Anchor Charts: Keep It Simple

Work together with your students to create learning resources they can use.

By Rachel Wilser

Greetings, intrepid teachers! Wow, my hat is off to all teacher mamas — our twins started preschool this August, and I honestly felt like all other areas of my life halted while trying to readjust our daily morning and afternoon routines around school. Today, I want to talk to you about one of many things that I feel strongly about: charts.

If you open Instagram or Pinterest, you can easily find endless pictures of beautiful, almost over-the-top charts. Teachers have drawn works of art on their charts, or colored so perfectly that the chart almost looks like it was printed rather than colored. Some teachers might find this aspirational.

I, on the other hand, get panic attacks. I could never make charts like that, so seeing rooms saturated with these beautiful, detailed, over-the-top charts does nothing but stress me out and make me feel inadequate. In case you’re in that boat, I’m here to talk about charts today and share 3 main points.

1. Your students can learn just as well (and in some cases, better) from more minimal charts.
2. Not every single chart you make is an anchor chart, and (as such) not every single chart needs to hang from the ceiling/wall/wherever you hang your charts.
3. A chart you make yourself ahead of time is a poster, not a chart.

Before I get up on my soapbox, I want to recommend a book to you. I also recommended it in my podcast earlier this summer, but I’m going to recommend it again because it’s SO GOOD: Smarter Charts. Basically, the book talks about how to create charts that your students will USE. Because really, that’s the point, right? We’re making these charts as resources for kids. So, if they’re beautiful and elaborate, cool. But if they have so much decoration that kids can’t remember what the chart is about, then we’ve really missed the mark.

Before I give you my top 3 tips for creating charts your students will actually use, I want to clarify what an anchor chart is, for the purpose of this article. An anchor chart is a chart that anchors student learning, so it covers essential processes, procedures, or routines. These would be the BIG POINTS of a unit. Okay, if we can all agree that anchor charts are for the big topics, then here are my top 3 tips for creating (anchor) charts your students will actually use. (You’re probably creating charts that are not anchor charts, often; that’s totally reasonable. I’m just saying that anchor charts are the charts that cover BIG POINTS of teaching/learning.)

  1. Involve students in making charts.
    Okay, this sounds a little silly, right? Like, DUH, Rachel — of course our kids should be part of making the charts. Too often, they’re not. They’re much more likely to remember the content if they’re involved in making it. When I’m making a chart with students, especially a list style chart, I jot myself some key points or ideas in my lesson plan so that I can guide them to the content that needs to make it on the chart, or start by giving them an idea or two to get the juices flowing.

    So, in this chart (a small-scale replica of a chart I made every year with my students), I would ask students for some things that mathematicians could do. Add and subtract are some of the first things students suggest, as well as count. Sometimes they’ll suggest making a pattern, but I almost always add up skip counting, sorting, and finding equal shares. This chart hangs up in our classroom until about Thanksgiving. It’s an essential chart that students can come back to over and over again when they’re working in math. I also find that it helps children identify as mathematicians, because it includes more than just operational math. Students who might struggle to subtract might be great at sorting or finding/making patterns, and that’s an entry point to feeling like a mathematician.

  2. Repeat the same icons over and over (especially in lower grades).
    In lower grades, especially early in the year, kids might not always be able to read the entire content of the chart you created. But if you use the same icons over and over again, they’ll at least get themselves in the ballpark. For example, every writing anchor chart I create includes a pencil on it somewhere. If students are looking for a writing chart, they only need to worry about the content if the chart has a pencil on it. If it has numbers or books, they know that those charts are for math and reading and not the solution to their current problem.

    I also usually try to include a book somewhere on our reading charts. I also try to use the same symbols for actions that we repeatedly refer to; an eye would tell students to pay attention, a thought bubble shows thinking, a circular arrow means to reread or repeat an action, etc.

  3. Refer back to your charts in later lessons.
    Lastly, don’t make these charts with your kids, hang them up, and then never refer to them again. Loop back to them; that’s how students know to use them. For example, my math action chart is something I would refer to when launching units, or when problem solving. If you want your students to use your charts, you need to use them as well. If you model how to use charts as a resource, students will start to do the same.

Try your hand at creating charts with your students this week or next week! Their ownership will change the way charts are used in your classroom, and increase the independence of students in your classroom.

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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