Interventions: The Observant Teacher Knows That There Are Times All Learners Need Them

By Laura Robb, Author and 2016 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

“I never thought that Josiah would need help,” Mrs. Kensey said. “He’s one of my best readers and he works hard. But he struggled to make inferences with informational texts.”  Like Mrs. Kensey, many teachers believe that students who work hard and excel at school won’t require interventions. However, if we look at our students through the lens of independent and dependent learners, we can adjust our view of intervention. Independent learners have the confidence, skill and strategies to solve learning problems while dependent learners lack self-confidence and the skill and strategies needed to support completing challenging tasks on their own. Students (and adults) move back and forth between being independent and dependent learners. Let’s understand this swinging pendulum by looking at a two examples:

  • When teachers present a new strategy such as inferring with informational texts, there will be students who can infer with fiction but can’t transfer the skill to nonfiction.  However, by modeling the process of inferring with nonfiction in an intervention conference and asking students to practice, you can observe their strengths and needs, scaffold their learning, and move them to independence.
  • If students lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to read and comprehend new information such as space geometry, nuclear meltdowns, or the Cold War, they will need interventions—scaffolds that build vocabulary and background knowledge so they can comprehend  unfamiliar information.

It’s important that teachers understand that independence is not a fixed point on the achievement scale. Instead, when a student who is a high achiever faces a learning roadblock, he or she will ask for and accept help without losing self-confidence and self-efficacy. It’s the student who lacks self-confidence and has negative feelings toward school and learning who teachers must continually observe and interact with because they are unlikely to ask for help when they encounter difficulty. To observe whether students have absorbed and can apply the strategies and tasks you’ve modeled, embrace and use the three interventions that follow.

Intervention 1: Two-to-Three-Minute Conversations

An important purpose of this brief intervention is to decide which students you can support during a two-to-three minute conversation and who requires a five-minute exploratory conference. Observe, listen, and ask students’ questions as you circulate among them while they are reading, writing, or working in small groups. Such daily interactions enable you to check on the progress of students you previously helped and continue monitoring all students as they practice new tasks and work independently.

As you circulate look for behaviors that show students are disengaged from the work: the student isn’t reading, writing, or sharing during a student-led discussion; a student is doodling in his notebook, slumping in her seat, or resting his head on the desk. Have an on-the-spot informal conversation with each student and decide whether you need more than a short conversation to scaffold the learning. Difficulty with applying a strategy, completing a writing plan, revising a journal entry, or taking notes, usually requires a longer conference. However, issues such as changing a text that’s too difficult, figuring out the meaning of a tough word, or getting started on a response to a text can usually be supported during a two-to-three minute conversation. Jot the high points and suggestions of this conversation on a sticky note and give it to the student as a reminder.

While you find the time to confer with a student, have him or her work on a task that he or she can successfully complete independently such as reading a self-selected book or working on a project with a peer partner. If you have time, schedule a five-minute exploratory conference that day or the next day, so you can decide the kind of support that student requires.

Intervention 2: Five-Minute Exploratory Conference

The purpose of this one-on-one intervention is to help you decide how much support a student needs to move to independence with a task. It’s possible that you can clear up the student’s confusion in one to two conferences. However, there will be times when your observations of the student practicing a task such as finding text evidence or comparing and contrasting two characters indicate the need for a series of three or more short conferences to move that student to independence.

Intervention 3: A Series of Five-Minute Conferences

If your exploratory intervention reveals the need for more in-depth scaffolding, schedule a series of five-minute conferences. Hold five-minute conferences in a quiet place in the classroom while other students are completing work independently. Set up a small table or a student desk away from other students so you have privacy while conferring. A student will be reluctant to share his or her feelings and concerns if everyone in the class can hear.

By spending five minutes a day with a student you gain the time to model, have the student practice and think aloud in front of you, then gradually release responsibility for competing the task to the student. These conferences support students if you focus the task. If students need help with text structure, decide what genre you’ll focus on and identify exactly what the student needs to understand.

Most five-minute conferences are between the teacher and one student. However, if there are two to four students practicing the same strategy with you, you might bring them together once they are close to achieving independence. Often, at this point in the scaffolding, asking students to practice together and share and discuss their process can quickly move them to independence.

Pre-Plan Five-Minute Conferences

Pre-planning asks you to carefully reflect on your observations of a student, focus the conference, but also develop several possible scaffolds. It’s beneficial to have several scaffolds ready to try because there is no one sure fix-up strategy for a student. This way, if one scaffold derails, you can immediately try another on your list of possibilities.

