charts · Maximizing Writing Time Blog Series · scaffolding charts · strategy charts · writing workshop

Making the Most Out of Charts: Maximizing Writing Time

A few weeks ago I ventured into my local bookstore to find a gift for my mother-in-law. She does calligraphy, and I was searching for something along those lines for her. As I roamed the aisle of paper goods and fancy pens, a familiar feeling passed over me. I love art supplies. A fresh set of pens, a new notebook… what could be better? By the time I left the store, I couldn’t wait to get home to try my new set of pens (and wrap the gift I found for my mother-in-law).

In the classroom, we often forget how the materials we offer kids can provide inspiration to try new things. Fresh pens, nice paper, new notebooks–these things can go a long way. Attractive and helpful charts as visual supports in the classroom can also fill kids with the same feeling as the paper goods at the bookstore.

From time to time, I have interviewed kids and collected data on which kinds of charts they find most helpful. You might want to try this as well. Each kid gets a stack of three sticky notes and numbers them 1, 2, 3. They then use the sticky notes to rank their top three favorite charts in the classroom. When I first started doing this, the results surprised me. I thought they would choose the charts that had the best pictures on them, or the most recent charts. But no! Students often (almost always) choose two kinds of charts: 1) rubrics or checklists, and 2) examples of writing or mentor texts. 

Many students appreciate the clarity that a checklist provides. This checklist is based on the structure section of the TCRWP 3rd Grade Information Writing Checklist.

This makes sense when you think about it. Both of these kinds of charts explicitly lay out the expectations for student work. Who wouldn’t want to know what was expected? The examples of writing: student writing, teacher writing, class shared writing, or published mentor texts, in particular, are not only explicitly clear about what kids are working on, they also tend to be inspiring–the kind of material that one can look at and think, I want to try that too! 

This mentor text was first introduced as a read-aloud, then revisited to mine it for the author’s craft.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your charts that display rubrics, checklists, and mentor texts.

  1. Consider Using Color

Color can be used to make your charts easier to understand and more useful to your students. In some classrooms, teachers color-code the charts by subject area. For example, all the writing charts are in green, and all the reading charts are blue. For many students, having all the writing charts in one area, and in all the same color is really helpful.

Another way color can be useful is as a way to organize the items on a checklist or rubric, as you can see here. Each item on the checklist is in a different color, making it easy to visually see each item. It also makes for handy reference while you are conferring with students – with the chart hanging on the wall, you can direct student attention easily by using the color: “Do you see the red part of the chart?” 

The key is that the use of color is helpful and purposeful–not just to look pretty.

Color can be a handy tool for referring items from a distance. “Take a look at the green part of the chart.” This chart is based on the elaboration section of the TCRWP 3rd Grade Information Writing Checklist.
  1. Picture Clues

If your charts are too text-heavy, they won’t be very useful to your students. They should be at-a-glance references/reminders, not a text that takes the entire workshop to read through!

When it comes to rubrics and checklists, though, sometimes it feels like there isn’t a way around having a lot of text – especially if you want the checklist displayed on the wall to match the checklist you’ll use for assessment. Picture clues can allow you to have the best of both worlds – all the text you need, but also pictures for quicker at-a-glance reference. 

You need not be concerned about your own ability to draw! Your students don’t need your picture clues to be cute or artistic – just memorable. A colleague once told me, “You could draw a purple squiggle next to something on the chart – as long as the kids know what the purple squiggle means that’s all that matters.” Kids relate to their teachers’ drawings much more than mass-produced clip art or copies.

Stick people make great picture support – invite kids to draw for you!
  1. Space Between Words

Consider leaving plenty of blank space between pictures and words, and space between individual words as well. A cluttered chart can be difficult for kids to navigate. Charts should reflect what you’ve taught or plan to teach, but need not be all-inclusive of every detail. Your entire lesson doesn’t go on the chart. Like one colleague of mine says, just a “nugget” of the lesson can go on the chart as a reminder of what was taught.

In the same vein, consider using simple block printing rather than fancy flourishes or decorative fonts. The purpose of a chart is for quick, easy reference to support students in remembering what you’ve taught – therefore an easy to read, easily accessible font makes sense. For more information on accessible fonts, you might want to click here to read Stacey’s post on the topic.

Charts don’t need to be fancy, just functional!
  1. One Thing At A Time–Charts That Grow

There might be times when it’s necessary to prepare an entire chart ahead of time, but I’ve found that to be the exception. Generally, I prefer to create charts a little bit at a time, together with kids. This typically takes place throughout the writing workshop.  Sometimes, as the final part of my minilesson, I’ll add a bit to our checklist. Other times, I’ll do this work during the share/closing at the end of the workshop. Occasionally, I’ll add to a chart in the middle of the writing workshop, as a part of a mid-workshop interruption. I’ll often invite students to draw or write for me (with a bit of coaching from me), so that kids own the charts as much as I do–and so that the chart is more memorable.

Sometimes I’ll prepare some of the text or a picture ahead of time, and then tape or glue it onto the chart when the moment is right – this save a bit of time so that students don’t get antsy or fidgety while I take my time drawing and writing on the chart. Occasionally, if I do prepare an entire chart ahead of time, I’ll cover up most of it, then uncover bits of it over time as pieces of the chart are introduced to students.

This means that at any given time, there will be unfinished charts on display. I might have a chart that lists ways to add detail, but it only has one strategy listed on it for now. I might have a chart that mirrors the students’ writing checklist, but only the structure part is revealed, with the rest to come later. 

  1. Digital Charts and Hard Copy Charts

Imagine you visited your local bookstore, only to find that they had replaced the physical books and gifts with a digital slideshow of all the things you could purchase. It would change the whole “vibe” of the bookstore, don’t you think? There is a difference in the environment when things are tangible versus digital. Not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different. Real, tangible charts around the room have the benefit of immersing your students in writing workshop content throughout the day, not just during writing workshop. When the charts appear only digitally, and only briefly, students don’t have the same opportunity to study the content of the chart at various moments throughout their day. Imagine you compared two classrooms, side-by-side, that were exactly alike in every way. Except one classroom had charts on display all day, and the other had bare walls and only used slides to project charts as needed. Which environment do you think might be more supportive for writers? It’s akin to classrooms with their own classroom libraries, filled with engaging books on display, versus classrooms with not a book in sight.

It can be challenging to find space to display hard copy charts. Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli’s book Smarter Charts and the accompanying blog Chartchums are full of ingenious ways of making space–from using the window shades and ceilings, to making smaller sized charts for each table using restaurant menu displays.

And last, but not least….

It helps to think of charts as temporary. The ultimate goal is that students use the charts as reminders for a period of time, but eventually the strategies and information “go underground.” Eventually, we aim for kids to internalize what’s been taught so they do it automatically. When students have outgrown a chart, it’s great to send it home with a student, and make a new chart the following year that is specific to the new group of kids.

Perhaps you’ll do a little research in your own classroom to find out which charts your students find most helpful. If you do, here’s a tool you might find useful to use with kids, or to simply self-assess and take inventory of the charts in your classroom.

Happy charting!


Giveaway Info: 

  • For a chance to win this copy of Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, January  28th at 11:59 a.m. EST. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce in a post recapping this blog series on January 30th. Eligible to be shipped to the USA and Canada.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MAXIMIZING WRITING TIME. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

6 thoughts on “Making the Most Out of Charts: Maximizing Writing Time

  1. My 3rd graders are starting informational writing. I Love the checklist on a chart. I have given my students charts for the writing notebooks but they often lose them.


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