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
BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
Teacher’s preparation notes:
AFTER THE CONFERENCE:
___schedule another conference
___have the student work with a peer
___let the student work independently