The conference form that follows provides you with a written record of what transpired during each scheduled meeting. Use this documentation to decide on your next teaching moves and to point out progress to students. As students experience success and learn to associate positive feelings with solving learning challenges, they will develop the self-confidence and self-efficacy needed to be independent learners—most of the time.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Five-Minute Scaffolding Conference Form

Student Name_____________________Date____________


Focused topic:

Teacher’s preparation notes:


Student’s comments:


Negotiated goal:

Check one:

___schedule another conference

___have the student work with a peer

___let the student work independently



Teachers: Welcome Back to School!

By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

Several years ago, a lead teacher Katie Winslow, called me. She told me that Lily, a first year teacher, was anxious about teaching twenty-five second graders and was staying at school often past 8:00 pm. I knew Lily. Her parents were friends. Katie Winslow and I agreed to collaborate in order to help Lily.

Each day that passed, Lily stayed at school later and often the custodian had to ask her leave before locking up the school. When I spoke to Lily, she told me that she had to prepare for every possible contingency, otherwise, she felt as if she couldn’t get through the school day.  Young and bright, Lily wanted to do everything “perfect” for her students. She over planned and tried to predict each student’s reaction to lessons so she could help them.

Quite often, like Lily, first year teachers try to resolve their teaching anxieties by overworking and eventually dreading coming to school. Continual conversations over time can ease the stress and at the same time help teachers realize that they can’t prepare for every possible learning situation.

To allay the apprehension of first-year-teaching jitters as well as the uncertain feelings experienced teachers have entering a new school, principals have developed ways to transition teachers into their schools’ culture. Usually, before regular staff returns, new teachers meet to walk through the school, review the school’s handbook, and discuss schedules. In addition, schools pair-up new teachers with a mentor, an experienced teacher who meets with their mentees throughout the school year. Moreover, principals and other lead teachers often have an “open door policy” which means they will always make time to discuss issues with teachers. Knowing that help is always available can prevent frustration and rising anxiety among first year teachers and teachers new to a school.

The tips that follow provide teachers new to a school with suggestions that have worked for veteran teachers. However, all teachers might find a nugget of advice that they can use or adapt.

Build relationships with many mentors:

  • Meet regularly with the mentor your school assigns you to during the entire school.
  • Cultivate positive relationships with other teachers and identify those you trust, relate to, and believe can also help you. Invite a mentor to observe a lesson and provide feedback on what worked and areas that require self-reflection and adjustments. Then, invite the mentor back to observe an updated lesson. Experience will reveal that teaching is a journey, and input from others combined with self-reflection can result in progress.

Setting Up your Classroom

  • Evaluate your classroom space and remember that how you set up your room reflects your teaching style. Besides having students’ desks in clusters of four to five, you’ll also want to create learning spaces. Have a quiet place for reading, a table where you can confer with students and they can confer with one another, a project area where students can work, and an area that houses your class computer(s).
  • Organize materials for writing so students can get these independently. You’ll also want to have crates or shelves for writing workshop folders and readers’ notebooks.
  • Cover your bulletin boards with construction paper and border trim. Then, post students’ writing, drawing, annotated timelines, etc. Posting student work not only honors what students do, but it also provides others with models and possibilities as long as you set aside time for students to read work on bulletin boards.

Planning Lessons

  • Follow your school’s lesson planning guidelines and use your mentor to help you complete these each week.
  • Make sure that you respond to students’ needs which means you might have to reteach a lesson and/or pull a small group for extra support. This means that you won’t always be able to complete lesson plans. This is a normal occurrence for all teachers. Simply move to the upcoming week what you haven’t completed.
  • Planning for me each time class meets includes three elements you might want to try:
  1. note one to two goals for the lesson;
  2. list what students will do (active learning, the heart of the lesson);
  3. assess learning: this can be notes based on your observations; a writing task; discussions, etc. Assessment should grow out of what students are doing.

Getting Through That First Week

  • Begin each day with a read aloud.
  • Make students feel comfortable and start building a trusting community of learners with these activities:

– Share your interests and ask students to complete an interest inventory.

– Tell students about your reading life and ask them to write about theirs.

– Have students share with their group a great book they recently read or movie they saw.

– Hold getting to know you conferences with students.

– Teach students how to self-select independent reading books:100 % accuracy and comprehension –easy and enjoyable reads.

– Offer opportunities for reading self-selected books at school.

– Invite students to create a set of behavior guidelines for independent reading and writing.

  • Introduce a different area of the room each day.
  • Give out materials such as readers’ notebooks, writing folders, instructional reading texts, etc.

Establish Routines

  • Model and explain what will happen each day your students are in class. The teacher:

– Reads aloud.

