Supporting Agency Through Teacher Language


I recently read the book, Wire for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning, by Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa. If you are interested in shifting your teaching to increase students’ independence, then this is a must-read. This text walks educators through four important moves to support student agency: Watch, Intend, Reflect, and Engage. Each chapter contains real classroom examples and tools. Hayhurst and DeRosa cite Bjerede and Gielniak (2017) as they define agentic learning: “Student agency is when students of their own volition initiate actions that support their learning within the context of their learning environment.”

Hayhurst and DeRosa (2021) ask educators to “intentionally instruct and learn.” While the authors dig deep into how to cultivate agency through intentional teaching in many ways, the thought of intentionality sparked my own reflection of the importance of intentional teacher language when it comes to student agency.

Literacy Learning

Learning to be literate is crucial, and as teachers, we need to ask ourselves why is it crucial? What will the children do with it in their lives? When you ponder these questions, what comes to mind? Here are a few that came to mine:

  • for enjoyment
  • to learn about personal interests
  • to make informed decisions
  • for success in a chosen profession
  • to participate in a community
  • to advocate for oneself

These are a few of the authentic reasons why literacy is important to the present and future lives of children. As you considered the reasons why literacy is important, I am willing to bet that reading or writing to satisfy a teacher didn’t make the list. If we truly believe that literacy is for the student, then we must convey that to them with our own language.

Considering Our Language

In his book, Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Peter Johnston (2004) says, “Language… is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constructive. It actually creates realities and invites identities.” If our language implies that reading and writing is for us, we may be robbing students of developing their own agentic identities as learners of reading and writing.

Examples of limiting language may include:

“I like/love that you…”

“Show me…”

“Good job!”

We can consider shifting our language in this way:

“You _____. Readers do that.”

“Show yourself _____ to help”

“You must be so proud that you ____”

We can be explicit while also being intentional in our language to promote agency.

When students are reading and writing, we can use neutral terms and avoid evaluative or confirming sounds such as, “hmm hm.” or “Yes!” Instead, if the child appeals for help, we can allow the student to be thoughtful with intentional language, such as, “You’re wondering if that’s the sound you heard. How could you check?” or, “Here’s where/how you can check.” The prompts or directives are about the student, not ourselves.


In my own practice, I’ve found that the less enthusiastic the student, the harder it is for me to stay neutral. I feel obligated to build them up, sound bubbly, get them to be engaged. Getting a student to appear happy, however, will not assist the student to read independently. I will not be by their side cheering them on every time they read or write. I need to address their level of enthusiasm in other ways and ask myself:

  • Are my tasks too hard?
  • Have I chosen engaging enough texts?
  • Have I allowed the student enough choice in their own learning?

The Watch-Intend-Reflect-Engage framework suggested by Hayhurst and DeRosa allows educators to be responsive by noticing not only what students are doing, but by reflecting on our own teaching to identify what and how to adjust for optimum student agency.

I invite you to explore Hayhurst and DeRosa’s book, WIRE for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning and to discover how it can influence your own practice.


Bjerede, M. & , Gielniak, M. “What is Agentic Learning and Why is it Important?” Getting Smart, Marie Bjerede, November 9, 2017,

Hayhurst, J. & DeRosa, J. (2021). WIRE for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. New Rochelle NY: Benchmark Education.

Johnston, P.H. (2004). Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

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