Implementing Literacy Centers in the Primary Classroom


You’ve purchased our fabulous years worth of literacy centers, but now what to do with all of those hands-on activities?!  Implementing literacy centers into your reading block takes some planning and preparation, but once you get into a routine that works, they become an integral part of your daily reading instruction.

The goal of daily literacy centers is for your students to practice and master those skills that you have covered in whole group.  It is important that the centers you are using align with your scope and sequence for reading.  Accountability is also of utmost importance, as we want to ensure that our students are practicing and completing the tasks correctly.

Implementing Literacy Centers in the Primary Classroom

Implementing Literacy Centers in the Primary Classroom

How Many Centers Do I Need Each Week?

It may sound like a simple question, but there are some important factors that go into that decision.  First, look at how much time each day you have to devote to small group centers/stations.  You want your students at each station for at least 8-10 minutes. (as the grade level increases, the time at each center should increase)

You will also need to allow for transition time (including clean up).  The goal should be for your students to stop their center, put accountability sheets away, clean up other pieces, and be ready to rotate in less than one minute. 

Implementing Literacy Centers tips: How many centers do I need each week?

Which Centers Do I Choose to Use Each Week?

When choosing the centers I am going to use for a particular week, I first think about the “Big 5” and which center I am going to use to cover each of those components.  The “Big 5” consists of Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension.  I also usually add another station that covers Grammar and Writing, so it becomes the “Big 5 + 1”.

Phonemic Awareness concentrates on sounds and what is heard versus what is seen. (examples: rhyming with pictures, isolating beginning/middle/ending sounds by using picture cards)

Phonics is the sound that given letters/combinations of letters make and working with the words that contain those particular sounds. (many call this “Word Work”). (examples: building CVC words, Roll a Word, multi-syllabic words)

Vocabulary/Sight Words focuses on either reading vocabulary from a given text (for older students), or sight words (for younger students). (examples: Swat a Word, Dictionary skills, Word Wall work)

Fluency/Comprehension is the practice of reading a text multiple times to build fluency (either timed or not) and then answering questions about what they have read. (examples: book bins with book reports, fluency passages with built in questions)

Grammar/Writing   This station can go back and forth between focusing on a grammar skill (nouns, verbs, sentence structure) and writing to a prompt (writing scenarios, creating stories).

Implementing Literacy Centers - Which centers do I choose each week?


In What Order Should I Teach the Centers?

Now that you know which type of center you are looking for, which one should you start with?  Most districts have a set scope and sequence stemming from an adopted curriculum that they expect you to follow.  It is very important that you align the centers you are using with this scope and sequence.  You want your centers to correspond with those skills you introduced/taught in whole group.

Teachers have two choices in how they do this…

  1.  You can use centers that cover the skills taught in whole group the week before.  Therefore, you front load your students in whole group and the following week, they practice/master those skills in centers.
  2. You can use centers that cover the skills taught in whole group that week.  The skills that you are covering in whole group would be practiced in centers during the same week.

With these two choices, examples would look like this…

  1.  During week 1, you taught your students rhyming pairs, 5 sight words, letter Aa and /a/, read “The Cat” from their student book, and learned about nouns.  So the centers for week 2 would be covering rhyming pairs, sight word practice, letter Aa and /a/, rereading “The Cat” with comprehension questions, and nouns.
  2.  For week 1, you taught your students rhyming pairs, 5 sight words, letter Aa and /a/, read “The Cat” from their student book, and learned about nouns.  Also the centers for week 1 would be covering rhyming pairs, sight word practice, letter Aa and /a/, rereading “The Cat” with comprehension questions, and nouns.

Implementing Literacy Centers - In What Order Should I Teach the Centers?


How Do I Prep My Centers?

Having 120 centers at your disposal is awesome, but it can also seem like a daunting task to prep them all.  Here are some tips to help you get all of your centers ready for use in your classroom.  It will take some work during the first year of implementation, but the time saved in the years to come is immense!

My first word of advice is to prep your centers a few at a time.  You have aligned the centers to your scope and sequence, so you know the few that you want to use during the next couple of weeks.  Those will be the ones that you want to print, laminate, cut, and organize.

If you are lucky enough to have parent volunteers either in or out of the classroom, they can help you copy, laminate, and cut your centers.  Parents that want to help, but are unable to come to school make the perfect opportunity to send home laminated items to cut out.