– Reviews the agenda for the class.

– Asks three to four students to pass out readers’ notebooks and/or writing folders.

– Presents a mini-lesson

– Has students complete guided practice after mini-lessons.

– Organizes instructional reading.

– Has students work independently and confers with a few students during this time.

Working With Parents

  • Contact parents early in the school year to report good news about their child. This can be an email or a telephone call.
  • Consider writing a bi-monthly or monthly newsletter that celebrates classroom learning experiences and activities. Parents love knowing what their children are learning. In your newsletter provide tips for parents that let them know how to reinforce classroom learning at home.  
  • Invite parents to join the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) and meet other interested parents as well as work on fund raising projects for the school.
  • Let parents know when their child struggles and explain the kinds of support you are offering at school.
  • Listen carefully to parents’ concerns. Invite them to come to school to review their child’s work. Explain how you are supporting their child and suggest what they can do at home.

Meeting With your Mentor

  • Avoid skipping scheduled meetings. Even though you feel you have everything under control, conversations with your mentor can give you insights into upcoming sports events, faculty meetings, setting goals, parent-teacher conference days, etc.
  • Remember to occasionally write your mentor a note of thanks and appreciation. Most likely he or she is mentoring without additional pay, so the reward is in the relationship and helping a colleague.

Coping With Feelings

  • When frustrations and anxieties arise, talk about them to your mentor. Often talking through issues can reduce the tension you feel.
  • Try to pinpoint the origin of these feelings. Is your stress caused by lesson planning, students’ behavior, not enough time to cover material, parent complaints, frequent changes in daily schedules, etc.? If you can pinpoint the origin of the stress, then you can work with your mentor to relieve it.
  • Know that all teachers, new and experienced feel stress and deal with frustrations. The difference is veteran teachers have more experience and have developed a menu of coping strategies.


Closing Reflections

All teachers face roadblocks during the school year. It’s part of the job. Turn to your mentors because they have the expertise to help you through times when feelings of “I want to leave” and “I can’t deal with that behavior one more day” overwhelm your emotional capacity. If there are several new teachers at your school, meet with them once or twice a month and compare experiences, share stories. Talking is one sure path to relieving stress and finding ways to cope. Always remember that teaching is a journey, and the travel eases as you gain experience.

You are part of an important profession: you have a hand in shaping the next generation by trusting and helping your students, by responding to their individual needs, and by celebrating with them the joy that comes from working hard to learn, think, solve problems, and reach a goal that nudges them forward.

Follow Laura @LRobbTeacher

Follow Evan @ERobbPrincipal

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By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

The era of the Common Core has re-ushered in the study of grammar in all grades. This is both good and bad. Good because the study of grammar to provide students with tools to improve writing is positive and can lead students to independence with editing and revising.  The bad news is that many students are memorizing the parts of speech and completing worksheets that ask them to underline subjects and predicates, prepositional phrases, etc.

Research and common sense both point to the fact that knowing the definitions of the eight parts of speech does not lead to students using the parts of speech correctly in their writing. Workbook exercises that invite students to underline specific parts of speech or fill in blanks with a noun or a verb also do not improve students’ writing. Sentences in workbooks are controlled and do not reflect the type of writing that students do.  Moreover, for a knowledge of grammar to impact students’ writing, students must edit and revise their own work applying principles they’ve learned and practiced. Here’s a framework for teaching students how to use grammar to improve their writing in all subjects.

  • The teacher presents a model lesson and students discuss what they notice and ask questions.
  • Students practice the lesson by writing to demonstrate understanding.
  • Students edit and/or revise a piece of writing to reflect what they’ve observed and practice.

Sample Lesson for Strong Verbs

Materials: Two to Three typical student sentences with weak verbs.

Teacher’s Think Aloud:  Today we’re going to look at action verbs and make sure that the verbs in a piece of writing paint visual images for readers. Let’s read and study sentences that are similar to what I’m seeing in your writing:

  • My mom made a birthday cake.

Rewrite: My mom decorated a sheet cake with yellow roses and then squeezed icing from a tube and wrote: “Happy Birthday, Jenn.”

  • Jake and I went to the park.

Rewrite: Jake and I biked on the winding path that led to the park.

Have students Turn and Talk: Students should point out how the change in verbs affects their ability to visualize as well as the benefit of added details.

Students Practice: Provide students with sentences that have weak verbs and

have them to rewrite and share. You can organize partners and make the learning interactive as they rewrite together.

