How to Start Literacy Centers at the Beginning of the School Year in K-2

I really like the beginning of the school year.

It brings a new group of kiddos, fresh school supplies, and a clean slate! I actually enjoy teaching behavior, routines, and procedures…maybe that’s weird. 🙂

The one thing I do find a little overwhelming, however, is getting centers up and running.

There’s so much to teach and so much to think about. Getting 5, 6, or 7-year-olds to work independently is no small task!

My mind LOVES organization, so I learned to break down all of the madness into small, manageable steps and things to teach. In this post, I’ll share my process! 🙂Not sure where to start or how to get organized for literacy centers? Read this post!! It's great for the beginning of the school year or anytime you want to start centers. The ideas are great for Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade literacy centers!

Photo Credits: Billion Photos, Shutterstock

The Very Beginning

I do not start centers the first day, week, or even first few weeks of school. Period.

One year, a kindergarten teacher on my team told me that she starts centers on the very first day of school. Granted, there were two teachers in her classroom (not in mine). But still. Wow!

As for me, I am no superhero teacher, so I need a little more time!

I also think that my kids benefit from my “slow but steady” pace. Laying a solid foundation of routines and procedures does save time and frustration in the end!

Planning with the End in Mind

Every single year, I spend time imagining what my “ideal centers scenario” looks like. I picture how I want things to run in a month or two.

And then…I start making lists! (You’ll see why these lists are important in the next section.)

First, I make a list of simple literacy activities that I want to incorporate into our first few weeks of centers (after we actually start centers, that is). These might include things like:

  • Partner reading
  • Independent reading
  • Simple word work activities (making words with play dough, for example)
  • Listening center activities (i.e. listening to stories online)
  • Writing activities (i.e. drawing pictures and making a story in a stapled booklet)

Second, I make a list of the centers routines and procedures I’ll need to teach in order to get centers functioning smoothly. This includes:

  • Where different centers are located in the classroom
  • General procedures for using each center
  • How students will know which centers to go to
  • Expectations for behavior
  • Expectations for work
  • Expectations for noise level
  • Expectations for how students should or should not work together
  • What to do if you don’t know what to do at a center
  • What to do if you need to use the restroom or get a drink of water
  • What to do if a peer is not using the center correctly
  • What to do if something breaks / technology doesn’t work
  • How to clean up
  • How to know when to clean up

And last but not least, I make a list of simple, independent, non-academic activities that students can do with the materials I have in my classroom. They don’t have to be literacy-related! These might include:

  • Playing with play dough
  • Working with colored tiles or pattern blocks
  • Working on puzzles
  • Drawing with special markers or stencils

If you’d like to download a free template for making and organizing your own lists, please click HERE!Download these free templates to get organized and launch your literacy centers!The Stages

In the next four parts of this post, I’ll share the different “stages” I use to get centers rolling. Now you’ll get to see how those 3 lists you made come into play.

I’ve included suggested timeframes for each stage. But these may vary! Your students will have different needs, so please go more slowly or more quickly as you see fit.

Here are the stages:

1. Learning Simple Literacy Activities (Weeks 1-4)

2. Learning Centers Procedures (Week 5)

3. Opening Centers One By One (Week 6)

4. Normal Centers and Small Group Rotations (Weeks 7 and beyond)

Now let’s dive into each stage!

Stage One: Learning Simple Literacy Activities (Weeks 1-4)

Before the school year starts, I take List #1 (simple literacy activities that I will eventually use in centers, like independent reading). I make a schedule for teaching these activities in a whole-group setting over a period of about 4 weeks.

When I teach one of these activities, I model it for students. I then give them a chance to practice it with my support. And I do all of this during the block of time that will eventually become our centers time.

Here’s an example:

Independent reading is something I want the kids to eventually be able to do during literacy centers.

I write some mini-lessons to teach expectations for independent reading. One mini-lesson might be how to stay on-task and in one spot during independent reading. Another might be how to tell a story from the pictures (for K-1).

I then decide when I will teach these mini-lessons (again, this is happening during the first 4-ish weeks of school, during the block of time that will eventually become our centers time).

During a mini-lesson, I model the focus procedure or routine. I have a few student volunteers model it for the class. And then I have the WHOLE class practice it while I support them.

