Student Writing Conferences as Relational Activities

Lately, I have been doing some reading on the interpersonal aspect of student writing conferences. Surprisingly, not much research has been done to look at conference discourse from a relational perspective. Personally, I believe that a writing conference is not only an instructional activity, during which a teacher and a student discuss a student’s writing, but it is also as a social activity, which is based on one of the most fundamental human activities—interaction. Therefore, a lot of what can be observed in everyday social interaction also takes place at conferences, including participants’ stances, attitudes, and emotions.

I’d like to share some quotes from a few sources that stood out to me.

Interpersonal Component of Writing Conference

“Clearly, the goal of conferencing can be either or both writing/revisiting the paper and establishing relationships with the teacher that is comfortable for the student” (Black, 1998, p. 123).

“It is a hybrid kind of conversation that is both curricular and interpersonal” (Consalvo, 2011, p. 28).

“Since feelings and emotions intrinsically pervade conversations, the affective dimension of conferencing cannot be ignored” (Chen, 2005, p. 19).

Teacher Role

“Working with people must be a priority over working with papers” (Wilcox, 1997, p. 509).

“Our first job in a conference … is to be a person, not just a teacher” (Calkins, 1986, p. 118).

“For a writing teacher, the role of nurturer is more important than the role of instructor. Knowledge and ability in using the writing process are of little value unless the writer is growing along with the writing project and feels trust in his or her teacher” (Wilcox, 1997, p. 509).

Benefits for Students

“For most students, a prerequisite to successful communication with the teacher is rapport: a sense of social and emotional (as well as academic) comfort and trust between them” (Kaufman, 2000, p. 72).

“[Thus] feelings of being welcomed or rejected, encouraged or humiliated, valued or threatened remain strong in learners long after the conference is over” (Chen, 2005, p. 19).

“The students who gain the most from teacher-student conferences are those who develop rapport with the teacher. While rapport doesn’t guarantee a successful conference, all successful conferences reveal some elements of rapport” (Kaufman, 2000, p. 75).

“Students are more receptive to criticism given orally because they can appreciate the spirit in which it is offered. They can sense the teacher’s support and concern, and realize that even negative comments are intended to be constructive. It is difficult for a teacher to demonstrate the same degree of personal concern in written comments alone. Even the most tactfully phrased written comments may seem destructive to a beginning writer” (Carnicelli, 1980, p. 108).

“When the teacher creates a sense of emotional and intellectual comfort and security, she can then push a little harder. By gaining students’ trust she can begin to create a sense of discomfort within them, challenging them to expand their intellectual boundaries by trying new approaches and taking risks” (Kaufman, 2000, p. 91).

“Conditions for having productive conversations about writing may be created from having a friendly conversation” (Consalvo, 2011, p. 43).

Good relationships inspire good conversations. Good conversations influence good writing” (Kaufman, 2000, p. 99).

Framework for Studying Conference Interaction

“Not only do we have to attend to the cognitive domain, attempting to enhance students’ thinking and evaluative processes, but also to the affective domain: the emotions, moods, feelings, attitudes, motivations, and self-perceptions that influence literacy activities” (Kaufman, 2000, p. 72).

“We argue that in the future, researchers need to move their attention beyond the cognitive demands of teaching, which have dominated the field for the past 20 years, to an expanded view of teaching that focuses on teaching as a practice that encompasses cognition, craft, and affect; the field of teacher education, in turn, must attend to preparing novices for the relational as well as the intellectual demands of teaching” (Grossman & McDonald, 2008, p. 185).


Black, L. J. (1998). Between talk and teaching: Reconsidering the writing conference. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Carnicelli, T. A. (1980). The writing conference: A one-to-one conversation. In T. R. Donovan, & B. W. McClelland (Eds.), Eight approaches to teaching composition (pp. 101–131). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Chen, J. S. W. (2005). Interactional influences on writing conferences. (Doctoral dissertation). Hong Kong Polytechnic University (People’s Republic of China).

Consalvo, A. L. (2011). Writing conferences and relationships: Talking, teaching, and learning in high school English classrooms. Unpublished dissertation. The University of Texas at Austin.

Grossman, P., & McDonald, M. (2008). Back to the future: Directions for research in teaching and teacher education. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1),184–205.

Kaufman, D. (2000). Conferences & conversations: Listening to the literate classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wilcox, B. (1997). Rapid research report: Two roles of a teacher during a writing conference. The Reading Teacher, 50(6), 508–510.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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