Students Use Their Writing: Underline two sentences in students’ writing that would benefit from stronger verbs.  Proficient writers can do this independently. Have students circle the verb and brainstorm a mini-list in the margin of alternate, strong verbs. Some students won’t be able to identify verbs; circle them for those students. Then ask students to choose a better verb and print it above the one in their text. I ask students not to erase what they originally had so they can discuss the benefit of the revision.

Extending the Lesson:  Build mini-verb word-walls on 12 x 18 sheets of paper. Here are some ideas that students can work on during the year.

  • Write other ways to say went.
  • Write other ways to say make.
  • Write verbs you can use for Thanksgiving or Holiday stories.
  • Write verbs that help you write about autumn, winter, spring, or summer.
  • Write verbs that help you visualize a specific sport.

Discuss extension ideas with colleagues and you will find many other situations for students to think about. The more they play with and use verbs, the better they will understand this part of speech.

Specific Nouns: In their writing, students often use general nouns such as stuff, things, junk, toys, food, snacks, games, etc. You can follow the framework of the lesson on verbs to develop your own lessons with specific nouns.

Help students understand that the more specific their nouns are, the clearer will be the images they paint for readers. For example, snacks could be pretzels, cashew nuts, apples, string cheese, etc.  Specific nouns permit others to envision what the student sees and experiences.

Tips For Productive Peer Editing

If this is your students’ first foray into peer editing, you might find that students tend rate every section on a peer-editing form as “excellent” or “Terrific.” This kind of feedback does not help a classmate improve her writing. Even though you implement the suggestions that follow, it can take a few peer editing experiences for students to understand the value of this writing stage.

  • The areas that students peer edit always match the criteria for the writing. If you change the writing criteria in this curriculum, then adjust the peer-editing form.
  • Show students how you respond to two to three sections. Start with a positive comment and point out a need with a question.

Examples:  Your Lead is short and announces the topic. Can you test it for raising questions and then revise it?

You build suspense and use descriptive details so well. Can you find two places to add dialogue?

  • By offering students examples, you build their mental model of what helpful peer editing looks like.

Questions that Help Students Peer or Self Edit for Writing Conventions

When reading a student’s piece for use of writing conventions, place a light check in the margin of a line that requires punctuation; two checks for two punctuation needs, etc. This points the writer in the correct direction, and asks the writer to do the correcting. Instead of a check, you can write the editing symbol in the margin on the line. You can find a list of symbols by going to:


How do I Know What Grammar and Punctuation to Present?

The best way to figure out the lessons your students need is to make notes as you read their writing. You’ll find that all students might benefit from a lesson on using the colon and semi-colon, while a small group needs your support with paragraphing.  In addition, you can ask students to write three things they need help with in their writing. I find that students are honest and want to make their writing clear and interesting. The issue is that they often don’t know what to do!

Mini-lessons to Present for Revision and Editing

What follows is a list of possible mini-lessons that you can consider.  Mini-lessons will have to be repeated as students benefit from practice and repetition. Avoid marking up papers for students. The need to do the work to become independent and improve their writing.


Reading your writing out loud

Posing questions to revise

Strong verbs

Specific nouns

Vary sentence openings

The art of peer editing

Transition sentences between paragraphs

Leads and endings


Add details with prepositional phrases

Adding showing details



Repairing run-ons

Combining short, repetitive sentences

Agreement of subject and verb

Commas: in a series, direct address, opening expressions, parenthetical phrases, dependent clauses, –several   lessons


