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

Since arriving in the country with her family just a few months ago, Renata’s days are filled with new and sometimes peculiar settings, people, smells, tastes, and expectations. Because Spanish is the language she’s grown up with, there are added layers of complexity that she must navigate in her new school as she tries to find entry points into conversation, social structures, and the academic curriculum of her second grade classroom. Since Renata isn’t yet reading or understanding much English, her teacher worries about how to help her make the most of independent choice reading each day and feels a bit stymied about what to say and do in a conference, since the two of them have so few words in common.

With an estimated 5 million English learners (ELs) currently in US classrooms (US Department of Education, 2015), roughly 1 out of every 10 students has a home language other than English. Embracing the presence of these immigrant, refugee, and US born language diverse learners into our classrooms is an opportunity to welcome world in, modeling for all students what it means to be a member of a culturally and linguistically diverse world. In today’s post we offer a few simple entry points for using conferring with English learners to build relationships, help them grow as readers, leverage their interests and strengths, and help them to help them become thriving members of the classroom community.

First impressions matter.  Sometimes educators describe new arrivals as students “without language.”  But of course, this isn’t true. English learners are not lacking language, they simply don’t have the same home language as many of the their teachers or peers, which of course complicates the communication.  But ELs have much to offer their classroom communities and it’s vital that we make room to learn from them as well as having them learn from us. So, what if rather than introducing a new EL to the class by saying, “Class, Renata is new here and she doesn’t know how to speak any English, so she’s going to need our help . . . ” you introduced her by saying something like, “Class, we’re so fortunate to have Renata join us. One thing to know about Renata is that she is very skilled at speaking Spanish- a language I have interest in learning more about.  Do any of you speak, Spanish? We’ll all have chances to learn so much from her! And Renata, in turn, is hoping to learn English from us. So, we can all work together to make a big effort to do that. Maybe we could start by learning to say hello in Spanish.”  The difference may seem subtle, but the first example focuses on Renata as someone with a language deficit. The second presents her as someone with strong language skills and assets to offer the class.  How teachers think and talk about language learners influences the attitudes and perceptions of everyone else in the classroom. Do we view bilingualism as an asset and an opportunity? Or lack of English as a deficit?

Start from the heart.  Language learning is vulnerable, complex, risk-taking work. If English learners are to flourish in the classroom, they’ll first need to feel confident that this a warm and wonderful place where mistakes are opportunities to be embraced, not embarrassments to avoid.  They’ll need to believe you are someone to be trusted, and that you will provide safe and intentional opportunities for them to grow as respected members of this new community.  ELs might not understand every word you say, but they are watching and listening to all that goes on, continually trying to make meaning.  Every conference is a chance to solidify their trust in you as their teacher. So, when you pull up alongside one of your English learners to confer, keep an open heart and trust your instincts. Start with a genuine smile, consider opening with a greeting in their home language. If you don’t know one yet, here’s your chance to show that you truly value the opportunity for reciprocal language learning opportunities. Ask your student how to say the greeting or use Google Translate, which can be an amazing tool for learning new words and phrases in a pinch! Greet the student by name, then maybe say something like, “May I look at this book with you?” With a book at the center of your conversation, you immediately have a context for language. And no matter what words you say, make sure your body language says, “You matter. You can trust me. I want to be your partner in learning.” 

Build on strengths and interests.  Our English learners bring with them not only linguistic diversity, but also a rich collection of life and cultural experiences. English learners like Renata are bright and capable learners with strengths, preferences, and passions. Yet, when we don’t speak their language, it can be tricky to get to know them in the same ways we work so hard to get to know our other students in the initial days of the school year.  So, with your ELs you might need to take some extra steps when building connections. For instance, you might enlist the help of an interpreter, family member, or classmate who speaks the home language to conduct the same kind of caring and safe get-to-know you conferences that you offer English speaking students. By using an interpreter to have a welcome conversation with Renata’s mother, her teacher is able to learn that Renata is hesitant to speak up in a group even in her home language, that she is crazy for animals, especially those from the jungle, and that she loves to draw. Knowing these few simple things set Renata’s teacher up for success in the same ways it would with any child. She takes extra care not to put Renata on the spot in front of others. She uses conferring time to show Renata the section of the classroom library with baskets specifically dedicated to books about animals. She makes a note to herself to show Renata examples of how other students sometimes create labeled drawings or diagrams related to the ideas in the books they are reading, and waits anxiously for the moment when one of Renata’s drawing can used as an example to highlight  for other students. 

