The One-on-One Reading & Writing Conference: Working with Students on Complex Texts
reviewed by Anna Smith - February 09, 2016
Title: The One-on-One Reading & Writing Conference: Working with Students on Complex Texts
Author(s): Jennifer Berne, Sophie C. Degener
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756229, Pages: 160, Year: 2015
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Jennifer Berne and Sophie C. Degener highlight promising one-on-one and small group conferencing practices they have observed while working with classroom teachers in The One-on-One Reading and Writing Conference: Working with Students on Complex Texts. In an era calling for increasing textual complexity, Berne and Degener highlight that complexity is not solely a result of text attributes; rather it is a facet of the dialogic interactions of readers engaging with others, texts, and tasks. With this unique perspective, the authors direct attention to the dialogic exchange between pupil and instructor in conference settings as a potential source for discussion and instruction that is both rich and complex.
Berne and Degener encourage teachers to reflect on the ways they use conferencing in instruction to put this ideal into practice. They suggest that teachers not only ensure the successful comprehension or composition of a text during conferences, but also direct attention to developing readers, writers, and their learning. Presenting an argument based on Vygotskian approximation, they argue that this is the turn at which a conference becomes instructional, and the talk within it becomes complex. They frame this developmental orientation in speaking with youth as a stretch conference, arguing that students need opportunities to think deeply and work out solutions for themselves in order to develop as readers and writers.
The heart of the contribution of this book lies in the two continua of complexity for responding to students regarding their writing and reading that are presented in Chapters Two and Three. Arguing that some aspects of composition and comprehension, such as mechanics or vocabulary, are possible to teach in a whole group configuration, they suggest reserving one-on-one and small group instruction for the most contextually laden ideas, such as an authors purpose for a piece. Interspersed through the descriptions of the items on the continua are snippets of dialogue taken from actual teacher and student writing conferences, and small group guided reading sessions. These exchange snippets are used to illustrate the ways teachers can afford students opportunities to stretch as writers and readers.
Berne and Degener suggest alternative reading pathways for Parts Two and Three, and explain that they intend The One-on-One Reading and Writing Conference to be used as a resource and not necessarily read from cover to cover. The authors alternative reading pathways exhibit their dedication to differentiation. Parts Two and Three begin with chapters that briefly introduce typical components of writing workshops and balanced literacy instruction respectively. The authors emphasize the need to listen closely and be responsive to developing writers in order to make decisions as to the foci and frequency of using these particular approaches by describing mini lessons, independent writing, and peer feedback in Chapter Four. In Chapter Seven, Berne and Degener focus on shared, guided, and independent reading as particular structures within a longer literacy block. The descriptions of these and other components are specific and practical but perhaps too brief. The authors refer to several concepts such as mentor texts, word work, and craft that would most likely be new to pre-service teachers and even to teachers looking to begin writing workshops and guided reading. The book may have been more effective by extending the discussion regarding complexity and conferencing in the following chapters.
In Chapters Five and Eight, the authors reassert their commitment to conferences that provide youth opportunities to stretch their thinking within larger writing workshops and guided reading classroom structures. These chapters include specific suggestions for the content and timing of conferences, including a sequenced order of instructional dialogue counted down to the second. Parts Two and Three conclude with chapters that provide several extended dialogic exchanges and descriptions of individual and small group conferences from various grade levels. Although each instructional exchange is accompanied by a short commentary, the instructional points Berne and Degener highlight are not always explicit in the example exchanges themselves. These exchanges would instead be best read and discussed among teams of teachers who could fill in the blanks from their experiences and use these discussions to reflect on practice in a collective and supportive manner.
The book concludes with an epilogue detailing the shifts Berne and Degener have made to their own instructional approaches over time. This highlights the learning curve teachers experience when taking on new pedagogical approaches. Addressing administrators, they argue for additional time and space, and support for collaboration that are necessary for instructional changes to take place across a school faculty.
In their relatively short text, Berne and Degener provide an introduction to several foundational instructional structures for literacy currently used in schools, and a framework for teachers to increase the complexity of their discussions with young students within a conference setting. The One-on-One Reading and Writing Conference would be particularly useful with teams of practicing teachers. The combination of practical advice on implementing conferences within writing workshop and guided reading, and the example dialogic exchanges between teachers and students provides a grounded sense of the authors reading and writing complexity continua. Berne and Degener have written a book that provides a roadmap for teachers to optimize their one-on-one time with children to engage in complex talk, reading, and writing.