From Dependent to Independent: Four Ways To Begin Tomorrow

A tug on my leg.

A tap on my arm.

“Kelsey?”

Two more tugs.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Kelsey?”

“Kelsey?”

A swarm of writers huddle around me.

In the moment, I wish to multiply myself.

Or become invisible!

Instead, I take a deep breath, and listen.

One writer at a time.


Much of the day feels like this in the beginning of the school year. Especially for primary teachers. Especially, especially for kindergarten teachers (we can do this!).

The days of gazing across a classroom of writers at work, dipping our toes in for conferences, meeting uninterrupted in small groups at the rug, seem to be in the unforeseeable future. When will we get there? 

As much as I find myself wanting to snap my fingers and get my class to be independent, I know these early moments are precious. The work we do now will set the tone for the rest of the year. Going slow now will truly allow us to go fast (and become stronger).

In general, kids want to be independent. It feels good to be able to do something on our own and it’s frustrating when we can’t. When kids are showing us they are not independent with something, it’s showing us that they don’t know how to be.

So, in these first moments together, we’re not just teaching writers to be independent, we’re teaching them how to be independent.

1. Set Writers Up for Independence

If we walk through each phase of writing workshop, we can make sure kids have everything they need and know exactly what to do. Are there any times that they require our help?

In my class, a job my kids depend on me for is stapling. Since I haven’t taught kids how to use a stapler yet, I’m spending a lot of time adding additional pages to booklets for kids. This is something kids can do themselves, so I will be shifting that role this week.

Some questions to consider are:

  • Do kids have access to all writing tools?
  • Is there enough of each paper selection to last the day?
  • Are there plenty of pens and other writing materials?
  • Can kids make a book longer or shorter if they need to?
  • Do kids know what to do if they make a mistake and want to fix it?

2. Grow a Culture of Empowered Writers

When kids see us as the sole source of knowledge and power in the room, they will continue to come to us for support and permission.

Instead, we can grow a community where kids see themselves and other members as valuable resources. We can help kids identify as capable. They can make decisions and take risks in writing. They can celebrate the intrinsic rewards for doing so.

Here are some places to begin:

  • When writers ask for help, redirect their question to the community: “I wonder if anyone around you can help with that?” or “I wonder if there are any experts on _____ nearby?” or “I think ______ knows a lot about this, let’s check.”
  • Make “It’s your writing, you are in charge,” a phrase to use again and again in conferences and when kids ask permission to take risks in writing. Even when offering support with strategies, try to give some choices or ask the writer if they have another idea so that they have ownership. When writers are getting feedback from the class, we can say, “That’s important feedback. This is ____’s book. It’s the author’s decision to take our feedback and revise.”
  • Celebrate ourselves and the community. As they do when they need help, writers often come to us when they accomplish something, such as finishing a book or persisting at a goal. Rather than making this about our approval and validation, we can help kids grow self-talk to validate and celebrate themselves individually and as a community. We might respond to celebratory news with, “Wow! How do you feel about that? You might be saying to yourself, ‘I am proud of….’ You could share this news with your friends or even teach them about it.” When kids want to show us their work, we can say, “I bet the community would love to hear your new book. You could share it with your partner, your table, or we can find a special time to share it with the class.”

3. Turn Problems into Opportunities

We can see any problem or obstacle as an opportunity for growth (as we hope our kids will do!). When the same questions are being asked by many writers, they should become a focus for larger-group teaching.

After supporting one writer with a strategy for a problem, we can:

  • Highlight their work in a mid-workshop share.
  • Turn it into a table conference, or have the writer help you teach the strategy in more table conferences.
  • Have the writer support you with a mini-lesson the next day, telling a story about the strategy they used and trying it together with the class.

4. Give Tips, Not Answers

Rather than help writers, help writers help themselves. 

With any support we give, we can consider how the support will nudge the writer towards independence. This might mean using a strategy, self-talk, or a tool.

Here are some ways to respond when writers ask for help:

When writers say… We can say….
“How do you spell….?” “You’re not sure how to spell a word you want to write. That happens all the time to writers! I can show you some things writers try when writing a tricky word.”
“How do you draw a….?” “Drawing tricky pictures is an important job writers have. One thing writers can do is start with all of the shapes that make the picture. Let’s try that together.”
“What do I do when I’m done?” “There are so many things writers can do after finishing a book. Let’s make a list together to help you make your decision.”
“I don’t know how to write.” “Start with what you know!”
“I don’t know what to write.” “Sometimes writers get stuck with what to write. Can I give you some tips for coming up with ideas for when you are feeling stuck?”

If the challenge persists, the writer may benefit from having the strategy scaffolded in a series of small groups (interactive writing, shared writing, or guided practice with a strategy). Consider making a tool with the writer for when they are on their own.

From Dependent to Independent

Before getting to the writing itself, we can take this time to focus on writers. We can show writers how to be independent at helping themselves when they get stuck, when they are persisting through a challenge, when they are navigating the many decisions writers face. We can teach writers what to say to themselves in these moments, we can provide them with strategies and tools, we can grow a community of helpers and encouragers so that no writer ever feels alone. Soon enough, the swarm of writers will dwindle. Slowly, we will shift from being depended on to becoming a part of a community of writers.

More on Fostering Independence in Writing Workshop

Empowering Independence by Ruth Ayres

Personalizing charts to foster intention and independence, by Melanie Meehan