However, if it’s an activity that I have limited materials for (i.e. making words with magnetic letters), I have the class do something simple like handwriting practice while I pull small groups to practice the activity. Everyone gets a chance to practice the same day that I presented the mini-lesson.

This whole process takes about 15-20 minutes (a bit longer if I have to have them practice in small groups). If my centers block will eventually be 45 minutes, we usually get through 2 (maybe 3) of these “practice sessions” per day.

Stage Two: Learning Centers Procedures and Opening Centers (Week 5)

By this point, the kids know how to do many of the activities that they will eventually do in centers.

What they don’t know is how to “do” centers! This is where List #2 comes into play (i.e. expectations for behavior, how to rotate, clean-up signals, etc.).

So during week 5, I set aside time to teach kids about 3-4 mini-lessons that cover topics from List #2.

During each mini-lesson, I go over the procedures, model them, and have a few student volunteers model them.

Then I have students go into “mock centers.” During mock centers, I set out the play-based activities from list #3 (i.e. playing with play dough or pattern blocks). We don’t spend too long in each center —maybe just 5-7 minutes.

Students rotate through the centers as they would the literacy centers. However, because the actual centers activities are non-academic, we can focus on learning how to “do” centers.

I include lots of positive praise to recognize students who are following procedures correctly. I am “right there” with the students, correcting any mistakes. I’m not yet teaching small groups.

Stage Three: Opening Centers One by One (Week 6)

After I feel that the students “get” how to do centers, I then begin replacing the play centers with the literacy activities they learned in Stage 1.

Here’s an example:

On Monday, I introduce the partner reading center. Students already know how to read with a partner; I’m just going over the procedures specific to the center. That day, they rotate through play centers and the partner reading center. The partner reading center is the only “academic” center that day.

On Tuesday, I introduce the word work center. Students already know several different word work activities from Stage 1; again, I’m just going over the procedures specific to that center. That day, they rotate through play centers, the partner reading center, and the word work center.

You get the picture — I add one “academic” center each day until all the centers are up and running!

Throughout all of this, I’m still not pulling small groups. I’m supervising students and reinforcing positive behavior.

Toward the end, I spend a couple of days just standing at the back of the room and observing. I don’t intervene; I want to see that students can work independently. I tell them that they are responsible for solving their own problems, and that they should act like I’m invisible! 🙂

Once students are able to work independently and all of the literacy centers have been introduced, then comes…

Stage Four: Normal Centers and Small Group Rotations (Weeks 7 and beyond)

By this point, students know the procedures and routines of centers. They are familiar with different literacy activities they can do in each center. They know how to work without my direct supervision.

Now I can start pulling small groups and teaching guided reading. Yay!

Of course, the hard work isn’t completely done. I absolutely have to return to some of those mini-lessons I taught during weeks 1-6. I have to reteach procedures and expectations throughout the year. I have to continue coming up with centers activities and embedding them into my whole and small group instruction (read more about this process HERE).

Have you already signed up to get the centers planning templates? They will walk you through this whole process! If not, you can do so by clicking HERE.Download these free templates to get organized and launch your literacy centers!And last but not least, if you’re not 100% clear on this whole process (this was a long post, I know!), watch this video where I explain it all again:

I hope this is helpful to you. Happy teaching!




Ideas for a Dramatic Play Literacy Center

Does play have a place in literacy instruction? Absolutely!

Jean Piaget said it best: “Play is the work of childhood.”

If you know me, you know that I have high expectations for my students. I believe that young children can do AMAZING things when it comes to reading and writing.

But I also believe that our literacy instruction has to take children’s development into account. And play is an important part of development!

One way that I incorporate play into literacy instruction is through a dramatic play literacy center. In this post, I’ll share ideas to help you set up a productive, fun dramatic play literacy center in your own classroom!Do you incorporate play into your literacy centers? In this post, I explain why I do - and give ideas for setting up a dramatic play literacy center! This is great for Kindergarten!

Photo Credit: jirasaki, Shutterstock

What is a dramatic play literacy center?

A dramatic play literacy center is built around play. It helps children understand how reading and writing are a part of everyday life. It also gives students an opportunity to experiment with reading and writing in the context of play.

