How do I Confer with a Student Who’s Reading a Book That I Haven’t Read?

Question: I haven’t read the book myself, so how will I be able to confer with a reader about it?

Sylvie’s fifth-grade students are voracious readers. On most days, at least one of her students brings a book into the classroom that is completely unfamiliar to her. Even though Sylvie has tried to keep up with her students’ book choices, she has found that it is just not possible to know every book that every child in her class is reading. She wants to confer with her students, but she isn’t sure how to talk with them when they are reading a book that is unfamiliar to her. 

Trying to read everything our students are reading is a noble goal, but it’s simply not realistic. In fact, if you have read every book your students have read, your students probably aren’t reading enough. There are just way too many great books in the world to limit the choices of our students to those we’ve read ourselves!  So, in this post, we offer some suggestions for how to engage in meaningful conversations with students, when they are reading something you have not read. 

  • Explore how the reader found his or her way to this book.  Finding one engaging text after another is what keeps a reading life vibrant and growing. So, anytime a student has found their way to a text that is unfamiliar to you, you are presented with the opportunity to explore their book finding process.  How did the reader find the book? What was it about this book that made them believe it would be a good-fit?  Whether we learn that a student got a recommendation from a friend on the bus, found the book on their cousin’s book shelf, or checked it out from the public library, an opportunity to affirm book finding strategies is an invaluable use of our time in the reading conference.  (To Know and Nurture a Reader also has an entire chapter dedicated to leveraging the conference to support student book choice.) 
  • Let students know when you’re unfamiliar with the book they are reading. A simple statement such as “This book is new to me. Tell me what you think I should know” can give a great deal of insight not only into the book itself but also into our students’ level of engagement and understanding.  We want our students to take the lead in a conference. Asking students to discuss a book that’s unfamiliar to us puts them in the perfect position to do just that. It empowers them to teach us. 
  • Remember this is a conversation, not a quiz. The conference is about the reader- not about the book. Whether you know the specifics of a book or not, your goal during the conference is not to quiz readers on specific details to judge their answers as right or wrong. Rather, we confer with the goal of helping ourselves better understand how a reader makes meaning, solves problems, and reflects on what they are reading, so that we can affirm and extend their efforts in strategic ways.  Our goal is to provide strategic feedback that can be used not only in this text, but in any similar situation or text in the future.
  • Use what you know about the genre.  Within each genre are some predictable ways that readers can learn to think and talk about texts.  For instance, consider what you know to be predictable about mysteries. Every mystery involves some type of mysterious event or crime. They also usually include a character who is doing the detective-like work of trying to solve the mystery. It likely includes victims, suspects, clues, and possible motives. Mysteries keep readers engaged because they keep them guessing, predicting, and moving forward in search of clues. Knowing the basic components of a genre, such as a mystery, positions a conferring teacher to better navigate the conference – not in book-specific ways – but in genre-focused ways. Questions like the ones listed below will not only give you glimpses into the reader’s understanding of this text, but into his or understanding of the genre itself, setting you up to affirm or extend their grasp of the genre in ways that can be applied to any other books within that genre they choose to read in the future.
    • What are you noticing about this mystery that is the same or different from other you’ve read?
    • Who are the characters, and what roles are they playing in the mystery?
    • What is the mystery in this particular text?
    • Have you discovered any clues so far?
    • What is your current thinking around the mystery? Has that thinking changed as you’ve read the book? If so, how?
    • What predictions have you made so far? Have any of your earlier predictions been ruled out?  If so, how?

This same kind of thinking can be applied to any genre. Think about an informational text.  What are some things you know to be true about informational texts that could help you engage in conversation with readers in genre-focused rather than text-specific ways? (i.e. What are your noticing about how the information is organized? Does this organization help you understand the content? What are the features that set this nonfiction book apart from other nonfiction books? What are some examples of learning that is new to you on this topic?) 

  • Keep a few powerful, open-ended questions in your toolkit. One of the most critical tools in the conferring teacher’s toolkit is an array of open-ended questions that can be used in varying combinations. Below we offer some of our favorites that can work with any book or reader.
    • What might be important for me to know about this particular book?
    • What are you thinking about as you read? Why do you say that?
    • What would you like to discuss in our conference today?
    • Does this book seem more like relaxed reading, stretch reading, or somewhere in between for you as a reader? What makes you say that? 
    • What has been challenging so far?  And, how have you helped yourself?  
    • What questions have come up as you read this book (part, chapter, etc.)?
    • What type of feelings is this book bringing up for you? Tell me more about that.
    • Has your thinking changed at all since starting this book? If so, how?
  • Encourage students to offer book talks or recommendations to other readers.
    Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.36.45 AM
    Book recommendations can be verbal, written, digital, or even in pictures! We’ve learned about countless books over the years through student recommendations.

    If you are aren’t familiar with a text, it’s likely that the some of the other students in your class aren’t either. So, when a student is  highly engaged with a text that is unfamiliar to you, one powerful action might be to encourage the student to recommend the book to others.  You may want to ask students, “who else do you think needs to know about this book?  How might you let them know about it?  These questions make the reading process social and connected across the entire classroom community of readers.  Whether students make recommendations to partners, small groups, online, or using paper and pencil, making a book recommendation is one of the most authentic forms of reader response we know. (To Know and Nurture a Reader has an entire chapter dedicated to leveraging the conference to support authentic reader response.) 

  • Ask the student to read aloud while you listen in. One surefire way to get a small glimpse into the book your student is reading is to ask them to share a bit of the book with you by reading aloud. They might choose to read a little bit wherever they’ve left off, or you might ask them to page through and find a section that they think would be important to share with you. As you listen, you’ll be able to think about the child’s accuracy (possibly taking a mini-running record) and fluency with the text. Plus, you’ll be able to get a basic sampling of the reader’s comprehension, with questions like, How might you retell (or summarize) the part you just read? Tell me more about what’s happening here. Help me to understand how this connects to the rest of the story.
  • Keep pushing yourself to read books, series, authors, and genres that your
    Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 10.45.48 AM
    This is a stack of what one of Christina’s fifth graders read in December and January- Christina has only read four of these titles herself.

    students already are or might like to be reading. One practical suggestion to help you keep growing in your knowledge of books is to read a sampling, a first in the series, or a single title by a popular author for starters. This will give you a foothold and can help you make recommendations to students. However, it’s just not possible or practical to think you’re going to read every book in and out of your classroom library. Rest assured, you are not alone. Not knowing every book your students are reading definitely is not a barrier to conferring.

Much of the art of conferring hinges on the art of conversation. The goal is not to grade their understanding of the book. The goal is to get students engaged in meaningful conversation that will reveal to you their strengths, strategies and readiness for next steps as readers, whether or not you know the specific book in their hands.

This post is part of the ongoing blog series, Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive.

Other posts in the Tackling the Tricky Parts series:

Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer

Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!

How can I support readers who pick the same types of books over and over again?

How can I use conferring to connect with students who are very new to English?

Some of my students just hop from book to book! What can I do to support them?

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 1.41.38 PM

If you want to learn more about developing a joyful conferring practice that really works, check out our book from Stenhouse Publishing, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy. 

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