Pronoun reference

Active or passive Voice

Direct Quotations


Metacognition: The Thinking Teacher’s Secret to Nurturing Independent Learners

By Laura Robb
Metacognition is often defined as thinking about thinking. However, a three-word definition does not explain the benefits of becoming metacognitive to students in elementary, middle, and high school. Three words—thinking about thinking– are not specific enough to help teachers show students how to be metacognitive. When students are aware of what they understand and don’t understand, they can clarify their thinking on their own or seek their teacher’s help. The combination of being self-aware, taking action, and experiencing success leads to independence in learning.
Defining Metacognition:
Metacognitive learners are tuned into how they process new information, what they do and don’t comprehend, and the emotions they experience while learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at the University Southern California’s Brain Creativity Institute have drawn conclusions about the relationship between emotions and students’ learning capacity.
If students emotional associations with tasks are positive, feelings of “I can do this” and “I enjoy this” develop and accelerate their learning.
However, if associations are negative—“I’ll never be able to figure this out” and “I hate this work”—it becomes difficult for students to succeed. The replay of in-the-head negative thoughts prevents students from taking the risks that are characteristic of metacognitive learners. The possibility of failure negatively affects their lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Metacognitive learners welcome new learning tasks and have life experiences that enable them to access strategies for learning. Taking risks and risking failure don’t affect their willingness to keep trying.
So, two big questions for us as educators to wrestle with are, How do we teach students to be metacognitive? How do we transform negative emotions toward learning tasks into positive ones? The answers may lie in encouraging students to do four things: plan work, monitor comprehension, confer frequently, and self-evaluate.
1. Planning Work
When students plan their work—drafts, revision, book talks, projects, speeches, and group presentations, etc– they think, select, discard, and research to learn more. The planning process supports thinking before taking action and reveals to students what they understand and don’t understand, and what they need to do and don’t need to do. Learners who grapple this way are using their meta-cognitive skills.
2. Monitoring Comprehension
Students who read independently at school and home feel a range of emotions while immersed in a text. They also can step into the shoes of the person they’re reading about and experience life from his or her perspective. They visualize, predict, infer, and pause to savor words, phrases, figurative language, and their feelings about and reactions to texts. In a nutshell, those students are monitoring comprehension while reading. An effective way to determine whether students are monitoring comprehension while reading is through bookmarks.
Bookmarks for Monitoring Comprehension
Bookmarks help students track in-the-head-conversations they have during reading. To create a baseline bookmark, ask students to write what they think and feel while reading. Then, have them read and respond using a specific strategy such as predict and support, infer, visualize, determine important information, or name specific feelings they have about a person, character, event, or conflict. What students write or don’t write–offers a window into their thought process while they read. Avoid over using bookmarks or asking students to record their thoughts and feelings for several pages of text.
When you assess students’ bookmarks and then coach them in frequent, short conferences, you can help students experience success with learning tasks and develop a rich and rewarding personal reading life. Kahmariah’s story below illustrates this.
Kahmariah’s Story
Fourth and fifth grade teachers at the Discovery Charter School in Rochester, New York, have been meeting with me on the telephone about using bookmarks and conferring to improve students’ instructional and independent reading. Fourth grade teacher Jean Hoyt recently emailed me Kahmariah’s story. A reluctant reader, Kahmariah, slightly below grade level with instructional reading, had difficulty making inferences and recalling details. During independent reading she would “fake read” and was unable to retell the text.
What helped Kahmariah begin to “real read” were the conferences and coaching sessions that followed Jean’s assessment of her bookmarks. Jean moved Kahmariah from quoting text phrases and “fake reading” to making predictions, showing empathy for characters, and connecting the story to her own life. Kahmariah now reads a variety of genres, has read five books during the third quarter, up from only one book the first half of the year. Kahmariah sees herself as a “reader” who chooses to read at school and at home. Independent reading combined with Jean’s support ramped up Kahmariah’s instructional level to mid-fourth grade!
The message here is that bookmarks alone won’t help students find meaning and joy in reading. Teachers must analyze students’ bookmarks to figure out how to support them. That means conferring with students, coaching them, modeling for them, pointing out their successes, and encouraging them to self-evaluate.

3. Confer Frequently
Coaching students for three-to-four minutes during a conference enables you to help them apply a new strategy, concept, or task—and enjoy the feeling of success. During conferences you can show students who aren’t metacognitive how to reflect on their learning and point out any progress they made. Conferring with students briefly and frequently allows you to turn negative feelings and attitudes toward learning into positive ones–gradually.
Jean Hoyt told me that through continual but short conferences she was able to develop students’ self-confidence and feelings of self-efficacy—“Yes, I can reach that goal!” After several months of conferring and teaching students how to reflect on their work and progress, Hoyt observed that positive feelings toward reading and writing among students she coached outnumbered negative feelings. And equally important, students were able to express feelings of pride in writing and pleasure in reading.
4. Self-Evaluate
Self-evaluating progress in reading comprehension invites students to call on their metacognitive skills. They study their reader’s notebooks and reflect on what they did well along with how to improve comprehension.
Coaching students to be metacognitive requires us to raise students’ awareness of what they do and don’t understand about reading. This is a tough task for teachers and students, but one that’s important because metacognition creates independent learners who find pleasure in reading and writing about reading and have the fix-up strategies necessary to comprehend what they read. And after all, developing students’ independence in learning should be the goal of every teacher!
Independence in Learning
During conferences, engage students in planning, monitoring comprehension, and self-evaluating their work so they can pinpoint strengths and needs. Then, think aloud and coach them to show how reflecting on their reading highlights what they do well and points out areas that need improvement. In addition, help them be positive about their needs so they understand that learners take risks and work hard to make progress. By developing students’ metacognitive skills, you put them on the road to lifelong learning.