Similar to the second blog in this three-part series, which clarified the term “next generation literacy,” this post clarifies the meaning of a word: agency. We adopted the word agency from Peter Johnston who, in Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, explains that agency is the sense that we have the power to affect change. Johnston writes, “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals” (p. 29).
We use the term agency a lot in our writing, however, if you were to look agency up in a dictionary, you’d find definitions with only tangential connections to educational contexts, if any connection at all, which makes this word confusing. So, in the spirit of sound vocabulary instruction, we are going to attempt to bring some clarity to this word using a modified Frayer model, which includes a definition, examples, non-examples, characteristics, and (sometimes) an illustration.
Agency is the belief that completing a task at hand is within your power. It is believing, and following through on the belief, that what you want or need is possible.
When Kim’s son, Matthew, goes to the toy store and is disappointed to find that the Lego set he wants is not on the shelf, he will approach an employee and ask if (s)he can look in the back to see if it is still in a box in the storeroom. When it comes to advocating for himself, Kim’s son has a lot of agency.
When Jan’s son, Natie, gets up in the morning and wants something other than cereal, he looks in the refrigerator and assesses his options for making an omelette. When he cooks up an omelette with feta cheese and black olives, he is showing agency around feeding himself.
When a young girl comes to a word she does not know, she looks at the first letter and attempts to sound it out. When that does not work, she looks at the picture and the words around it and excitedly says the word correctly, rereads to double check, and continues reading. This reader demonstrates agency when it comes to figuring out the tricky spots in a text.
When Kim wants to purchase a song from iTunes but doesn’t know how and decides to wait until her husband or son are available to do it for her, she is not showing any agency around downloading songs from iTunes.
When Jan asks her husband what the red light on her dashboard means and he looks it up in the manual and tells her, it demonstrates that Jan does not feel agentive about car maintenance.
A first grade writer does not know how to spell the word excited so she puts down her pencil and refuses to try anything until her teacher stands beside her and helps her. This first grader is showing no agency around spelling unfamiliar words.
People who are agentive…
… are empowered.
… try something (anything) when a task gets tricky.
… have a growth mindset.
…don’t give up when a task gets hard.
… believe in themselves.
… are less likely to ask for help before making several attempts.
To bring our learning full circle, we conclude by sharing a couple of examples of the way we use the word agency in Who’s Doing the Work?
“Each instructional context, from read-aloud through independent reading, makes a unique contribution to students’ growth in proficiency and agency” (p. 27).
“Shared reading’s engaging structure exposes students to the power of books and gives them insight and agency around their own reading processes… “ (p. 75).
We wish you much agency in and out of your classroom! We are excited about the ways you will support your students in becoming agentive people, as they read and as they grow into empowered thinkers.