Review: Reading Conferences by Jennifer Serravallo

Each month I will be reviewing a different text designed to help English teachers and faculty leaders to develop a robust and engaging curriculum. I’ll be discussing them primarily from the point of view of a teacher or leader in an Australian context and exploring the balance between theory and practice. This post contains affiliate links.

The Classroom Essentials : A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences - Jennifer Serravallo

Jennifer Serravallo’s Reading Conferences is part of Heinemann’s ‘Classroom Essentials’ series. Serravallo is a prolific author in the US, with many literacy books to her name. This book – aimed at grades K-8 – provides a thorough and systematic approach to conferencing with a focus on improving reading skills through understanding where your students are at, goal setting, coaching, and encouraging conversation.

At a first glance, the book looks approachable and friendly. The text is colourful, playful, and even printed in a coffee-table style landscape on a pleasant matte paper. You might be wondering at this point why I’m going on about the look and feel of the book… Fair enough. I’ll be honest. I shuffled this book down my reading pile because it looked so playful and fun. When I finally opened it up, though, I was impressed by the depth and quality of the content. The feel of the paper is just an added bonus.

Serrvallo begins with a clear definition of conferring. The focus – like I have written in previous posts – is on knowing your students and building relationships. She calls conferring “the heartbeat of the literacy block” and declares that in a conference the teacher becomes “a researcher”, learning about the students as much as they themselves learn. I like this definition of conferencing because, in my experience, it beats hands down other forms of assessment and feedback, particularly when working with students who lack confidence. Building a relationship should be the first step in any instruction, reading or otherwise.

The text is then split into 7 parts, focused on getting the class ready for conferring, understanding the students’ needs, goal setting, and then various types of conference from ‘compliment conferences’ to ‘partnership conferences’ and book clubs. The book’s structure works well, guiding a teacher who is new to conferring through the basics and offering a lot of structure and support along the way. Each chapter also includes a ‘Mentor Spotlight’ in which Serravallo highlights the work of another academic or fellow teacher, showing where she has adapted or extended their ideas. This is a nice touch, and has added significantly to my own growing pile of reading material.

The chapter on ‘Coaching Conferences’ particularly caught my interest. The two main types of conferring I use are – in Serrvallo’s terms – the coaching and the strategy conferences. I took away a few excellent pieces of advice including an idea for how to better structure group conferences, using Serravallos ‘Strategy Lesson’ structure. This small group focus on an individual strategy aligns neatly with how I teach reading already, and I think it will streamline the conferencing process even further.  

The book ends with an incredibly useful overview of all of the various conferences and a rough estimate of how long per student the conference will last. This is helpful because, as I’ve written before, one of the biggest concerns from people new to conferencing is the length of time it takes to get around a whole class. In fact, throughout the book all of the chapters are supported by print, digital, and video resources that explain and demonstrate the timing, structure, and methods used.

All-in-all, Reading Conferences is a surprisingly thorough and exceptionally well-resourced text that I’ll be spending some time getting my head around with my classes in 2022.

Pros

  • Lots of resources, including additional digital materials
  • Surprisingly deep – don’t judge it by its cover!
  • Well-structured

Cons

  • Seems to focus more on the very junior end of the K-8 spectrum
  • Relies on all the other students in the class reading independently

Interested in learning about conferencing in a senior school context? Get my free PDF on conferencing and join the list!

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