Clean up your own words. When it comes to our own words with English learners, less is usually more. Although English learners need strong inputs to learn the new language, if we aren’t intentional about our own language choices we can quickly overwhelm them, leaving them drowning in a sea of unknown words.  With your English learners, you’ll want to keep your teaching language in the conference clean, clear, and intentional. Smile, slow down, emphasize key words, and leave plenty of thinking space for processing. Thinking space, or wait time, can go a long way for a student working double time to process new language and content simultaneously.

Affirm and extend approximations. As reading teachers, we come to each conference prepared to give our wholehearted attention to one child for a small slice of time. When we confer with students who have very limited English, it’s important we train ourselves to listen hard for meaning, leaning in a little closer and working a little harder to understand the child’s attempts at connecting with this new language. For example, when Renata points to a photo in a book and says, “bug green.” Her teacher smiles, nods and says, “Yes.” Affirming her efforts and letting her know she’s made her meaning clear. Then the teacher follows up by saying, “It’s a green bug.” With a simple extension like this, Renata’s teacher has done what we strive to do in every conference; take whatever the child hands us, look for something worthy of an affirmation, and then consider what might be a small but attainable step up for the student. By asking, “What else?” and pairing our words with patient body language that communicates, “It’s okay. Take your time,” Renata’s teacher creates a safe invitation for her to try out more language that can be built on. When Renata simply points to the picture of monkey, her teacher says, “It’s a monkey. Swinging in the tree.” 

Lower Chart with ImagesMake it visual. ELs, like so many other students, benefit immensely when we push ourselves to pair our spoken and/or written language with visual support to make it more understandable. When Renata’s teacher says, “It’s a monkey, swinging in a tree, she might increase the likelihood of Renata connecting with words by pointing to the monkey, pointing to the tree, and making a back and forth swinging motion with her hand.  A few simple ways to make words, ideas, and routines more more easily understood through visuals include:

  • adding simple drawings to demonstrate each bullet of an anchor chart
  • using hand and body gestures 
  • providing a quick sketch on a sticky note as a leave behind to remind a student of a strategy we’ve taught
  • modeling and encourage students to take time to study pictures and text features to garner as much from them as possible
  • capturing an online image or media strengthen an idea we are trying to explain

Provide purposeful language scaffolds.  The conference is the perfect format for scaffolding the use of language learning with tools such as sticky note labels and language frames. Whether it’s teaching key vocabulary, practicing simple social exchanges,  or building more complex language structures for academic conversation these two simple tools provide endless entry points for even the most emergent English learners.

  • Highlight key words with sticky notes. Sticky notes are the ideal tool to annotate the photos, illustrations, and other text features of the texts ELs are reading, highlighting key vocabulary by creating liftable labels across the book. As Renata digs into her books about animals, her teacher can gradually insert sticky notes to label items of interest to her overtime.  For example, she might write the word monkey on a sticky note and place it directly on the picture, doing IMG_2844the same for the word tree. As a bonus, sticky notes provide a remarkably simple way to turn any book into a bilingual book. As her teacher adds the English label for these key words picture, Renata can add the Spanish word if she knows it. If she’s not sure or doesn’t know how to spell it in her home language, she may be able to add it later using a parent, sibling, classmate or online tool as a resource.
  • Use language frames to scaffold interaction. Conferring can also serve as a bridge to help ELs try out new language structures that they can practice and eventually use other settings such as partner conversations, book clubs, and book talks.  By using a combination of oral rehearsal and sentence frames, Renata’s teacher can help her build confidence with new language structures that she can apply to any book. For instance, Renata’s teacher could help her learn how to use a simple, but highly functional language frame like “It is a________” while engaging with texts.We love this particular frame because as a starting point a student can simply point to an object, and then later, once she can start to insert some of the noun labels she is learning.  For example, “It is IMG_2839a monkey.”  This simple frame sets Renata up for conversation and writing.  She can take the frame with her when it’s time for a partner conversation later in the day and can take it home in her book bag that goes home each night. She can use the frame to create a caption she draws of a monkey. Language frames provide ELs practice opportunities with key phrases or sentences and can be used while engaging with any text they care about.  A child’s collection of language frames can grow in sophistication and number day by day. Sentence Stems ImageOther examples might include:
    • I like _____________.
    • My favorite part was ______________.
    • This picture shows_________________.
    • The book is about _________________.
    • I think that________________.
    • I learned that____________________.
    • The main character is ______________.
    • I think _______________________.
    • I wonder_____________________.
    • I agree/disagree with ___________ because ______.


