Anchor charts- the what, why and how

Think about your classroom. What do your walls say about the instruction that occurs in your classroom? What is valued? What is not? What is the current instructional focus (according to the walls)? If a student were stuck with a literacy problem, what assistance could they receive from the charts and posters on your walls (aka the ‘third’ teacher in the room?)

What are anchor charts?

Anchor charts are posters you create to help students remember the important aspects of a specific topic or concept you’ve explicitly taught. They are visual reminders that students can return to at any time and provide an avenue for ongoing support for students.

“Anchor charts hold kids’ and our thinking about a text, lesson, or strategy so that we can return to it to review what we have learned.” (Harvey and Goudvis, 2017)

Why use Anchor charts?

Anchor charts are essentially used to anchor the lesson’s learning in students’ memories so when they look at the chart, they can drag the mental anchor up in their mind, along with the minilesson that went with it. Eg. When a reader is stuck on the meaning of an unknown word in a text, they can refer to the anchor chart on the wall that reminds them of the minilesson they had on different strategies they can use to determine the meaning of unknown words. They recall the lesson(s) they did on this, as well as the strategies they practiced. They can then test the strategies on the unknown word and carry on with their reading independently.

One of the beauties of the anchor chart is, students can continue to refer to the chart until the strategies become internalised for them and the visual reminder is no longer needed. Used well, anchor charts help move students towards independence and build agency along the way. Students can take control of their learning by using the supports around the room to help them overcome issues and challenges. (This is much more efficient, effective and sustainable than having students constantly asking the teacher to remind them.)

Tips on how to use anchor charts

Anchor charts provide terrific bang for buck in the classroom in that they are a super cheap, yet effective instructional tool. Here are some tips for getting the most value out of them:

Tip #1: Anchor charts must be created WITH the students.

The purpose of the anchor chart is to anchor the lesson’s learning with a visual reminder. We want students to be able to recall what was said and done in the lesson to help them employ the strategy / idea presented. It is much easier for them to do this if they were a part of the construction of the anchor chart in the first place. (Note: Sometimes you can add the name of the student who contributed certain ideas to the anchor chart as an extra engagement device. Imagine how likely a student is to return to a chart they have their own ideas and name on!).

“A chart does not just appear; it is born through the hard work of both teachers and students, and that gives it life in the classroom.” (Martinelli and Mraz, 2012)


Tip #2: Anchor charts don’t need to be instagrammable- they need to be insta-retrievable!

With the proliferation of social media, and the new insta-worthy world, I worry that we’ve become distracted from the main idea with anchor charts. In classrooms today, there appears to be a huge temptation to print off pretty, pre-made, themed anchor charts from sites such as TpT and Pinterest. Don’t. Even if you’re worried that your charts aren’t as visually appealing as the online version, there are several reasons you should resist this temptation:

  • It goes against the whole purpose of the chart- reminding students of the lesson they were part of when it was constructed.
  • It sends the wrong message to your writers and producers: if you create a chart with your students only to print off a nicer version from the internet to display on the walls, what message / modelling are you providing for those students in your class who won’t write because it won’t be neat or spelled correctly or look perfect?
  • The students will have no emotional connection to the printed version as it won’t necessarily contain the words or thoughts they contributed to the class discussion in the first place (and, it is this discussion we often want them to recall when they are stuck).
  • It is a lost opportunity for you to model your life as a writer if you print a chart instead of handwriting one in front of your students. Students need to see your struggles and worries as a writer and producer and they need to see how you overcome these. Worries such as will this be neat enough? Will it look good? How can I make it have the most visual appeal? What if it isn’t as good as everyone else’s? (These will inevitably be the exact struggles and worries your students have themselves!) When else do we model this real and authentic struggle OR show students how to overcome it?

To overcome any worries about anchor chart design, you can do a quick anchor chart google search before your lesson. This can give you different possibilities for anchor charts designs related to your topic. (I usually flick through a few until I find one that looks ‘achievable’ for me.)

A quick google images search for “word meaning solving strategies anchor chart” for example, provides these examples that can now act as mentors for my own chart:

Another resource to help build your skills in the area of anchor chart design is the book “Smarter Charts K-2” by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz. Even though this book says K-2 it is useful for all teachers.

Tip #3: Anchor charts should NOT be laminated

Yes, you read that correctly. Step away from the laminator! Anchor charts are not works of art to be displayed, untouched, in a gallery; they are organic tracks of our learning, which is constantly growing and changing and might need to be modified or updated as time goes on. Laminating an anchor chart makes it final and makes it impossible to add to or even change later. (Not to mention the fact that it adds unnecessarily to a teacher’s already overcrowded ‘to do’ list.) The final reason they shouldn’t be laminated relates to the next point about viewability. Sometimes, laminating anchor charts makes them shiny which can negatively impact their readability.

Tip #4: Anchor charts need to be easily viewable

I know this one seems obvious, but it isn’t always. I highly recommend putting yourself in the shoes of your students by physically sitting in different places around your room and learning what your students can and can’t see. Which anchor charts do you need them to see from their seats? (eg. word solving strategies) and which ones don’t need to be seen from across the classroom (eg. how we put books back in the class library). Thinking about this will help you determine the size and look of the chart you are about to make (i.e should you use butcher’s paper, A3 or A4? Can you really ever write in yellow texta? etc).

Tip #5: You have to train students to refer to your anchor charts

There’s a saying that anchor charts become wallpaper unless they’re used regularly. It’s true. Unless we, as teachers, refer to the anchor charts on our walls during our literacy lessons, our students won’t refer to them either. The anchor charts on our walls need to become the ‘third teacher’ in our rooms. Make that teacher work as hard as you do! During a modelled reading session for example, you could approach a word you don’t understand and ask “what strategies did we put on our anchor chart for unlocking the meaning of unknown words? I think I’ll try some on this word…” We need to remind students that the anchor chart exists in the first place, as well as model how and when to use it. We can’t expect them to know how to use these supports without providing the scaffolding an modeling.

Tip#6: You can have too much of a good thing

We don’t want to turn our classroom walls into a postered mess. Even though they are organic and hand drawn, anchor charts should still be well organised (both on the chart and within the room). You need to work when charts are ready to be retired to make way for new learning as well as work out which lessons even need anchor charts in the first place. There is such thing as excessanchorchartitis (well, there is now). A good way to decide whether you need an anchor chart is to think about questions you repeatedly get from students or think about common experiences you notice. For example: ‘Lots of students seem to be using sounding out as the only strategy when spelling, maybe I need to do a lesson on other strategies and create an anchor chart to help remind students of other useful strategies.’

There you have it- the what, why and how of anchor charts. I challenge you to go into your classroom this week and check what the third teacher in your room is telling your students. How are they helping? Which anchor chart tip resonated for you? Tell us about it in the comments below OR join in the conversation at the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group– we would love to see your anchor chart photos and hear about your experiences.


Finally, if you have a moment, please fill out this Oz Lit Teacher Conference survey to provide your thoughts on the first ever Oz Lit Teacher conference (happening later this year). What would you like the conference to focus on? What help do you need? Let us know!

References:

  • Harvey, S. and Goudvis, A. (2017). Strategies that work. 3rd ed. Portland: Stenhouse, p.74.
  • Martinelli, M. and Mraz, K. (2012). Smarter charts, K-2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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3 thoughts on “Anchor charts- the what, why and how”

  1. A great read Narissa. I love the reminders to be the 3rd teacher in the room, non-laminated and not instagramable.
    Continue the great work you do. As I retired teacher I love reading your posts and often wish I was still working.

    Reply

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