Here’s an example:

In your kindergarten classroom, you have a play kitchen. You stock the fridge with pretend food and plastic dishes. You add empty cereal boxes and other food containers to mimic the things students might see in their own homes. You add a small bin with dress-up clothes. You place a cookbook, take-out menus, and grocery circular ads on the counter. You provide list paper and pencils so students can make shopping lists. You might add play money and a play phone.

When students visit the center, they might pretend to be Mommy, Daddy, or another family member. They “cook” using the play food and read words they recognize from the empty food containers. Students also read or pretend-read the cookbook, take-out menus, grocery circular ads, and empty cereal boxes. They use the list paper to make a shopping list, perhaps copying words from the cereal boxes, ads, menus, and cookbooks. They read their lists to other “family members.”

In a nutshell, the students are playing AND using literacy skills for authentic purposes. It’s a fun and educationally valuable center!This post has ideas for a literacy-based dramatic play center!

How do you ensure that students use the center purposefully and productively?

Sure, the scene I described above is ideal. You might also find your kids throwing plastic food at each other in the dramatic play literacy center. 🙂

Literacy play doesn’t always happen naturally. This is especially true if your students come from homes where they don’t typically see reading and writing being used in everyday life.

This is where modeling comes in — it’s absolutely essential! When I introduce the dramatic play literacy center (or introduce a new theme), I sit in the center during independent work time. I play with the kids and model how to use the literacy props. It’s so fun. 🙂 But it also shows them what to do.

I also think it’s important not to overwhelm the kids with “stuff.” If I have a ton of props for a center theme, I don’t put them all in the center. We start out small and add things as time goes on. I also take props away and re-introduce them so the kids don’t get tired of using the same materials day in and day out.

What can you put in the dramatic play literacy center?

I usually start the year out with the kitchen theme I described in my answer to the first question. Here are some other possible ideas for themes and props:

Post Office:

  • Paper and pencil (including stationery and blank greeting cards)
  • Envelopes
  • Stickers to serve as pretend stamps
  • List of children’s names in the class
  • Real mailbox or little mail slots for each student
  • Picture books about the post office
  • Examples of friendly letters

Grocery Store:

  • Play food
  • Shopping cart or basket
  • List paper and pencil for a grocery list
  • Little chalkboards or labels for students to make food signs and add prices
  • Adding machine tape for creating receipts
  • Picture books about the grocery store and/or food

Veterinarian:

  • Stuffed animals
  • Play stethoscope and otoscope
  • Play medicine bottles
  • Paper and pencil for writing prescriptions
  • Picture books about veterinarians and/or pets

Conclusions

There are so many other possibilities for incorporating play into literacy centers — this is just a start! If you have other ideas to add, please share in a comment below!

If you’re looking for printable literacy props for your own dramatic play center, click on the image below to learn more about the props I’ve created!

Happy teaching!




One Easy Strategy for Providing Students with Choice During Literacy Centers

Choice is an important motivator. When our kids have choices during literacy centers, they’re more engaged and more likely to stay on task!

And there are many ways to provide choice during literacy centers.

We might allow our students to select which centers they visit. Or we may let kids choose the order in which they visit them. Or we could post lists of “must do” and “may do” activities. There are tons of options!

That said, I have a strong preference for how I provide choice during literacy centers.

In this post, I’ll share the simple strategy I use to give students choice – AND why I think it works so well!My kids do SO much better with literacy centers when they have choices! In this post, I explain how I offer choices during my Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade literacy centers.

I prefer to specify which centers students visit, as well as the order in which they visit them. I provide choices within each center. For example, in the partner reading center, the kids can choose from 2-3 partner reading activities.

Here’s why I tell students when they go to each center, rather than allowing them to choose:

It allows me to strategically determine student groupings. I like to give students opportunities to work with same-ability and different-ability peers. When I determine who students will work with (by assigning centers), I can intentionally create these opportunities. I can also prevent students who do not work well together from being in the same group! If you allow kids to choose their own centers or the order of their activities, it’s hard to accomplish both of those goals.

