What are anchor charts?

Anchor Charts- The What, Why And How

Feb 09, 2020

Anchor charts are often referred to as the 'third teacher' in a classroom (the second teacher being the students themselves). So how hard is your third teacher working? How effective are they?

Think about your classroom (current or previous):

  • What do your walls say about the instruction that occurs in your classroom?
  • What's valued? What's not valued?
  • What's the current instructional focus (according to the walls)?
  • If a student were stuck with a literacy problem in your classroom, what assistance could they receive from the third teacher in your room?

In this post I'll exploring all things anchor charts- what they are, why you should use them and some tips for using them effectively.


What are anchor charts?

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

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)

What are anchor charts for reading?


Why use Anchor charts?

Anchor charts are 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 that reminds them of the minilesson they had on different strategies they can use to determine the meaning of unknown words. (See example below). The student can recall the lesson(s) they did on this, as well as any strategies they may have practiced. They can then apply this reminder to the current word and carry on with reading independently.

 What is an anchor chart?

Sample vocabulary anchor charts created after a series of lessons on determining the meaning of unknown words when reading.


One of the beauties of anchor chart is that students can continue to refer to them until the strategies they highlight become internalised 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 seeking assistance from the 'third teacher' to help them overcome issues and challenges. This is much more efficient, effective and sustainable than having students constantly asking you to remind them of every minilesson they've had!


Tips on how best to use anchor charts

Anchor charts provide terrific bang for buck in the classroom in that they're a cheap, yet effective instructional tool. Here are 6 tips for getting the most value out of them:


1. Anchor charts must be created WITH your students

The purpose of the anchor chart is to anchor the lesson’s learning with a visual reminder. You want your students to be able to recall what you said and did in your minilesson to help them employ the strategy / idea at a later date.

It's much easier for your students to do this if they took an active part in constructing the anchor chart in the first place.

Idea: Sometimes teachers add the name of the student who contributed certain ideas to the anchor chart as an extra engagement device. Imagine how likely a student would be 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).


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.

Please 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 the temptation to print pre-prepared anchor charts:

  • 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: 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 minilesson (and, it's often this discussion that we want them to recall when they're stuck).
  • It's 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 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 they're writing!) When else do we model this real and authentic struggle OR show students how to overcome it?

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

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's useful for all primary teachers.


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're organic records of our learning, which are constantly growing and changing and might need to be modified or updated as time goes on.

Laminating anchor charts makes them final and makes it impossible to add to or change later on. (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.


4. Anchor charts need to be easily viewable

I know this one seems obvious, but it needs to be said:

Your students need to be able to see the anchor charts you have displayed in your room.

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 answer questions such as:

  • How big does this anchor chart need to be?
  • Should I use butcher’s paper, A3 or A4?
  • What colour paper would be suitable for this?
  • Should I use yellow texta to write this? (The answer to this question is ALWAYS no!)

  How to make anchor charts

This anchor charts is uncluttered and easy to read. It covers the major points from the explicit teaching part of the lesson. 


5. You have to train your students to refer to your anchor charts

Warning: Anchor charts become useless wallpaper if they're not used regularly.

Unless you, as the teacher, regularly model how you refer to your classroom's anchor charts in your minilessons, it's unlikely your students will refer to them throughout their day. 

Remember: your anchor charts are your third teacher, so make them work as hard as you do!

During a modelled writing session, for example, you could demonstrate to your students how you refer to the ideas anchor chart to help you overcome your writer's block:

"Hmmmm... I'm struggling to get started with my writing today. I think I'll have a look at that anchor chart we made about where writers get their ideas to see if that can spark some thinking for me. Let me read through the tips on there again..."

by doing this, you're reminding your students that:

  1. such an anchor chart exists in your room
  2. there's a specific place on the wall they can locate this chart
  3. they can use anchor charts to independently overcome a problem they're facing with their own learning.

You can't expect your students to know how to make the most of this classroom tool if your not modeling how you make the most of them yourself.


Tip 6. You can have too much of a good thing

Caution: You don’t want to turn your classroom walls into a postered mess.

Even though they're 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's 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. If you notice that lots of your students need reminding about different words they can use to link their sentences in writing, for example, it would make sense to co-construct an anchor chart of these. 


Final words

Anchor charts can be a powerful tool in the classroom, but there are a few tricks to exploiting their fullest potential.  

I challenge you to go into your classroom this week and critically evaluate your third teacher's effectiveness. Make them work hard for you!

Which anchor chart tip resonated for you? Join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.


Related Blog Posts:


  • 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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