Dwyer on Process-Conference Writing

What are the Main Elements of Process-Conference Writing?

  1. Time. Children write every day. They have time to think about, talk about and share their writing.
  2. Ownership. The control of, and responsibility for,
 the writing is left with the children. They choose 
topics to write about from their own experiences and interests. Unknown spellings are ‘guessed’ or ‘invented’
 as the piece is written. Punctuation is often ignored in the early stages. The children establish the purpose and the audience for their writing and decide on an appropriate form and style. They decide to ‘publish’ the writing for others to read.
  3. Process. There is an emphasis on the process of writing: to draft-revise-publish instead of merely writing a one-shot draft. Because daily time is set aside for writing, the young writer can be supported before and during the writing process as well as after the writing is finished.
  4. Conference. These brief discussions with an individual child or small group of children may occur before, during and after the writing. During a conference with a child the teacher is providing support at his or her point of need, thus individualising the teaching/learning. …

How do I Find Enough Time to Conference?

First, don’t waste time with less-than-useful strategies. Abandon your English and spelling textbooks time saved for real language-learning

Second, don’t complicate the notion of conferencing. Its most basic aim is to help the writer revise the content (the information) of his or her story. Often it is no more than a passing comment that directs the child back to the writing itself. Donald Graves has suggested four ‘questions that teach’:

‘How’s the writing going?’
‘What’s the story about?’
‘What are you going to say next?’
‘Do you need any help?’

Many teachers find ‘a roving conference’ useful at the beginning of a writing session. In this they rove around the classroom, getting an overview of what is happening, making a comment here and there, asking a question …

What are the Different Types of Conferences?

  1. The Roving Conference in which the teacher moves around the class gaining an overview, getting work started, asking the needed question, making the appropriate comment …
  2. The Group Conference. This is used to introduce a new mode of writing, to teach a point of usage, to share individual children’s work.
  3. The Whole-Class Conference. Here ‘published’ books are read, editing skills taught and examples of successful writing shared.
  4. The Individual Conference in which the teacher helps the writer by asking appropriate questions.
  5. The Peer Conference in which another child helps the writer to surface new information and reflect on style.
  6. The Publishing Conference. This is where the teacher and the child prepare the story for publication. Focus is on the conventions. Before asking for a publishing conference the child should have:
    • checked information, spelling, punctuation and grammar;
    • read the story aloud and sought some comment from a partner.

Once process-conference writing is fully operational, a teacher will use all of these types when appropriate.

How Do You Overcome the Child’s Over-Dependence on the Teacher?

This is one of the hardest problems for teachers just starting the technique. Even first graders who have had a traditional program in Kindergarten will have learnt over-dependency on the teacher, demanding teacher-direction in the choice of topics and in spelling. Be firm and keep pushing control and responsibility back to the child. Check-lists and classroom charts outlining steps and asking questions about the child’s writing process are useful.

How Can I Motivate a Second and third Draft?

The answer lies in the quality of the conference and the promise of publication. The simple questions in the conference leave the writer with new information to record. The prospect of publication is an incentive for editing and proofreading.

How Can I Help the Children to Become Better at Peer-Conferencing?

Regularly give short conferences to a child-volunteer while the rest of the class observes. Ask other volunteers to do some peer-conferencing in front of the class. Outline the type of questions that the children might use in conferences.

e.g. Why have you chosen this topic?
What part of your story are you happiest with? … not happy with?
Is there anything else not quite right with the story?
Will you tell me some more about one part of the story?
Do you think it’s ready to be published?

I’m Worried about Intruding Too Much during the Conference. What Exactly Am I Supposed To Do?

Remember the purpose: to help the child clarify his or her own thinking, to surface new ideas on what to write next, to teach the reader about his or her topic. Very simple questions about the story help. Then, WAIT for answers and LISTEN to what the child says, resisting the temptation to rush in and take over.

Is there a Place For Whole-Class Lessons on the Conventions of Correct Usage?

Yes. When many children are having a similar problem (e.g. the use of a certain punctuation mark), then the whole class might well be given some instruction and practice exercises. The critical question is: Does the lesson serve the children’s immediate needs? Such lessons would be fairly infrequently given.

How Can I Get the Children to Write about Their Own Experiences?

Keep reminding them that the things we are most expert in are our own experiences. When reading the children’s stories to the class, make a fuss over the ones that reflect real-life experiences. Make sore that the little stories you write and share with the children are about your experiences.

How Do I Help the Children Improve the Quality of their Story-Writing?

Four things help improve quality:

  1. Daily Writing.
  2. Conferencing in which the writer’s improvements are identified and reinforced.
  3. Presentation of good models by the teacher in whole-class conferences.
  4. Exposure to and discussion about good literature.

How Can I Teach the Conventions?

The conventions of writing – spelling, punctuation and grammar – are surface features. They are certainly not the basics of learning to write. They need to be mastered, however, if writing is to communicate effectively. The conventions are best taught during the writing process as the need arises.

A useful gimmick in explaining the place of the conventions is I.O.U. formula.

  • I stands for information (‘meaning’). Is there enough here to satisfy the reader? Is it specific, descriptive, interesting …?
  • O stands for organisation (‘structure’). Is there a well-sequenced development of ideas? A good ‘lead’ (opening)? An effective ending? Will readers get an impression of order unity? (coherence/logic).
  • U stands for use of conventions (‘surface features’).

    Words: wide and appropriate vocabulary? correct spelling?
    Sentences: lively, varied, well-linked, punctuated, correct?
    Paragraphs: well developed, not tediously long, smoothly linked?

There is no purpose served in teaching genders and grammatical terms … . Such terms as nouns and verbs are useful as of vocabulary but should be introduced in the context of children’s writing (e.g. ‘Do you think you can find another noun? You’ve already used that one twice in this paragraph.’)

How Will the Children Learn to Spell and Punctuate if these are not Concentrated on?

When children are encouraged to ‘invent’ spelling, shown how to check spelling in the later stages of the writing process, and helped to develop personal lists, they are learning spelling far more effectively than by using any other method. The same applies to punctuation: it is best taught at the point of need.

Dwyer, Barry. c.1985. Some of the Questions Teachers Ask About Process-Conference Writing. Sydney: Catholic Education Office.