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LANGUAGE ARTS :: SECONDARY RESOURCES :: WRITING HANDBOOK :: WHAT KIND OF QUESTIONS CAN I USE WHEN CONFERENCING WITH MY STUDENTS ABOUT THEIR WRITING?

WHAT KIND OF QUESTIONS CAN I USE WHEN CONFERENCING WITH MY STUDENTS ABOUT THEIR WRITING?

The main goal of a writing conference is for the student to leave with new ideas, a fresh perspective on the writing, or a specific goal for revision. Therefore, the best questions are the ones that engage the student in thinking and talking about the writing with the support of the teacher. These questions tend to be open-ended, allow for student ownership of the writing, and prompt the student to see the writing with a fresh eye. Questions such as "How do you want the reader to feel at the end of your story?", "If someone who was absent the day of our lab read your report, what would he or she find confusing in your report?" or "What uncertainties do you have about this piece?" can lead to productive discussion and revision. Most importantly, teachers should respond to the writing as human beings rather than as a "teacher-corrector" (Dornan, Rosen, & Wilson, 2003).

Explaining that questions play an important role in the conference process, Milner & Milner (2003) list some generic questions and prompts that teachers may find helpful as they conference with students.

  • Tell me more about that.
  • I don't understand that.
  • Read it to me again.
  • What's the most important thing you're trying to say?
  • What's your favorite part? How can you build on it?
  • How could you find out more about your topic?
  • Is all this information important? What parts don't you need?
  • Why is this significant to you?
  • Does this lead bring your reader right into the piece?
  • What do you want your reader to know or feel at the end of your piece? (p. 300)

Christenbury (2000) identifies some typical questions that Donald Murray recommends using in conferences:

  • What did you learn from this piece of writing?
  • What do you intend to do in the next draft?
  • What surprised you in the draft?
  • Where is this piece of writing taking you?
  • What do you like best in the piece of writing?
  • What questions do you have of me? (p. 233)

Teachers can also generate questions to deal with specific concerns. For example, if the writing feels disorganized, the teacher may want to ask something like "Can you tell me why you put this paragraph after that one?" or "What part of the writing was the most difficult for you to organize?" in order to start that conversation.

Example
In Allied Health Sciences II, students research degree programs in the field of allied health sciences in order to create a class handbook for students in Allied Health Sciences I to use as they begin an initial exploration of careers in the field. Each student selects one degree to research (such as a BA in the area of physician assistant studies, biomedical computing, or nuclear medicine technology). The student identifies regional and national programs, general requirements for the degree, and information about careers in the field. The teacher conferences with each student during drafting and asks questions such as "What is the most important thing you're trying to say?", "Where might the reader want more details or explanations of terminology?" and "Is there anything you learned that isn't in the piece of writing? If so, should it be added for your reader?"

Example
In English III, students write a sequel to Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" focusing on the life of one of the characters as a way of exploring a particular theme in the story. The teacher conferences with each student and asks questions such as the following about each story: "Why is taking the story in this direction significant to you?" and "What do you intend to do in the next draft?"

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