It helps us get a solid start to centers each day. I do allow students to select their centers when we have choice time / play time. And holy cow, does it take a while! On the other hand, if my kids know exactly where they have to go during literacy centers, our centers block gets off to a quicker start. Of course, kids can potentially waste time choosing what activity to do within each center. BUT I just like the feeling of a crisp, quick start to centers. It sets the tone for the rest of the work period!

It makes organization and tracking simpler. I’ve seen teachers use checklists to have students mark which centers they visit. I’ve seen this system work great! But I’ve also seen kids spend more time messing around with their checklists than actually doing the centers work. Or they mark things incorrectly and miss (or intentionally avoid!) certain activities. When it comes to primary students, I feel that I can better track students’ centers activities when I establish an order for the centers they visit.

Of course, this is just my own opinion. These are my personal preferences.

I know teachers who are very successful managing things differently! And occasionally, I do let my students choose the order in which they visit centers—typically as a reward or toward the end of the school year.

How It All Works

To recap, I tell my students when they visit each center, and they then get to choose which activity or activities they do within the center. So what does this look like in practice?

1. We have some type of centers rotation board. I’ve created this on a bulletin board, in a pocket chart, or on an interactive whiteboard. You can use students’ names or photos. As long as the kids can clearly and easily see where they’re supposed to go, there’s no wrong way to do it!This is an example of a literacy centers rotation chart. Read the entire post to learn more!

2. I dismiss each group, one at a time, to begin working in their center. I typically have a different space in the classroom set up for each center. It takes just a few minutes to dismiss students. As the kids start working, I give compliments and positive feedback to encourage other students to follow the lead of students who begin their work right away.

3. Once they are in a center, students locate the choice ring and select an activity. On the ring, there are cards with visual directions that show students what to do. All activities have been modeled and taught to students in the past.I use a choice ring to provide students with options during centers. Each card has visual directions to help students remember what to do!

4. Students complete the desired activity and return to choose another one if they finish. This typically eliminates the problem of fast finishers—students always have something else they can do!

Again, this is just what works for me. What works for you? Do you have a different approach that you love? Please share in a comment!

If you like the idea of visual directions, you’ll love my new centers resources for K-2! You can read more about each bundle (and the individual center packs) by clicking on the images below!

Happy teaching!!




How to Differentiate Literacy Centers in K-2

Literacy centers can take a LOT of time to set up, right?!

And if you differentiate your literacy centers, that takes even MORE time.

However, it’s definitely worth it. Although some center activities can work for learners at all levels, other centers activities are much more valuable when they are differentiated (i.e. word work).

So how can we differentiate our literacy centers effectively — and in a manageable way? In this post, I’ll share tips and strategies that have worked for me!

Need some easy ways to differentiate your literacy centers? Read this post for ideas for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade!

I’ve decided to break up this post into the different centers / types of activities that I use. Even if you don’t use the exact same centers, you’ll be able to use these ideas flexibly to meet your own needs!

Differentiation Ideas for an Independent Reading Center

All kids need opportunities to read independently, whether that means making up a story from the pictures or diving into a chapter book.

Text level provides the best opportunity for us to differentiate the independent reading center. However, I don’t tell my students that they can only read books at a certain level (you can read more about why I don’t do that in this post).

Instead, I allow my students to make guided choices about their independent reading materials. I designate certain times of the week when groups of students visit the classroom library to exchange books from their book bags.

When they pick new books, I ask that they choose:

  • Half of their books from ANYWHERE in the classroom library — anything they want!
  • Half of their books from a colored bin for their guided reading group

In the colored bin, I place books that the group has read a few times during guided reading. I also sometimes add books that I know will be at the group’s independent reading level.

This way, students get lots of choices, but I know that half their books will be at their independent reading level.

In the independent reading center, they read from those book bags. The independent reading center doesn’t usually include time for them to choose freely from the classroom library because they get in much more reading time if they have their books ready to go and can get right down to reading!

In addition to differentiating through text levels, we can also differentiate through the supports that we provide to students during independent reading.

I like to use strategy card rings as differentiated reading supports!

Strategy cards are one way to provide differentiated support during literacy centers. Read the entire post for more literacy center differentiation ideas!

 During guided reading or individual reading conferences, I give students specific strategy cards for strategies that I want them to focus on. They can keep these rings in their independent reading bags and refer to them as they read independently.