Create opportunities for peer-to-peer bilingual teaching exchanges. Once students understand how language frames work, you might consider occasionally using conferring time to encourage an EL them to create a parallel language frames in their home language. These frames position them to share their home language in strategic ways. With a parallel frame in her home language (It is a _____ / Es un _______.) Renata and a partner can sit with a book between them, entering the relationship on equal ground, each with powerful tool in hand to scaffold both teaching and learning. As they page through a book, each can take a turn modeling a language frame in their home language and practicing the frame in the language that is new to them while the other student provides input and feedback. Imagine the excitement her peers will feel when they are able to learn a bit of Spanish as the result of a conversation with Renata. These parallel language frames can empower English learners to be leaders, strategically sharing language assets in the classroom community.

Use conferring to help English learners find texts that work. Texts are the magic fairy dust of engagement for all students, including ELs. But ELs often need more individualized attention finding books for daily independent reading, and conferring is the perfect opportunity to do just that. When helping your English learners find books they care about and want to spend time with, be careful not to limit them to only books that match their English reading level, since their background knowledge and cognitive skills are likely far above their English proficiency. Some of our favorite types of books to engage and support ELs, especially those at the very early stages of English proficiency include:

  • concept booksBlogFB Design Space (3)
  • picture dictionaries
  • highly visual informational texts
  • wordless picture books
  • familiar texts from shared reading or read aloud
  • bilingual texts (check your public library)
  • picture books with illustrations that provide strong support of the storyline
  • graphic novels

For instance, in Renata’s case, a text like National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Animals has the potential to draw on her fascination with animals, while providing rich opportunities for her to learn from the vibrant photos.  A Spanish / English picture dictionary will position her to explore new words on her own, using both pictures and home language anchors to secure her learning of English words. In addition, wordless picture books will give her chance to immerse herself deeply in story, without language as a barrier at all. 

BlogFB Design Space (2)Build thematic vocabulary through text sets.  Although all students can benefit from exploring a topic deeply across many different texts, the use of thematic or topical text sets is an essential strategy for ELs. Helping ELs to build a collection of texts on a topic of high interest to them positions them to develop and extend anchor vocabulary and language structures, naturally making connections from text to text.  So, you may want to use conferring time to help your English learners build their own thematic text sets on topics of interest to them, such as planets, horses, vehicles, or life cycles. The most powerful thematic text sets for ELs will include a variety of texts types and will range from simpler to more complex reading demands.  The wide variety of texts that Renata’s teacher helps her find about jungle animals, include fiction and informational texts ranging from emergent readers with simple language structures, to texts with much more complex language. This honors the fact that although reading in English is completely new to her, Renata is capable of deep thinking about animals and is building on a rich storehouse of information stored in her home language, and.

Language learning is complex and demanding work that our English learners must layer on top of the academic content and social demands of the school day.  To develop the language and literacy skills that will enable her to become a successful and connected member of the school community, Renata, and other English learners like her need opportunities to listen to and experiment with language in a safe and comfortable environment. 

Conferring provides a vital link to doing just while allowing us to build safe and productive relationships, provide language scaffolds, feedback, and coaching, strengthen book choice as an access point to language, and to discover learner assets that can be shared with others. 

Our English learners have so much to offer the others in our classroom communities – a new language, a new perspective, a new friend- how incredibly fortunate we are to have them in our midst. 

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

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

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

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

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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