again, not because he could suddenly decode any word he saw, but because he felt seen and heard. Instead of trying to make himself invisible, he was making eye contact with me as he pushed himself to continue reading with his peers.
In my classroom, sometimes conferencing is a formal interaction—something I plan for in advance with a particular student. These scheduled conferences give me the chance to “talk data” with my kindergarteners. I usually hold them monthly after each curriculum-based benchmark assessment. During these 5-minute check-ins, I meet with each student individually to discuss their progress and any areas for growth, and I give each student an opportunity to share how they think they did on the benchmark and why. Over the course of the year, they learn to verbalize their reasoning. “It was hard because there were words I couldn’t read” or “This time, I was able to sound out most of the words.”
More often though, I find myself engaging with students one-to-one in unplanned moments when they need support, taking a student to the side and providing guidance when they need it. In many cases, these are fleeting moments that might even go unnoticed by an observer—but when they are effective, these moments can change a child’s day.
Regardless of the purpose of the conference, in order to be effective, trust is key, so I need to build a strong relationship with all of my students and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. That sets me up to make sure my time with each child positively impacts their learning.
This school year, I have the privilege of teaching a group of students who, for the most part, entered kindergarten ready to learn grade-level skills. Although the majority of my students were ready for school academically, many of them had non-academic areas for growth such as self-confidence, motivation and independence. For young learners, one-on-one conferences throughout the year can be a powerful tool that goes beyond academics.
Teaching kindergarteners is a uniquely special, yet complex opportunity. Most five and six-year olds have imaginations that run wild, creativity that flows constantly and a great enthusiasm for learning. But there are also challenges that make conferencing with this age group difficult. Attention spans are still developing and students enter the classroom with a diverse set of readiness skills.
Perhaps the greatest struggle is that often times, especially at the beginning of the school year, these young learners are unable to verbalize what they need support with. Peter was able to communicate to me that he needed support on the choral reading activity by telling me that he was getting stuck on the words, but that’s not always how it goes.
One of Peter’s classmates Tammy was showing signs of frustration while reading independently, so I sat down at her table to talk to her about it. She had entered kindergarten above grade-level reading simple sight words and had progressed to read more complex words fluently. When I asked her what was wrong, she didn’t have a response. She couldn’t communicate that she didn’t believe in her ability to solve her own problems independently. Getting to know Tammy throughout the year, I noticed that she was not confident in reading independently; she needed constant reassurance that she was reading correctly to stay on track.
In an effort to motivate her to work independently, I reassured her that she was a strong reader and problem solver and that she could face any word she didn’t recognize. We talked about context clues and identifying whether words make sense in the context of the particular story. We came up with two instances when she might really need my help and some examples of problems she could solve on her own so I could gradually release my constant feedback.
This conference prompted Tammy to take charge of her own learning and to take some risks when it comes to reading. As the week progressed, Tammy gained confidence. She used the strategies we worked on together but also began to find some of her own. She realized that pictures could help her understand the context of a story, and started to notice the importance of “deliberate practice” when reading in order to obtain fluency.
Even though my goal is for students to take a leadership role during conferences, it’s not possible in every instance. With Tammy, I initially had to take control and guide our discussion, but was quickly able to ask probing questions to allow her to understand herself more deeply so that she could begin sitting in the driver’s seat of the conversation. Over time, she got better at vocalizing her needs and applying what we talked about during our time together.
Kindergarten is a critical time for learners, and it’s about more than read-alouds, play time and arts and crafts. Strong conferencing practices can do more than offer students an opportunity to understand how they scored on assessments. These scheduled and unplanned conversations can help our youngest learners feel safe and supported so they can build confidence, and can help them develop self-reflection and communication skills that will prepare them to advocate for themselves as they grow.