agency · Amping up Agency Blog Series · conferring · reflections · reflective practice · sharing · small group

The Language to Develop Agency: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

In 2004, I was a first-year teacher when I first read Peter H. Johnston’s book, Choice Words. In it, Johnston asserts:

Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things.

(Johnston, 2004, 29)

I am fortunate to have found his book when I did since it helped me understand that if I wanted my students to work harder, then they’d need to feel competent, engaged, and powerful about their abilities as learners. Research shows that kids are more successful when praised for working hard rather than being told they’re smart.

The writing workshop offers multiple points to build students’ agency. Minilessons are a natural place to do this with the entire class. Some students develop agency more effectively in small groups and one-to-one writing conferences since we tailor our language to them. Personalized messages positively impact a child’s ability to imagine new possibilities.

Below, I outline phrases teachers can use with students to build agency intentionally, many inspired by the fourth chapter of Choice Words.  


This is my favorite time to increase agency since we’re sitting alongside a child, having a writer-to-writer conversation. Here are some phrases to employ to help a young writer build agency.

Four Questions to Build Agency While Conferring with Students


Small group work and the end of workshop reflection/share time build agency since students can process their thinking about their writing with the teacher and their peers. Here are some essential phrases you can use to help build agency:

Two Questions to Build Agency While Leading Small Groups and Two Questions to Build Agency During Share/Reflection Time

You may download both of these images as a PDF (below).

Additional Resources

There is a lot of other language that can be used to cultivate students’ agency. In “I’m the Kind of Kid Who…” Invitations That Support Learner Identity and Agency, Debbie Miller and Emily Callahan offer this to readers:

From “I’m the Kind of Kid Who…” by Debbie Miller and Emily Callahan. Copyright © 2022 by Debbie Miller and Emily Callahan. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Reprinted by permission of the Publisher.

Read an excerpt from Miller and Callahan’s book about the intentional use of language, which you may download below. 

Check out Responsive Classroom’s articles on teacher language if you’re looking for more support on using language that increases student agency – or you just want to work on your language in general.

We’ve written about the power of language on the TWTBlog for years. Here are a few of those pieces:

It takes time and reflection to implement language changes. If you’re looking to infuse your teacher talk with language that nourishes students’ agency, try adding just one new phrase a week to your vocabulary. As you do, you’ll find yourself making these phrases your own so that you’ll utilize them for school years to come.

Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments! 

Engaging Literate Minds Book Cover
  • This giveaway is for a copy of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K–3 by Peter H. Johnston, Kathy Champeau, Andrea Hartwig, Sarah Helmer, Merry Komar, Tara Krueger, and Laurie McCarthy. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Engaging Literate Minds, please comment on any of our blog series posts by Noon EST on Sunday, February 12. Leah Koch will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Monday, February 13. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Leah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the book winner, Leah will email you the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMPING UP AGENCY BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

8 thoughts on “The Language to Develop Agency: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

  1. I have read and re-read Choice Words throughout my teaching career (25+ years), and now through the lens of my current position of literacy coach. Thank you for the PDF format to share with teachers in my district. What a great thing to share and work with at our PLC’s!


    1. It’s a fantastic book to reread!
      Leah Koch was the person who suggested I make it available as a PDF. (Originally, I was only sharing PNGs.) So glad it will be useful to you and your teachers.


  2. The resources you shared will support me as I become more intentional with my language choices when conferring with students individually and working with them in small groups. Thank you for this information. I am looking forward to the rest of this series.


  3. How do you at TWT always know just what I need to read?! We have a literacy consultant visiting our school this week, so I am thinking about writing extra anyway and these tips are just what I need!


  4. It always pays off to reflect on my language. I really like the question: “Can you imagine yourself doing this? What would you do first?” Not only does it develop a sense of choice and agency, it also has the child considering the steps involved in that choice. Thanks for so many great phrases to add to my repertoire!


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