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Using Checklists to Foster Independence

by Leigh Cavanaugh |

Lately, it seems that the students at our school are becoming more dependent on their teachers. Sometimes, they simply state that they don’t know what to do when given an assignment. They shut down before they even start and won’t begin to work unless a teacher is there to hold their hand. Have you experienced this? 

Certainly, this dependence on teachers is a trend among all students; however, we have seen this behavior more frequently with our multilingual learners of English (MLEs) in recent years. For context, the multilingual program in our U.S. public high school is small but quickly growing. Although the majority of our students were born in the United States, for the last 5 years we have consistently welcomed more and more MLEs from around the world. 

One day recently at lunch in the teachers’ lounge, our English Department teaching group was talking about our students’ lack of engagement. How can we foster more of a sense of independence among our learners? A newer teacher shared that when her students engage in a writing project, such as an essay or even an opinion piece, she uses an editing checklist to help her students complete the peer review stage. This way, her students can refer to the checklist for guidance rather than constantly ask her for help. 

Even though using checklists at this stage was something we had done before, the discussion suddenly set off a light bulb moment. If we can use a checklist for peer review, we can use it for other types of work, too!

Next, we simply started creating our checklists and trying them out with our students.

Creating and Piloting a Checklist

When our teaching group began to give our students more checklists, this was all an experiment. We started with a single checklist for most types of writing tasks; it was plain and to the point. Before launching it widely, one teacher piloted the checklist in her classroom during a few formative assessments. She found the checklist was so helpful that by the time her students were working on their summative assessment, they were asking to use it again.

At this point, our team came back together and decided to formally introduce our writing checklist to all sophomore (second-year) English sections, which include both fluent English speakers and MLEs, during the next formative assessment. (We didn’t believe it was fair to provide it on that first summative assessment, because it was not yet available to all students at this point.) Thus, piloting the checklist with one class before fully launching it across our program gave us a little time to modify our steps, include examples, and create a more user-friendly experience. 

Now that we’ve moved through the pilot stage and successfully introduced checklists for a few different units, we have found that the following steps work best to create your own teaching checklist: 

      1. Identify the skills where students need the most support. For example, in teaching writing, we chose to focus on quote selection and blending because it was the current target skill for our second-year students.

      2. Create your checklist, making sure each step is clear and to the point.

      3. Include an example. My favorite way to do this is to use an example from pop culture, such as a Taylor Swift song:

Example: The speaker in Taylor Swift's song “Anti-Hero” is depressed because they see themselves as "a monster on the hill/ Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward [one's] favorite city" (Swift, 2022).

      1. Pilot your checklist with a small group of students and make any necessary revisions.

      2. Model how to use the checklist. Don’t just let the checklist be a pretty accent—show students how and why they should use it.

      3. Refer back to the checklist during your lessons, in your feedback, and in class when students are working through revisions. This repetition gives students the opportunity to see the value in the checklist and provides them another chance to practice with it.

What We Found

After all students had completed our first unit with the help of checklists, we found that students genuinely wanted to use this new tool after they had worked with it a few times. The ability to independently follow a sequence of concrete steps helped them feel more confident, and they started taking more risks with their writing. At first, we had to remind students that they could use the checklist, but once they got into the habit, they would ask for a copy or even pull it out independently.

Even more exciting, we noticed that our students started talking to each other about the steps on the checklist. Instead of raising their hands or getting out of their seats to find a teacher, they were asking each other if their blended quotes looked like the examples on the checklist. They were naturally providing peer feedback!

What about our targeted learning outcomes? In addition to becoming more independent and showing more confidence in the classroom, our students were also improving their writing. They were writing better claims, dropping quotations less frequently, and expanding on their analyses. Additionally, our MLEs were using the language from the teacher examples provided on the checklists as models for their own writing. The checklists were providing the language and structure our students needed to rise to the occasion.  

Moving Forward

Now that our students were feeling comfortable using their checklists in their sophomore English class, we teamed up with the history department to work through similar skills. Referencing the models from the English team, the history team created a checklist for students to help break down the skills of writing a document-based question essay. In this assignment, students tended to struggle with creating topic sentences, contextualizing evidence, and providing reasoning to connect to their claims. This matched up with what the English teachers were seeing, so both checklists ended up looking very similar and our teachers were able help our students transfer their skills between subjects.

Throughout this collaboration, both teams got to have many discussions about common terminology, how to provide differentiation, and what skills were necessary to target for each grade level. We also needed to have hard conversations about student needs, accommodations, and student accountability. Though some people had strong opinions on these topics, it was helpful to norm our expectations and see all sides.

After engaging in these tough conversations, our cross-curricular team decided that the checklists could be provided to any student who needed or wanted them—but that because our MLEs access the general curriculum in mainstream classes, we would encourage our MLE students to use this tool more often. This way, we could provide scaffolded support without singling out any of our students.

Why It Works

Long story short, this checklist thing works. To understand why, I relate it to my own use of Google, which I refer to about a million times each day. I look up how to say something in Spanish, I ask Siri to define a word for me, I Google the winner of last night’s finale of The Voice, and I always have to look up if it’s bachelors or bachelor’s degree when writing out a congratulations card. 

Our students do this, too. Today’s young learners are part of a generation that thrives on quick answers. When they’re working on a writing assignment, they don’t want to search through the entire internet to figure out how to analyze a piece of evidence or how to integrate a quotation—nor should they have to. By creating checklists, we give students the tools they need, at their fingertips, so that they aren’t distracted or discouraged from completing the learning task at hand.

What’s more, we’ve observed that after students become comfortable and fluent in following the appropriate checklists, they begin to take these skills with them. Eventually, they no longer need to refer to the paper checklists because they have internalized the steps and can work independently. This technique is just one way that, as ELT professionals, we can create a generation of confident, independent thinkers and equip them with the skills for lifelong learning.


Download sample checklists here: 



Swift, T. (2022). Anti-Hero [Song]. On Midnights. Republic. 


About the author

Leigh Cavanaugh

Leigh Cavanaugh has been teaching and providing individualized interventions for high school students for 18 years. Currently, she works with dual-identified students who have IEPs and are also multilingual. Though her interventions focus on students’ reading and writing goals, she also aims to help students feel confident enough to take risks and to understand that language learning is a process. Outside of teaching, Leigh spends time with her kids, goes to the library, and plays roller derby.

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