I try to keep between 2-4 strategies on each child’s ring; otherwise, they can become overwhelmed and not use any of the strategies at all!

Differentiation Ideas for a Partner Reading Center

As with independent reading, we can differentiate partner reading activities by providing students with guided choices for the texts they read.

AND we can differentiate simply by having students read with a partner!

The child who is reading at a lower level learns from the higher reader. And the higher reader benefits from opportunities to teach concepts to the lower reader (thereby solidifying her own understanding of strategies and other skills)!

However, we have to ensure that we create these partnerships strategically. Here’s a simple way to do that:

  1. Rank your students from highest to lowest in terms of reading ability. Place the highest students at the top of the list. (The order doesn’t have to be 100% perfect — just a general idea.)
  2. Take your list and divide it in half.
  3. Match up the highest reader with the middle reader, and on down.

When you do this, you’ll have created a gap between readers that is significant but not too big.

Here’s why I do this: If I pair my lowest reader with one of my highest readers, for example, not much learning will be happening. The higher reader will get frustrated from having to do TOO much teaching. And the lower reader won’t be able to learn much because the higher reader is just so far ahead and so far away from his own zone of proximal development.

You can also use this strategy if you think in terms of guided reading groups. You can rank your guided reading groups from highest to lowest and then set it up so that members of the highest group read with members of the middle group, and on down.

Differentiation Ideas for a Reading Response Center

Some of our centers activities involve having the kids respond to text in writing. We can differentiate:

  • The texts students are responding to
  • The supports we give them for their written responses.

When it comes to the actual texts, we might offer options. Some students may need to (or want to) respond to texts read aloud in class, since they don’t have to do the actual decoding themselves. Other students can respond to texts they read independently.

For writing supports, we can offer sentence starters. Students who don’t need to use them will likely not use them.

Provide support to students in a writing center or reading response center with sentence starters!

Also, if you want to differentiate the prompts students respond to and/or any supports provided on the writing paper, you can use different colored folders (I like to assign a color to each reading group so students know which folder to use).

In centers, you can differentiate by placing different writing prompts or other activities in different colored folders.

 Differentiation Ideas for a Writing Center

Sometimes we have students work on writing, but they’re not responding to text. They might be creating poems, stories, comic strips, etc.

The act of writing is often a self-differentiating task since students will only produce what they are able to produce!

We can also provide supports through examples! Try keeping a binder of writing samples, created by you and the kids, to serve as example mentor texts. Students who need help can peruse the binder and get ideas.

Word cards or word banks are another great way to provide support. Of course, we want students producing actual writing and not just copying words. But if they know that they can spell at least SOME words, that’s a great confidence booster and a place to start!

Additionally, just as with the reading response activities, we can provide sentence starters or lists of transition words to aid students working in the writing center.

Place a list of transition words in your writing center!

 Differentiation Ideas for a Word Work Center

In my opinion, the word work center should almost always involve differentiation!

I like using Words Their Way as a word study program so students have individual word lists and word cards to work on each week.

I have them use those same words for many activities in the word work center. They keep the words in their independent work folders, which they bring to each center.

To differentiate the word work center, have students bring their own words to practice!

If you’d like to use a different method, try placing different words of different difficulty levels…

  • On different colored paper

This post has lots of differentiation ideas for literacy centers! Great for kindergarten, first grade, or second grade centers.

  •  In baggies with different colored dots

This post has lots of differentiation ideas for literacy centers! Great for Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade centers.

  •  In small plastic tubs or containers with labels or dots (this is a lunchmeat container!)

This post has lots of differentiated literacy center ideas! Great for kindergarten, first grade, or second grade centers.Sometimes, I differentiate the word study or phonics apps students are using:

This post has lots of differentiated literacy center ideas! Great for Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade centers.

To get these images, I searched for the apps on my desktop computer and took screenshots of the images. This is an easy way to show students which apps they should be using!

Differentiation Ideas for a Listening Center

Last but not least, we have the listening center!

Listening to texts on CD or on the computer is relatively self-differentiating. Stronger readers can read the actual words along with the recorded voice, if they are able. Beginning readers and ELLs learn vocabulary, print features, sentence structure, etc.

