Teachers Cannot Teach Independence

In Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (2016), Marie Clay writes that teachers do not need to know how to teach students independence and that we in fact cannot teach a child independence (p. 41). Instead, through less teacher talk, more observing, and careful book selections we can set students up for independently initiating their own monitoring, self-correcting, searching, confirming, and discovering. Keep on reading for more of my thoughts on how we can construct, with students, lessons that lead to readers and writers who work with independence.

Let the child do the work

Clay reminds us that we should not do for the child what the child can do for himself.  Our careful observations come into play here.  When you see your student do something helpful call their attention to it, make a big deal about, and let them know that you expect them to do that all of the time. From the first lessons, we have to help students use what they know in a productive manner. Sometimes students have a lot of item knowledge but they have not learned how to orchestrate it yet.

For example, one of my first round students new many letters and sounds, but he didn’t know how to utilize that knowledge when he was reading and writing. When searching visual information during reading, I had to explicitly direct his eyes to where they should look and show him how he could make his mouth start the first sound. During writing, I had to model saying words slowly and show him how when he heard that sound that he knew he would then record the letter that goes with that sound on to his paper.

Give the child control

Providing opportunities for the child to be independent means that we allow the child to have control over their learning.  In order to provide more control over the learning we have to hold back on any unnecessary prompting or interruption of reading. If we find ourselves talking on every page of the book or on many pages we might want to look closely at our text selection.

Like many teachers, I struggle with not jumping into the rescue too quickly. I have learned to be more comfortable with a student’s discomfort while grappling with something difficult.

I think about my own learning journey. Over the last year I have been learning Korean. I remember that feeling of accomplishment when I learned the Korean alphabet (Hangul) and was able to read my first words. Granted I didn’t know what I was reading yet, but my success made me want to keep on learning. It is the same for our students. When we provide our students with opportunities to be successesful they will be encouraged to keep trying even when they encounter something difficult.

Limit the new learning

The text should be well within the child’s control with only 1-2 pieces of new learning. If we teach too much during a lesson we will most likely have a confused student instead of a student on his way to independence. As we look over our running records and lesson records while planning for the next lesson, it is helpful to think about what new learning would be most beneficial to the student at this point and what can we let go. Looking at a student’s partially correct responses can help us to choose the next bit of learning that would lift this child’s understanding of the reading and writing process.

I know I am teaching/talking too much when I see that my lesson record notes, in the new book section, are virtually empty. I have to ask myself:

  • Am I picking the right books for this student?
  • Am I letting the student do the work?

Expect intiation, linking, and problem solving

We have to let our students know from the very beginning that they are in charge of their own learning. Our students need to know that we want them to take initiative, make links to what they already know, and work out hard parts on their own. Here are a few ways that I give my students control throughout their daily lessons.

Familiar Books

Before my student comes into the room I have several books out to choose from for their familiar reads. These books are familiar so the student should have much control over his reading. There is still work to be done in these books and they have been chosen with particular teaching points in mind. When my student comes to the table they know that they are expected to pick out a couple of books and start reading right away.  I keep the talking very brief during this time because it is a great time to build reading volume and too much talk will take away from time spent reading.

Running Record

When you hand the book to the child while only saying the title of the story you are conveying the message that you expect the child to give the book a try on their own. You are also sending the message that the student is fully capable of completing this task. The running record gives us so much information about what the child is able to do with independence. We can check:

  • Is the student initiating problem-solving or appealing at unknown?
  • Is the student persevering or giving up?
  • Does the student reread to check and confirm or does she look to you?

Letter/Word Work

If we clearly lay out the expectations and procedures at the board students will be able to quickly go up and sort letters.  Explicit modeling of word work helps students to know how to attend to your demonstrations and then take the task over for themselves.


We can allow our student to get started with their writing all on their own. From the earliest lessons, we have to show students that even if the word is “hard” they need to think about how they can try it.  We cannot allow our students to ask us, “How do you write_______?”  or to say, “I don’t know how to write_________.”  We have to teach them what they can do to write words they don’t know and then expect them to do it. In early lessons, students may need a lot of support with creating their sentence. After these earliest lessons, we can provide students with the freedom to generate more and more of the sentence on their own.

Cut-up Sentence

Once we have provided the procedure for assembling the cut-up expect the student to put together their sentence and do their own rereading, checking, monitoring and self-correcting.

New Book

We cannot teach everything in the new book. We have to think about what the child needs right now that will best lift his literacy processing. I am going to say it again…we have to talk less, epecially during the reading. It is difficult for a child to make meaning or sound fluent if we interrupt their reading every few words/sentences. Also, think about the message you are sending if you are constantly interrupting. The child will get the sense that they cannot read new books without your help.

We have to think about what would be “just right” instruction for this particular student. Does this student need a more supportive introduction or is it time to provide a minimum introduction?

A book introduction in itself models for students how readers can orient themselves to a book before they start to read it. Later in lessons, we want to see our students take on more of the book orienting for themselves because this is what they will need to do back in their classroom when they self-select texts to read on their own.

In summary

Many of the students that we work with come to us as passive learners who do not feel very successful. They often do not initiate work or problem-solving because they have come to expect failure. We need to intentionally think about all of the ways we can provide our students with choice and control (no matter how small it may seem) over their learning. When we allow opportunities for our students to encounter bountiful successes they will feel encouraged to try even when it is hard.

“If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.”

-Peter Johnson (2004), Choice Words, p. 29


If you enjoyed this post you might also like:

Don’t Teach Strategies Part 1

Don’t Teach Strategies Part 2

Teaching that Blocks the Path to Strategic Activity

Are We Providing Scaffolds or Swooping in for the Rescue




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