checklists · conventions · graphic organizer · guided writing · writing workshop

Transitioning From Support to Independence

Writing about the intentional transition from support to independence is a topic I’ve written about often. Revisiting and reflecting on this idea never gets old. It’s always a fresh topic because each year brings new voices and learners into my life. Learners who challenge me to find new ways to build independence. The ideas shared by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983 have been cited many times for their widely understood beliefs on the gradual release of responsibility.

I find it is always challenging for writers to take skills on with full independence. I remind myself, and ask, “How do I get better at doing things by myself?” The answer is usually the same: practicing, failing, and trying again. This is not a new idea, by any means, but I find sometimes it’s difficult to let the first two things happen–practice and failure. We might ask kids to try something, but are they really practicing it? If they are just trying what we tell them to do again, in a similar or sometimes even the same way, how do we know they really understand? Is this perhaps why we don’t see the skills carrying over during independent opportunities? Are we merely building scaffolds and leaving them in place just with different expectations but not a different delivery?

I started to list some of the areas I find most challenging for writers to take on independently. Below I’ve shared three, a commonly used strategy, and then some thoughts on how to adjust our guidance so we can, in fact, move closer to independence.


Generating Ideas

Strategy: Make a List

When helping writers develop ways to generate ideas, we may often show them how to make lists, or give them a plan to make a list from. When you have writers who require this catalyst from you to get started, it can become frustrating. You may feel you’ve already taught students to gather ideas and yet they sit–idea-less. If list-making is a good strategy for a student–they usually make a list. However, it might not be the best trigger for words on the page for every writer, and different units engage writers in different ways, either stunting or flooding a writer with ideas.

Planning and prewriting can take so many forms. It could be a flash draft for Sarah because the whole story is already on the tip of her pen. It could be an oral rehearsal for Juan and Alex, writing partners who take turns talking and sharing what they might write about today. For Zane and Taylor, it could look like staring into space, but the prewriting phase is all in their head, and you can practically see the thinking cloud growing larger and larger. For me, it is usually reading, then listing that turns into an outline, that has a few spots with mini drafts falling into the cracks and spaces. What’s important for your writers is to find what gets the ideas to turn and fit together. Share multiple strategies with your writers until they find the ones that work best for them and their process.


Strategy: Use a Graphic Organizer

Graphic organizers come in all different shapes and sizes for multiple purposes. I think when we utilize a graphic organizer with a solid purpose in mind, it can work very well. However, what is meant to be a tool can sometimes turn into trouble. When students rely heavily on graphic organizers, developing their own best way to organize their writing can become challenging, feeling impossible. When we put a graphic organizer in a basket, or in the writing center materials, we give it a level of importance. Our intended message needs to be clear because all by itself, the graphic organizer can send a perceived idea, “You can’t do this without me, just fill in the blanks.” Models and structures can be imperative as steps along the way but gradually pulling bits and pieces of that structure away is equally essential. I have even gone as far as giving students an organizer to copy or trace, so there is some element of ownership to the organization. It is a baby step, but for a student who has already become dependent on these formed structures, it is the beginning of self-determined organization.


Strategy: Use a Checklist

I have used many different checklists over the years. When I first began using checklists, they were from books I had read or copied from a curriculum binder. I started to realize what students thought checklists were, a series of boxes to check! I’ve made a lot of adjustments to my checklists and my usage of such tools. I find the most successful checklists are often made by the writer. It might start with a generic-one-size fits all list, but from there, the writer and I determine what might be worth checking every time. It’s usually two or three things. I make a mini checklist modeled on a sticky note, not to be used, just as a reference. Each day writers create their own on their personal sticky notes. Eventually, the one I made loses its stick and falls away like scaffolds should. The checklist has value when the writer engages in the process of what it’s asking and engages in a conversation like this, “Mrs. Hubbard, I changed checking capitals on my list to checking capitals in names since I keep forgetting that one.”

It comes down to this, scaffolds have to come down, or they get a new name. Walls. Permanence can really get in the way so take a moment to decide what’s taking hold and what needs a tweak. Reflection in December is always a good use of time, and I’d like to challenge you to find your top three areas for troubleshooting. Put them in the comments, and next week, I’ll pick a commenter for a 20-minute Google Hangout session (or email conversation if that is preferred) to talk shop. Let’s have a conversation about ways we can truly build independent writers because that’s the goal.

Giveaway information:

Jennifer and Lynn are both winners!

This giveaway is for a 20-minute Google Hangout (or email) conversation with me, Betsy to talk about potential ideas to help build independence with your writers when the new year comes around! I will use a random number generator to choose the winning commenter and send you an email with the subject line: Two Writing Teachers-Independence Giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to set up our chat. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)

2 thoughts on “Transitioning From Support to Independence

  1. Thank you for this post. It comes at a perfect time for me right now! As a literacy coach, I’m able to visit many K-5 classrooms during reading and writing workshop times and I’m often surprised at how dependent on the teacher or paraprofessional the students are in some classrooms. I’m revisiting building independence with the teachers and paraprofessionals in K-2 classrooms and have started with the following top three areas to work on with them. 1) Revisiting the writing center and your mini lessons around the management of writing supplies. I have seen many teachers handing out single sheets of writing paper, students sharpening pencils over and over instead of writing, etc. 2) Using mentor texts independently. I’d like to see more students easily locating and studying mentor texts to help them in their own writing. 3) More student talk during the writing conference. I’m hoping to see our students taking a more active role in the writing conference in all grades (K-5).


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