Epic and Readworks Digital are two great FREE resources that you can use to differentiate your listening center activities. Both of these tools allow you to create individual logins for each student. You can then assign different texts to those students to listen to and read!

Conclusion

I hope you got a few new ideas for differentiating your literacy centers! If you’re looking to make differentiation even easier, check out my Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade literacy centers bundles. EACH and EVERY activity has differentiation suggestions!

Click on any bundle to read more (you can also look at the centers individually by scrolling down to the bottom of the descriptions):

 Happy teaching!




Why I Don’t Switch Out My Literacy Centers Every Week (And What I Do Instead!)

We all know that changing out materials for literacy centers is essential.

Introducing new materials helps keep the kids engaged. AND it gives them practice with different skills as we move through the school year.

However, we have to think carefully about:

  • How often to switch out materials
  • How and when to teach students to use the new materials
  • How many centers to replace each week

For a while, I switched out my centers every week. Every Friday afternoon or Monday morning, I’d replace (some of) my centers materials. Before the kids went to centers on Monday, I explained all of the activities so they’d know what to do.

This routine worked fine for me in terms of my own organization and planning.

However, it didn’t work great for my kids. I always felt like I was losing them when I explained the centers activities on Monday. Even if they were familiar with some of or all of the activities, it was just a LOT to throw at them all at once.

Do you ever feel the same way? If so, keep reading! In this post, I’ll share a simple alternative to switching out your literacy centers at the beginning of each week!

Instead of changing out my centers weekly, I use a different approach. It’s made ALL the difference with my students! Read the post to learn about it and get a freebie.

Photo Credits:  Katerina Graghine, Shutterstock

I thought it’d be best if I explained my system in a video. Click “play” below to watch!

The Recap

Instead of introducing multiple new centers at the beginning of each week, I designate one day of the week for each center.

For example…

  • Monday = partner reading center
  • Tuesday = word work center
  • Wednesday = independent reading center
  • Thursday = writing center
  • Friday = listening center

If you have more than 5 centers, you can assign more than one center to each day.

Then, on that center’s designated day, you can do one of two things:

  • Introduce a new activity (or a variation of a pre-existing activity)
  • Re-teach a procedure or teach a troubleshooting lesson to help students overcome a challenge you’ve noticed them having in that center

This strategy has helped my students and me by:

  • Preventing “information overload,” since only one activity is introduced or reviewed at a time
  • Giving students something new to look forward to EVERY day
  • Ensuring that we have time for re-teaching procedures and expectations when the need arises (and we all know the need WILL arise! ;-))

Of course, you can still prep all of your centers for the next week on Thursday, Friday, or the weekend before. You just wait to introduce certain materials rather than putting everything out on Monday.

Pretty simple, right?

If you’d like to use the planning calendar I showed in the video, click on the image below to receive it. (You’ll get other literacy center planning freebies in the download, too!!)

Instead of changing out my centers weekly, I use a different approach. It’s made ALL the difference with my students! Read the post to learn about it and get a freebie.

AND one last thing — In last week’s post, I described another important change I made to improve student engagement and learning in centers. If you haven’t read it yet, click HERE.

Happy teaching!




The #1 Mistake I Made with My Literacy Centers (And How I Fixed It)

Let me tell you about a teacher who really struggled with literacy centers.

Every Thursday, she would write her lesson plans for the following week.

When she started planning her centers, she made sure that they matched the skills and goals the class would be working on that week. But she often got stuck trying to plan the actual centers activities.

She looked for ideas in teacher books. She flipped through her files and tried to remember what she did last year. She searched for activities online.

Once she had *finally* chosen her centers activities, she printed, laminated, cut, and cut some more.

On Friday, she did one or two of the activities with her small groups. Sometimes she modeled how to play a game with the whole class.

When Monday came, she placed the materials in her centers. She explained ALL of the activities. That took a while, so the kids looked a bit glassy-eyed by the time she was finished.

And when they went off to the centers? Well, sometimes the kids knew what to do. Sometimes they didn’t. Some students got off task because they were confused. Some kids ended up playing around or using the materials incorrectly.

Centers time wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t ideal. The kids weren’t getting as much out of centers as they could have been.

