How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?

I don’t even know if one-on-one math conferences are a thing. I’m “new” to the math instruction field – having taught high school Algebra 2 and Geometry for this current year and only exposed to this world for the second semester of last year. I’m not new to the profession. I taught middle school language arts for several years.

But I have spent last year and this trying to blend the worlds of “literacy” and math instruction. I know a preponderance of information is out there about math instruction. I’ve got a lot of info to tackle moving forward. But last year when I took over an Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classroom mid-year, the immediate need, one of the most pressing and apparent needs of my students was how to access information about what they were learning.

I joined Matt’s book study group last year (studying the book Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen) with the idea that I would be examining what kind insights and connections I could find and make about literacy, in my case then, the math textbook, in light of what I saw in my new math classrooms: Kids could not access text to help them learn math.

My conviction after another year of math instruction has not changed. Kids are still having difficulty making sense of a difficult text. Enter this year’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman. I was and am still convinced that I need to help kids broker that deal – that reading about complex math tasks is difficult, requires explicit instruction and practice, and is essential in moving kids to be independent consumers of math ideas and applications.

Somehow, I have been convinced that my training in writing and reading instruction is part of the equation. The two worlds should talk more! My participation here with Matt and his excellent team of knowledgeable practitioners is not a conclusive study. It’s not even a study. It’s an idea, really.

Just the other day, one of my students in Geometry had a breakthrough. “I am getting this! This makes sense!” I’d helped her individually many times during our work sessions. You know, those independent practice moments after direct instruction and lots of guided practice. But that day she got it. I realized that I needed more one-on-one time with some students to give them personal guidance. Asking her questions about where meaning broke down, where she didn’t “get it” helped to pinpoint exactly how to help her. Showing her that space was crucial. Trig ratios step into the world of fractions and students have a lot of walls up when you mention fractions. She did.

Ms. Routman says it this way about struggling readers in section 5 of Excellence: “Here is the crucial point: deliberate practice without effective teaching and coaching doesn’t guarantee growth” (222). I believe she is talking about one-on-one reading conferences. Ms. Routman shares the story of Maria who had a three-year discrepancy in her reading ability and her grade. She says that after just one reading conference, Maria started improving quickly. That is what has happened with my student. She finished the practice we did that day easily and successfully and left the room with a smile that told the whole story.

She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it. That is the kind experience I want to bring to all of my “math-ers.”

I’ve been trying to find a way to have math conferences with more of my struggling students. It is all informal with no model or structure at this point. But similar to my realization last year that I would have to help kids learn how to read math text, I am realizing at the end of this school year that next year is going to have to have math conferences. One-on-one time to assess needs and coach kids specifically.

Author: Lee Shupe

I have spent several years as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher, 5 years as an instructional coach, a few years teaching alternative education and high school math. This next year I will be teaching 6th grade math. My wife of 27 years, whom I adore, teaches kindergarten. I spend my spare time engineering sound for my church and writing fiction (some of which you can find here:

7 thoughts on “How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?”

  1. Lee, I am so impressed by your exceptionally thoughtful blog! Bravo! I love how you use the principles of responsive teaching in a one-on-one reading conference and apply them to a one-on-one math conference with a student who is struggling with understanding geometry. You ask the student “Where did meaning break down?” and then use that conversation to provide the exact support and scaffolding the student needs. You write, “She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it.” You did that! You’ve grasped a concept that eludes many teachers: if you know how to teach well and deeply in one area, those principles transfer to all areas–and that simplifies teaching and learning and makes it more joyful. It’s applying what I call the Optimal Learning Model across the curriculum. Thanks for this wonderful post. With admiration, Regie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ms. Routman – I’m moved by your gracious words! Thank you! This idea of one-on-one conferencing really seems to help kids thrive! I want so badly to put it into play like I know it functions for reading conferences. Learning to navigate those waters with language and response to each student that cuts to the “point of confusion” (to borrow an Avid term) is tricky. Sometimes the scaffolding falls right over! I like to point at the work that students have done and show where their process broke down. That helps. As you spelled out in your book though, I’ve got to find ways for other students to be practicing productively while I find how to get that individual coaching time. Thanks for your insights, observations, and participation with us as we discover from your book!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lee, Once you figure out how to have students practicing productively in math so you can have 1:1 conferences , you might write about it. Many teachers would benefit from your insights. Good luck moving forward! Regie

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lee,
    This really is a powerful post. I found myself nodding along and silently cheering your innovative practices. In my grad course work for my 316, we often had conversations about bridging the gap between literacy and other content areas. You’ve done just that with your attempts at searching out ways to help your students persevere through difficult texts-math text, and through connecting the 1:1 reading conferences with math. In first grade, I meet with 3-4 students at a time to teach a lesson, reinforce a skill, give guided practice, etc… The rest of my students are either utilizing a math learning task using technology, exploring math by themselves, or playing a math game with a partner. Running my math block this way allows me that small group time, but after reading your post I’m thinking on how I can improve my own practice to allow for 1:1 math conferences. I know first hand the power of those 1:1 reading conferences, and I have no doubt that they have the potential to be just as powerful in math, or any other content area for that matter! Thank you for stretching my thinking.


  3. I love the idea of conferring in math and how you asked this student questions to pin point where learning broke down. She seems more metacognitively aware, which can be empowering. Thank you for teaching math and continuing to teach literacy.


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