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February 11, 2013 Student Independence and the Power of Prompting By Julie Ballew
Grades PreK–K, 1–2

    Last fall, kindergarten teachers in my building gave every student a reader’s notebook. Since then, they have been showing these young students how to respond to their reading in meaningful ways, and we’ve all been impressed with how much thinking they have to share. For the most part, entries have been modeled by the teacher and completed as a class, just like I wrote about in October. Just before the winter break, however, many of the teachers began pushing for independence by encouraging students to take the notebooks with them to literacy stations.


    The Pros and Cons of Pushing Toward Independence

    The biggest benefit of pushing for student independence in readers’ notebooks is (not surprisingly) the growing independence. This may seem silly, but I know I’m guilty of holding on to control in the classroom so long that I forget how much more I am able to juggle when students are independent. Independence doesn’t happen over night — we have to release control and let students build toward it.  If you’ve spent any length of time around 5-year-olds, allow me to take a guess at what you might be thinking.

    • “They won’t know what page to write on. Finding the next clean page takes a miracle!”
    • “They always have the notebook upside down or backwards!”
    • “They’ll just scribble a tiny bit on five different pages!”
    • “They somehow manage to tear the pages out, no matter how careful I tell them to be!”

    To all of those concerns, I offer a simple response: Yes. You’re right. I know. And I understand.

    But we’d never expect someone to learn how to swim independently without a few scary jumps off the diving board, and we know that learning to ride a bike requires at least one skinned knee. To become independent at anything, students need opportunities to practice and permission to mess up. Their reader’s notebooks are no different.

    What to Expect

    Bianca Zelenski is a kindergarten teacher at my school, and she also shared her hesitation about releasing the notebooks to independent literacy station time. She was concerned that they wouldn’t produce quality work if they were left to their own devices. I didn’t dismiss this concern, but I encouraged her to try it anyway. She did, and she saw a wide range of quality in the responses. The students were responding to the prompt cards from this post.  In a review of her students’ notebooks, this is what she saw.

    Student Notebook Entry  Student Notebook Entry  Student Notebook Entry

    There are several strengths in these responses. Students were clearly building a habit of drawing before writing. You can see how they drew the character (or approximated it, anyway), and in the entry on the right, the student has written a sentence about his favorite part of the story.

    The Power of Prompting

    Mrs. Zelenski wasn’t feeling content with the quality of these entries, so I met with some of her students to investigate the work they were doing. She selected two boys who are reading on a similar level, but their writing is vastly different. (Both students’ notebook entries are pictured above. One student was not writing many words at all, and the other typically attempted at least one sentence.)

    I know that the simplest way to get students to do something is to prompt them for it. (This is how we got the prompt cards in the first place!) I asked the two boys to choose a book from their book box and a prompt card. This is exactly what they do in the buddy reading station. I prompted them to talk about their idea before writing, and what I saw completely blew me away! Both boys drew a picture, and then they wrote without hesitation. The writing was clear, concise, and matched the prompt card. This was all without any additional help from me!


    Student One

    Student Notebook Entry     Student Notebook Entry


    Student Two

    Student Notebook Entry     Student Notebook Entry

    Mrs. Zelenski was impressed with the change as well, and she mentioned that she wanted to start pushing into the literacy stations to prompt students. She is giving them opportunities to practice independence, opportunities to be messy, and guidance to get better. This will undoubtedly lead to high-quality work in these kindergarten reading notebooks.

    How do you foster independence with your students?  Leave a comment below!


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