One-​​on-​​one instruc­tional reading con­fer­ences between stu­dents and teachers improve com­pre­hen­sion and flu­ency among chil­dren of all reading levels, according to an ongoing research study con­ducted by Sheelah Sweeny, an assis­tant pro­fessor of edu­ca­tion at North­eastern University.

We found that indi­vidual instruc­tion gave stu­dents the oppor­tu­nity to engage with lit­er­a­ture in a way that moved beyond the mechanics of reading,” said Sweeny, a former ele­men­tary school teacher whose research focuses on cross-​​cultural literacy.

Strug­gling readers, as well as high-​​ability readers, expe­ri­enced more growth than those in con­trol class­rooms with reading instruc­tion typ­i­cally found in schools, she said.

Her study, enti­tled, “The School­wide Enrich­ment Model in Reading,” is part of a larger quan­ti­ta­tive analysis on reading com­pre­hen­sion and flu­ency, which is backed by a $5 mil­lion grant from the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Tal­ented Stu­dents Edu­ca­tion Program.

Between Sep­tember of 2007 and Feb­ruary of 2008, Sweeny vis­ited 30 ele­men­tary school class­rooms in Mary­land, North Car­olina, Florida, Min­nesota and Ohio.

Each school agreed to par­tic­i­pate in a three-​​phased reading pro­gram. Third-​​, fourth-​​, and fifth-​​graders were intro­duced to new books; required to read inde­pen­dently and take part in short daily con­fer­ences with their teachers; and encour­aged to com­plete inde­pen­dent projects con­nected to the reading.

For her part, Sweeny observed the indi­vidual reading con­fer­ences, focusing her analysis on the 10 teachers who best imple­mented the three-​​phased pro­gram. She found that teachers held at least six dif­ferent types of con­fer­ences, depending on the needs of the student.

Cel­e­bra­tion” con­fer­ences, for example, were held for chil­dren who recently fin­ished a book, whereas “repair” con­fer­ences were held for stu­dents who had a par­tic­ular dif­fi­culty with the reading.

Teachers typ­i­cally began a con­fer­ence by estab­lishing a pos­i­tive rap­port with the child by making small talk, a strategy that “makes kids feel valued in the class­room com­mu­nity,” said Sweeny.

They ded­i­cated the core por­tion of the dis­cus­sion to mon­i­toring the child’s reading com­pre­hen­sion by asking ques­tions about the text. Teachers often sug­gested reading strate­gies for improve­ment, such as making infer­ences and pre­dic­tions and deter­mining the meaning of par­tic­u­larly chal­lenging vocabulary.

The final stage of a con­fer­ence gen­er­ally focused on giving stu­dents pos­i­tive feed­back and set­ting goals, such as fin­ishing a chapter by the fol­lowing day, or reading a more chal­lenging book.

The problem with strug­gling readers is that they feel like they can’t do it,” said Sweeny, who added that chil­dren with below-​​average reading skills by the end of third grade tend to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives. “We have to empower teachers so they can help each child reach his highest potential.”