Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!


One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.


We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?


Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

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Thoughts on Writing Conferences

I am an assistant teacher this semester, assigned to help in the last hour of an academic writing class. It’s pretty awesome.

We’re deep into the semester right now, and I’ve had the pleasure of conferencing with the same group of students over the course of a couple of months.

A few thoughts about it:


Their writing has improved. They are writing within the structure of a five-paragraph essay much more consistently, the way they explain arguments is becoming clearer, and they are beginning to internalize exactly how to cite references.

Do they know that their writing has improved? When the teacher and I tell them, do they believe us?

Organization and Grammar

There is tension between the two. They’re very different writing skills, but you can’t really excel at one while having serious issues with the other. They must both be addressed.

It’s really hard to find time for both. When I’m teaching, I find it hard to do justice to both in my lesson plans. When I’m assistant teaching, I find it difficult to really address both in my conferences with the students. Seeing how my lead teacher handles the balance has been particularly great professional development for me.


Most of our students use the technology (the internet, the learning management system, the printer, etc.) with ease. The tech facilitates learning, makes information available, and enhances communication. But for a couple of them, the links, the log-ins, the scrolling, and other basics are just hurdle after hurdle in addition to the content.

That means that most of our conferences are about writing, but with one or two students, the teacher and I spend a chunk of their conferencing time helping them find (or re-find) the article that everyone else has been scouring for claims and quotes for ten minutes already. We’re all working together to make it work, but the digital divide is real!


I am so glad to be assistant teaching this semester!


Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360 onFlickr

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