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Tools and Resources That Support Student Agency in the Kindergarten Writing Workshop: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

The kindergarten year is a unique time for young children in terms of growing as independent humans. At five or six years old, kindergarteners develop their identities and start doing many more things for themselves. Kindergarteners love to show that they are “big kids.” They can open snacks, set out materials, zip up jackets, perform classroom jobs, walk in the hallway without a teacher, and lead classroom routines. But they also seek teacher support for all sorts of things from tying their shoes and putting on a bandaid, to solving conflicts with friends and reading tricky words. Despite their burgeoning “I can do it all by myself” attitude, many children at this age still (secretly) enjoy having plenty of things done for them!

Just as children have increased agency over their bodies, belongings, and abilities, teachers are constantly striving to find ways to help their students become more independent in all aspects of their day. We want them to do things by and for themselves as much as possible. We think carefully about the organization of the physical classroom space, we problem-solve the logistics of smooth transitions and routines, and we strategize about the placement of resources and materials so that they are accessible and straightforward for kids.

In this post, I will share ideas for classroom tools and resources that make the kindergarten writing workshop a more independent time for students and allow them to develop as much agency over their work as possible. I will discuss alphabet charts, word walls, sound walls, paper choices and organization systems for keeping written work that is finished or still in progress.

Alphabet Charts

As I learned from my recent interview with my kindergarten class, sounding out and spelling words is something that many of my students think of when they describe what makes writing hard for them. Some kindergarteners have very strong letter-sound automaticity, but not all do–and some kindergarteners only know a small handful of letters and sounds when they begin school. Giving students access to a user-friendly alphabet chart is a simple way that teachers can help their students build agency as they write and be less dependent on a teacher for support in terms of letter formation and letter sounds. It is vital to use the same alphabet chart that you use in your phonics instruction to keep the picture cues and layout consistent. It is also important to intentionally teach and model how to use the alphabet chart so that children know how to find the letter and/or sound they need. Try to keep the alphabet charts where students can easily access them by themselves.

This alphabet chart and the vowel chart below are from the Teachers College Units of Study in Phonics, Grade K curriculum.

Further, vowel sounds are particularly challenging and can be easily confused with one another. Some students benefit from a more targeted chart that only has vowels so that they can practice making the vowel sounds they need without the distraction of the consonant letters.

Here is a child using the vowel chart to figure out which vowel makes the medial sound /e/ in the word “get.”

Word Walls

Just as children need predictable access to letters and sounds, they also benefit from having sight words or high frequency words on a word wall that they can see and reach from most parts of the classroom. If space allows, keep the word wall at eye level and make the words large enough so kids can actually read them. Some children benefit from also having access to these tools directly at their tables or tucked inside their writing folders so that they can take them out as needed. For these writers, having empty spaces on their word wall to personalize them with words that they use a lot can be a powerful tool to build ownership and agency because it puts them in charge of their own resources. They must determine which frequently used words are important to them, such as the names of people in their family or words with tricky spelling patterns such as, “because.” Whether using a personalized word wall or the larger classroom version, children should be familiar with how the word wall is organized and how to find the words they need.

This word wall is magnetic and at eye level so my students can easily take the words off as needed. It also incorporates student-created pictures to represent the sound each letter makes.

Many sight words and high frequency words can also be spelled phonetically. For example, if a student wants to spell the word, “it,” the first step would be to have them sound it out. In this case, the word wall can be used to “check” the spelling after the student has attempted it themselves. In other cases, such as in the word “the,” the word cannot be spelled phonetically. It is helpful if children can remove entire words and take them to their table. Below you can see a student in my class going up to the word wall to find the word, “the.” He brings the card back to his table so he can use it in his writing and return it when he is finished. Having children come up to the word wall to find the words they need also helps those kinesthetic learners who benefit from getting up and moving around–but with purpose and agency!

Watch as my student goes up to the word wall to find the word he needs for his writing.

Sound Walls

Sound walls are a hot topic and something that every early elementary teacher should consider in their classroom. They are a way of organizing words according to their initial, medial, or final phonemes or sounds, rather than by their first letter(s) as is the case with traditional word walls. For example, the word “know” begins with the letter “k” but starts with the sound /n./ On a sound wall, this word would appear with the other words that start with the /n/ sound instead of with the words that begin with the letter “k.” Sound walls typically include mouth articulation picture cards so students can see the way the mouth moves to make a particular sound or phoneme. Also, unlike a word wall which is organized alphabetically, sound walls usually separate consonants and vowels. For more information on how to set up, organize, and use sound walls, check out the article from called Using Sound Walls in Early Elementary Classrooms by Justine Bruyère and Danielle Rusk-Carter.

Paper Choices

Giving students a choice of paper is an excellent way for teachers to bring awareness to the purposes of their writing. Once students can decide what to write and begin to understand why they are writing it, they can also select “just right” paper that matches their particular needs. As Beth Moore, a Two Writing Teachers Co-Author, has suggested in a previous blog post, writing paper choices need to be taught explicitly. It’s also important to have clear expectations for where writing paper choices will be kept, and how students should access them when needed. This can be in a permanent “writing center” or in baskets or bins that are dedicated to housing particular kinds of paper. By giving students agency in their choice of paper, it helps them to develop their ability to self-monitor and to recognize that the power is within them to make decisions about what kind of paper would best match the kind of writing they want to do.

Something else that I’ve started to do in Kindergarten is to give kids “extension paper,” or extra lines that they can get for themselves and add to their page when they need to write more. It is a very concrete way for children to recognize that they have more to say on a given page, and make the decision to keep going by physically lengthening the page to fit their ideas. My students love the freedom of getting up to choose what they need after they discover they have more to write before turning the page. Here you can see one of my students going to get a piece of extension paper as she writes her book, “How to Make Butterfly Wings.”

Watch as my students gets a piece of “extension paper” to tape onto her existing page.

Organizational Systems

Let’s face it–teachers have enough to keep track of and way too many papers to file away and organize. I know that the pile on my desk is bottomless. It is essential for everyone’s sanity and sense of order that teachers give their students a clear system in which to organize and keep their writing from one session to the next. One of the simplest tools for this purpose is a writing folder. The folder can have two sides: on one side is where the student places their “finished work,” and on the other side is where they place their “unfinished work.” Using color coded stickers such as green for “go” and red for “stop” is a simple way to ensure that children know where to put their writing at the end of any given lesson. A child must think, “Is this piece finished?” or “Am I still working on it?” thereby furthering their sense of purpose and agency as the person who decides when to continue working on something and when it’s time to move on to the next piece.

This folder is an example of an organizational system you can use to give your students more agency over their written work. The left side is for finished work while the right side is for work in progress.

Children need predictability and consistency in their day. They also need opportunities to work through bumps in the road and use the tools and resources teachers so carefully lay out to move past, over, or through them. This helps kids to take as much ownership as possible over their own learning. Writing tools and resources including alphabet charts, word walls, sound walls, paper choices, and organizational systems are designed to empower children so that they are less reliant on the teacher for every little thing that comes up and better able to problem-solve when problems arise.

If you use other writing tools or resources that are not mentioned here, please share about them in the comments!

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

  • 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.

2 thoughts on “Tools and Resources That Support Student Agency in the Kindergarten Writing Workshop: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

  1. This is a great list of resources to include. The sound wall has been very helpful in many of our classrooms this year. Allowing a child to have sound tiles accessible would also be a great tool. This gives a tactile way of decoding words to think through those tricky parts. At this stage so many are tactile and concrete.


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