3 Phrases to Use to Build Student Agency in a K-2 Classroom

January 5, 2022

When we think about the words and phrases we use in our classroom, they are so important to frame our students’ thinking of themselves and their surroundings. As educators, we need to be purposeful in our word choice and with these 3 phrases I am going to share today, we can really build student agency so they are in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

If you’re looking to shift your language in the classroom, this is the post for you!

Before I dive in, I wanted to let you know you can watch or listen to all this information in video format below:

I also want to highlight the book Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston. I read this book in one of my classes for my master’s program and it was the inspiration behind this post. This book will really get you thinking about the words you use as a teacher and why they matter. If you’re interested, you can check out the book here (please note, this is an Amazon affiliate link):

This book is also available in audio version too! It is a fast and easy read and gets you thinking about the words we use in the classroom.

As I noted above, these phrases are all about building student agency. You want your students to feel like they are in charge of their own learning. Of course, you will still be there as their teacher to guide and facilitate them along the way, but you really want your students to take ownership of their learning. 



Three easy phrases you can begin to use in the classroom are:

How did you figure that out?

Instead of just saying “great work” when your student solves a problem or successfully completes something, ask them “how did you figure that out?” This line of questioning lets the student take ownership of their work and feel proud that they were the one to solve it. Then they can explain their strategy and tell you why it was successful. 

You can use this “How did you…” phrase with most work students complete at school. For example, if they write a story you can ask them, “how did you think of that idea?” Asking students how they solved something, gives them ownership of their solution and strengthens their learning as well! Instead of looking for outward validation from the teacher (in the form of words, a pat on the back, a sticker, etc.), they can validate their own work.

When possible, I like to have students answer this in front of the class or small group because it helps other students to see and hear their peers sharing solutions as well.



Let me see if I’ve got this right…

Another easy phrase to start using in the classroom is, “let me see if I’ve got this right…”

You will use this one by saying “Let me see if I’ve got this right…” then summarizing what the student just told you. This phrase shifts who the “knower” is in the classroom. The teacher is typically seen as the “knower,” or the person with all the answers in the class. However, as we are building our students’ agency, we want them to embrace their knowledge and take ownership of things they have learned.

By asking them “let me see if I’ve got this right…” and checking with them, it builds your students’ confidence and validates their voice. It also gives students the opportunity to clear anything up and correct their line of thinking when they hear it coming from you.

This phrase is also great to use in front of the class because you can re-voice your students’ work in a more academic way. For example, if a student makes an inference from a text during a read-aloud, but doesn’t use the word “infer” you can re-state the student’s words and use that academic term. This way they still have ownership of their work, but you’ve also added a bit more knowledge and you can link other students into this learning by asking if they’ve built any inferences as well. Students can build upon one another’s learning!


That’s not like you

This phrase would be used during a behavioral or disciplinary discussion to prevent your students from assuming the identity of a “trouble-maker.”

If a student is consistently being reprimanded or told they are doing something wrong, they will often start to see that as part of their identity. By telling them “that’s not like you,” you are letting them know that you don’t view them in that way. When students know that the teacher still views them as a positive person who is capable of making good decisions, it might influence them to make a better decision the next time! 

They are then able to think, “You’re right, I am NOT this person. I can and do make good decisions. Let me see if I can make one now.”

Now this phrase is only powerful when you and your students have already built a good connection through conversation and respect! For instance, if a substitute teacher comes in and tries to use this phrase upon just meeting a child, it can often be met with resistance as the student is thinking, “you don’t know me and what I am like.” It can feel disingenuous.


These three phrases are easy ones you can take and try to build into your own classroom rapport. While they are simple enough, you do need to be cognizant of them and purposefully try to add them into your rapport with some practice! It is always important for teachers to remember that we are naturally in a position of power in the classroom and our words are powerful. 


Do you have any phrases you love for building student agency in the classroom?! Leave them down in the comments below!


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