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Anchor Charts: Academic Supports or Print-Rich Wallpaper?

By Alycia Zimmerman on October 17, 2012
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Am I the only teacher who rewrites anchor charts to make them presentable? Because I have a confession to make. Until now, I’ve only shown my “pretty” charts on this blog. The ones that I took the time to rewrite in my neatest handwriting. The ones to which I’ve added cute graphic supports and fancy lettering. At the very least, the ones without crossed out text.

I know some teachers who can create beautiful, presentation worthy charts in front of their students. I am not one of those teachers. I scrawl my charts as fast as my hand can fly, hoping not to exhaust my students’ attention spans while I’m scribing their words. I contort my wrist into a backwards claw so that I write while still facing my students (because I honestly don’t have eyes on the back of my head — shhh!) These are functional charts — and I point out to my students that the drafting process is necessarily messy. 

Then I wage an internal battle: Do I hang this authentic but messy chart up in my classroom, or do I painstakingly rewrite the chart after school ends? While I understand the value of creating anchor charts that my students will actually use, at times it feels like charting is simply an Olympic sport for teachers to create the most photo-worthy “wallpaper.” What do you think? Should I hang the sloppy charts?


A "real life" sloppy chart (left) and a doctored chart for display (right). 

Fellow teachers, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Here are my real, no-holds-barred thoughts about anchor charts. I realize that some of you may disagree with me –— and not to worry, I’ll keep pinning your stunning charts on Pinterest and dreaming about the days when my charts look like yours.


When I'm charting with my students, I'm not going to take the time to make perfectly near bars or to color them. This is real life - and it's messy! My rewritten "Transition Words" chart took a while - is it worth it?


Anchor Charts … What’s the Point?

Sure, some administrators look for these “footprints of learning,” to gauge what’s going on in a classroom, but there’s a lot more to charts than serving as advertising banners. The best charts serve as a scaffold for students, reminding them of a new understanding, an academic experience, or supplying academic vocabulary. Students refer to these charts during follow-up lessons and independent work times. Effective charts help students transfer their learning across contexts and allow students to work independently.

How do I try to make the charts on our walls meaningful? I organize my classroom walls, so that my students know to look for math charts on the east wall, writing charts on the north wall, and so on. I gesture towards our “archived” charts during lessons. I ask my students, “Where can you look to find some help with transition words?” By constantly referring to the anchor charts around my classroom, students begin to use these resources naturally. Over time, they point each other towards the charts they need. Since I teach at a textbook-less school, our anchor charts serve as the reference materials for my students.

I constantly point at this chart while I talk, until the students are using the chart to help with their accountable talk as well. This chart becomes meaningful because we refer to it so often, not due to how it looks.


Anchor Charts in the Digital Age

I love my document camera (which my students think is named for a furry red Sesame Street friend.) These days, when I’m not teaching on my Smartboard, I’m usually modeling with my document camera. Shared writing, modeled writing, filling in graphic organizers, marking up text — it is all so much easier with my document camera!

Where does this leave room for creating anchor charts, though? When I can write in normal-sized print and have it enlarged digitally for all of my students to see, writing on chart paper just seems contrived to this digital-girl.

At times, I rewrite materials that we’ve created using the document camera onto chart paper. I also keep folders at the front of my classroom near the document camera with all of my “projected texts” and “mini-charts” organized by subject. Rather than referencing a chart, my students know to look in those folders to find the shared texts we’ve “digitally charted.”


Student-Created Charts

Let’s face it, most elementary students’ handwriting, enlarged to “size 72 chart-paper font,” isn’t picture perfect. But inviting students to create charts in their own handwriting and take over the charting burden really does make the charts more meaningful. Students take a different level of ownership for charts they write themselves. Just last week during a writing lesson on revision, I heard one boy tell another, “Look at Josie and Brandon’s chart of active verbs.”

To get all of my students words onto one chart, post-it notes keep things interactive.

