Throwback Week



Nurturing independence in writing workshop is one of the hardest things to do,  and one of the tasks I struggle with the most.  Betsy’s post from last May, “How you pull away? Let go of their hand”, is a beautiful guide to doing just this – in the primary grades, as well as in middle school.



Letting go can be hard. During an independent writing piece, we want to step in when we see students falling back on an old habit or jump in and praise when we see them doing something that was recently taught. It’s a fine line when laying the bridge of a scaffold that moves students toward the goal of independence, but letting go of the child’s hand is just what we need to do, especially in the primary grades. I say this because, if we don’t start early their dependence on us will strengthen and their confidence to do the writing on their own may be stifled. I’ve established a few rules for myself and some understandings that have helped me let go. I’ve also established a “what not to do” list of things I try to avoid when my expectations are to see independent work.


I sometimes think there is confusion about monitoring student work and conferring with the writer. Monitoring can look different depending on what the teacher wants to see. I consider monitoring a task I take on when looking for independent skills. Conferring, however, allows me to scaffold, introducing a new concept with support. It also allows me to “notice,” right there with the child, compliment the child on something he or she did well and then move onto a question and consideration within the work. When I monitor I may not even draw any attention to what the child did or did not do. I merely mark it on a monitoring sheet and move on.

Here is an example of what it looks like when I confer with a student. She is jotting down a note about what we talked about in our conversation before I leave. In this example, I am giving her a next step to consider and we talked about what was going well. What I love about the sticky note is when I walk away it gives her a little reminder. It is encouraging her to take on this new skill and she has ownership of that work. It is day to day invitations like this that build independence and confidence later.

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When I am monitoring I might check in on one skill or many. It may depend on what I taught that day. Supposing I did lessons all week on including a strong lead in one’s writing, I might walk around and monitor to see how many students have taken this on as an independent skill. For those who have not, I might take a moment to confer with them about what I notice and then offer a consideration. This allows me to do a little of both while still noting who got it and who didn’t. I have a general rule that if two-thirds of my class got it I can move on to a different classroom objective. Those who didn’t, I have a note that tells me this is something to still work on, as well as notes on what I did to scaffold for that child.

Here is a student working independently. She is engrossed in her work and I just quickly look over her shoulder to see how things are going. She doesn’t even notice me. This is an example of monitoring. I can quickly look for that one skill I am hoping she put in place without disturbing her or giving her any teaching points.

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About every two weeks I like to take an independent sample from all students and really look them over, away from the students. I check in more frequently on writing pieces through the week with various purposes in mind, but I also like to look at all of them to get a whole group snapshot of what is or isn’t happening in the writing. This is more doable with primary writers as there is less quantity than say a middle school writer. It can take just a little over an hour to look at 25 samples if you know what you are looking for and get in a groove. I find I start slow but then gain momentum.

There are plenty of great things we can do for our writers during both independent work and conferring. However, there are also things to stay away from. Here is a list of things NOT to do!


We are all guilty of this. We push something on a student before they are ready to take it on with independence. It is important to nudge, make small movements within the writer. When we look at next steps, they need to be very precise and not too big. For instance, with a child who is not ready to associate letters with sounds, we shouldn’t be pushing and telling them what letters or sounds to hear and record. They will likely take on very little of this. Working on the oral story and drawing to match is more reasonable.


It’s important to allow students to make mistakes, which I would rather call opportunities, in their writing. They can only learn through these and we learn so much when we allow them to approximate. If we sit next to a child and stretch every word helping him identify every sound and letter in his story, how much will he really learn from this experience? Students will learn that they need an adult to be a writer. This is not the message we want to send. Students need to own their own writing and show us what they need through their work.


When we are working to make students independent it is tempting to stand over that child who is usually off task. This proximity can be a good thing at times, but done too long that student will only continue to need your proximity to get his words on the page. However, giving him an expectation and then checking in can be more effective. Stop by a moment, voice what you expect to see when you come back in ten minutes and then hold him accountable. Off task behavior won’t disappear immediately, but I have seen this work and when everyone is working and in the groove of workshop, these students will follow suit.

I feel like independence in the primary classroom is a conversation that could continue for many blog posts. There are so many elements of good instruction, supports and building blocks that encourage writers. There are also those blunders that get in the way. Do you want to continue the conversation? Guess what, there is an opportunity for you to keep it going. Join in our Twitter Chat on May 12th at 8:30. Let’s talk more about what you do to build independence in your writers and how you let go of their hand.

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