So…who was that teacher?

Me! That teacher was me.

In today’s post, I’ll explain what was (in my opinion) my #1 biggest mistake in using this approach to plan and implement literacy centers. I’ll also share what I’ve learned to do instead!

Are you making this mistake with your literacy centers? Read the post to find out how I shifted my thinking and planning to better integrate my literacy centers into my entire literacy block!

Photo Credit: luckyraccoon, Shutterstock 

In my opinion, the biggest flaw in my (old) approach to centers was the lack of interconnectedness between my whole group instruction and small group instruction + centers.

When I say that, I don’t mean that the instructional goals for whole-class and centers activities weren’t aligned. Because they were.

Rather, I mean that I did not consistently incorporate activities in my whole-group and small-group instruction that I could later turn into centers.

And, in turn, my centers activities did not directly come from what we did during whole group or small group.

As you read at the beginning of this post, I would teach my kids how to play a game or do an activity once or twice. And then I’d add it to a center.

But, as I explained, my kids forgot how to do the activities. They weren’t always engaged. They sometimes ended up playing around because they just weren’t familiar enough with what they were supposed to do.

What I *needed* to do was consistently weave learning activities into whole and small group instruction. Then, students could later do the SAME (or very similar) activities during independent work or centers.

Let me make this more concrete with an example:

During whole group shared reading, you are working with nursery rhymes. You read nursery rhymes and you talk about aspects of the print (i.e. sight words, initial letters, punctuation marks, etc.).

Sometimes, you work with nursery rhymes on the interactive whiteboard or chart paper. And sometimes you have them written out on sentence strips, placed into a pocket chart.

For two or three weeks, you do shared reading with several different nursery rhymes. During 3-4 of those shared reading lessons, you mix up the lines and model how you figure out how to put them back in order. You also have the class help you put the lines back in order.

After those two or three weeks are up, you are ready to add a similar activity to a literacy center: students work in pairs to reread “complete” copies of familiar nursery rhymes, and then they put the lines of the rhymes (written on sentence strips) back in order.

By this time, your kids have already had a lot of great practice!

They have already chorally read the rhymes with the class. They’ve seen you model how to put them back in order (including think-alouds where you share your strategies). They’ve also participated in the activity — by telling you how to put them back in order, taking turns coming up to the pocket chart, etc.

So when it’s time to teach them how to use the center, you really just have to quickly review the activity. You’ve already done the hard work! Now you can focus on basic procedures like where to find the materials, how to work cooperatively so that both partners have turns, etc.

Even better? When you introduce this activity, it’s not going to take 20 minutes to model. Your kids aren’t going to get that glazed-over look. They KNOW this activity, and they’re excited to finally get to do it themselves!

This nursery rhymes activity makes for a great center! Read the post to learn how to implement it in your Kindergarten or first grade classroom.

Do you see how, in this example, a center activity naturally grew out of whole class instruction?

This approach to centers has some great benefits:

  • The kids see you model an activity multiple times.
  • As a result, they are able to do the activity correctly (also increasing engagement!).
  • You don’t have to rack your brain, trying to figure out what your center activities are going to be — the majority of them “grow” naturally out of what you’re doing in whole group and small group.
  • You save time — instead of teaching “extra” activities for centers, most activities are already built into your whole group and small group instruction.

Granted, this approach demands long-term planning, and that can be challenging.

You can’t do the “oh-gosh-what-are-my-centers-going-to-be” panic dance on Friday afternoon when you’re getting materials out for the very next week.

You always have to be a few weeks ahead. You have to thoroughly think through what you’re doing in whole and small group so that you will have centers activities ready a few weeks down the road.

But, hey, this type of advance planning, while not always easy, can be GREAT for creating a cohesive instructional approach to your literacy block.

What do you think? Could you tweak your whole-group and small-group instruction so that center activities grow out of them? Please share your thoughts in a comment!

And if you’re looking to finally get ORGANIZED for literacy centers – so you can easily plan ahead in the way that I’ve described in this post – check out my Kindergarten, first, and second grade literacy centers bundles.

They all have pre-made (but editable) planning calendars, so you can look ahead and thoroughly teach activities before you introduce them to centers.

Happy teaching!