To get all of my students’ “voices” onto one chart, sometimes I create a graphic organizer and have my students post their responses on post-it notes. When my students aren’t writing the charts themselves, I try to mark each student’s response with their name as I transcribe their words. This also helps the students establish a sense of ownership for a chart.

Students love to participate when their contributions will be named on a chart.


When “Pretty” Charts are Worth It

There are definitely some times when going the extra mile to illustrate a chart really feels worthwhile. For students who are just learning to read or just learning English, picture cues are so helpful towards making anchor charts a meaningful reference.

Small picture cues help ELL students and struggling readers, and you don't have to be an artist to pull this off.

Likewise, in the subject areas (social studies, science,) a labeled diagram or illustration can provide a lot of content area support. Students build their tier two and tier three vocabularies with these sorts of charts. I am most definitely not an artist, so it is painstaking work to copy diagrams onto chart paper — but I find it is worth the work when my students refer to these content charts throughout our units of study.


In the content areas, illutrated charts are worth it. These diagrams help with content vocabulary.


“Mirror, mirror, show me yet, the prettiest charts on the net!”

While I’m in a confessional mood, I’ll admit that I’ve browsed the museum-quality anchor charts on teacher blogs, and of course Pinterest. And I’ve fallen prey to chart-envy — and even lost my way to the point of copying a beautiful chart or two to hang in my classroom. I’m not proud of this, dear teachers. Sure, these copycat charts were pretty, but were they authentic? No way!

Pretty? Perhaps. Authentic? Not really. (We created the list using the document camera - this is a rewrite.)

So I give my word; going forward I’m going to steer clear of Internet temptation, and only use that eye candy for general inspiration. The point of charting is not to prove what an awesome artist or how creative I am. Will I still rewrite some of my crummiest looking charting attempts? Probably. But I am through with laminating charts to save some for next year. Charts are meant to be ephemeral – and thanks to my handy camera phone, I can capture the spirit of my charts for recycling but not reuse.


What are your thoughts about charting? Am I speaking blasphemy? Do you feel that there is an educationally sound reason to create “chart-art”? Or should I hang my scribbly first draft charts? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Comments (14)

I've been in many classroom that display anchor charts on every spare in of wall. Not only is this practice over stimulating, it is a fire hazard. I like anchor charts and I use them but I prefer to display them in set places by subject. I put the newest charts on top of the older ones and attach them with binder clips that are attached to the board and then students can flip them to the chart that they need. Also, with my fifth graders, I have them draw the anchor chart in the interactive notebooks for later reference. This way my walls are not cluttered and my students the reference material that they need at their fingertips.

Kathleen, thanks for your great suggestions! I love how you give additional responsibility to your upper elementary kids to find and use the anchor charts that they need. And collecting them with binder clips on the wall is pure genius!

I've been in many classroom that display anchor charts on every spare in of wall. Not only is this practice over stimulating, it is a fire hazard. I like anchor charts and I use them but I prefer to display them in set places by subject. I put the newest charts on top of the older ones and attach them with binder clips that are attached to the board and then students can flip them to the chart that they need. Also, with my fifth graders, I have them draw the anchor chart in the interactive notebooks for later reference. This way my walls are not cluttered and my students the reference material that they need at their fingertips.

I think it's just the new educational "buzz" word...anchor charts, anchor charts. We used chart paper and markers years ago and it is just coming back around. There is just so much room in the class for anchor charts. I teach 6th grade and they never look at them after they are made. Like a principal once told me, "Just another hoop to jump through." So please the principal that requires them and don't worry about your artistic ability. Just teach!

Maybe it's just me but I found this blog a little bit offensive. Just because teachers choose to take their time to create an anchor chart or take pride in their work doesn't mean that they are trying to show off or create a "museum." There is a time and place for everything. There are charts that I make neat and colorful because they are up on the walls for a while and I want my room to be aesthetically pleasing to not just adults, but also my students. The visuals draw the attention of the students. I find rooms with clutter, and scrappy horrible teacher handwriting that don't look like any time was put into it, disturbing. As I child I was also distracted by visual clutter. I have also heard parents complain when materials don't look professional. That being said, there are many charts that are used for the short-term that the students help to create. Using post-its, colored notecards, or preprinted words can make a huge difference, and of course there are times we just write right on the chart. Laminating the template and the letting the kids add ideas is a happy compromise. I do use my charts as visual aides for the kids to complete their interactive notebooks, so pride in our work is an important lesson. There's nothing wrong with teaching kids about "rough drafts" either, so sometimes we brainstorm our charts and then remake them for "show quality." Students can also help make the final copy.

I think that the most important question is whether it works for your students (and you too!) not whether there is only one right way to do things. Often in teaching I feel that we are arguing with each other over topics that really have no one right answer. We all have different teaching styles and we need to find what works for us. With anchor charts, I think the most important thing is that they have relevant information and that you teach your students to use them. In the classrooms I have observed I see students using "organic" charts and "pretty" charts alike. I personally have such terrible handwriting when I am making organic charts that they would not be useful to students in the long run if I hung them "as is" so I copy them over. I teach my students to use them and they do. I add graphics of book characters from books we have read because I find it catches my students' attention (and admittedly I like to draw). I don't think it is necessary for everyone to do that though nor do I think it is wrong that I do it.

I'm a little late to this party, but I think the "museum quality" posters are ridiculous. You might as well go to Lakeshore and buy out their selection of pre-printed learning charts. I think the ones that kids help you make are far more valuable. Let them be a little messy. It reflects the children's work and their ownership of the learning.

I think our kiddos tend to tune out the walls when they get too busy. Teachers are more concerned with impressing their administrators than with actually teaching meaningful content to their students. The beautiful chart is on the wall, my work here is done...

My daughter and I both teach 4th grade. She just gave me a suggestion on charting. Be neat and use specific colors for each main topic. Display them all during Reviews. Then cover them with that color for the testing time. The color relates in their head and helps the students draw information. I have three groups of students I alternate with chart gets to stay up.

Amen to you for speaking up about the artsy anchor charts that have been driving me crazy. I tried so hard to make mine look so beautiful and to no avail, they did not turn out that beautiful. I gave up! So I would say, unless your charts have scratch through marks from maybe a mistake or two, then put up your original chart! If you've made some mistakes and had to scratch off a lot ( I've done that before) then I would rewrite it. Thanks again for speaking up.

We've been using anchor charts and there's just not enough room in the classroom for all of them to be displayed at once. However, I have them clipped together with the latest chart on top and they are displayed in areas for writing, reading, math, and science. My students know where they are and just ask for certain charts to be posted on the board or somewhere visible if they're trying to remember or review something already covered.

I think that student generated anchor charts are important. I wonder if there is a way to encourage students to be neater on their charts? That's what they invented WhiteOut right?
I think that relevant charts are always valuable in the classroom.

I agree that there comes a point where it is TOO MUCH CLUTTER and verbage.
My students won't look if there is too much, but they do like reminders. I think, MODERATION is always good with the number of charts, etc....
As far as HOW they look..If they are teacher-made, they should look like a professional person made them. That does not mean it has to be WALL ART, but clear, neat and correct. I want my work to be a model for my students. When they are student-made, therefore, they should at least be spelled correctly and neat as well.

I am happy to see you mention student-made anchor charts. I believe also that they are the most meaningful for students. I teach 4th grade and the charts students return to again and again are the ones where they have some ownership. I think many classrooms are overloaded with chart upon chart of teacher work.

Can't you laminate your neatly-written charts and just reuse them a few years? A sloppy one here and there won't matter to the kids, but it might to a parent!

I am a retired teacher and have been subbing. I think that some of the teachers are overdoing the charts - even putting up clothesline with charts. One of my principals told us not to have our walls "too busy" because it is distracting to some of the students. Maybe rotate them? Or maybe you and the other teachers could take turns making charts and rotating them?

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