For those of you who do not have the luxury of parent volunteers, follow my advice above.  Choose the few centers you are using the following week and prep those.  This way you are only putting together a few each week and by the end of the year they will all be done.

All five or six of your centers do not have to be those that need preparation.  You can easily put leveled readers in one for fluency, or use an app or computer program for another.  Placing a writing prompt and paper is another easy one that doesn’t take a lot of preparation.

Implementing Literacy Centers - How do I prep my centers?


How Am I Going to Group my Students?

Centers are designed for small group instruction, and should not be completed in whole group as a lesson.  Again I reiterate that they are used for students to practice and master skills in a small group setting that have been previously taught during whole group.

Teachers have the option of grouping their students in two different ways.  You can have either mixed ability or leveled ability groups.  The type of grouping you choose depends on your style and what you envision your small group center rotations looking like.

Mixed ability groupings have students from a variety of academic levels related to literacy.  An example may be in a group of four students (one low, two medium, one high).  The strength in this type of grouping is that students can help each other while at centers if there are parts the lower academic student(s) don’t understand.  This way, you are free to teach a center or pull reading groups.

Leveled ability groupings have students who are all on the same/similar reading academic level.  An example would be four students who all know the letters of the alphabet, but are working on blending CVC words.  The strength in this type of grouping is that you can differentiate the materials you use when students come to your center.  You will be able to hone in on their group needs and either fill any holes they may have, or extend their learning past the regular curriculum.

You always have the flexibility of moving students around in their groups.  For mixed ability groupings, I switch kids at least once every quarter and in leveled ability groupings, I am constantly moving kids, based on progress monitoring and needs based assessments.

I recommend only having 4-5 students in each group.  This way, the groups stay small enough so that behavior disruptions do not occur and you have plenty of materials to keep them busy at each center/station.

Implementing Literacy Centers - How Am I Going to Group my Students?

What Should I Do During Center Time?

There are a few roles that the teacher can take during small group center time.  The three that I most commonly have encountered/seen are “Teacher as Facilitator”, “Teacher as Center”, and “Teacher as Reading Group”.

With the “Teacher as Facilitator”, the teacher is walking around during center time monitoring what students are doing at each station.  They are readily available to answer questions, clarify center materials, and have “teachable moments”.

Others have their role be “Teacher as Center”, where they are a station that all students rotate through during daily center time.  These teachers either choose different activities to do daily with all students or different materials to use with different student groups.  (This role works very well if you choose to group your students in leveled ability groups.)  Another option with this role is to identify the hardest center you are using that week and be that center to help students practice and master a difficult skill(s).

The last option is “Teacher as Reading Group”.  In this scenario, the students are all rotating through centers while the teacher is pulling leveled reading groups.  For this to work well and have all students engaged, you need to have strong procedures and routines in place.

Implementing Literacy Centers - In What Order Should I Teach the Centers?

Strong Procedures Allow For Smooth Transitions

I post a procedure chart during small group center time that shows my students what their expectations are during center work and transitions.  We practice these procedures for at least two weeks prior to me sitting at my reading group table.  During this two-week time, the activities at the center tables are easy to complete. (Examples: puzzles, books, play-doh, cut/glue, etc.)  This way I can focus on practicing the procedures and not explaining the centers.

I cannot stress enough the importance of practicing these procedures before starting your academic centers.  The more that you practice in the beginning, the smoother everything will operate the rest of the school year.  An example of Centers Procedures is below.

Literacy Center Procedures for Smooth Transitions

How Do I Model My Academic Expectations?

There are two ways that you can model for students how they are to complete a specific center.  The first is to model the expectation whole group, showing your students how they are supposed to complete the task.  The second is to teach the center to a small group of students (one at each table) and they can then teach their table teams.

If you are using the “Teacher as a Center” model, I recommend modeling the centers you want to use the following week at your table.  Then your students are familiar with how to complete the center when it is at an independent table the next week.

How Do I Know Who Still Needs to Practice?

All of our centers come with an accountability sheet, where students record their responses to the tasks.  My students each have a folder they keep their center work in each week.  At the end of the week, I check them and make a note on any kids I need to pull the following week to fill a hole.

I also try to walk around tables at least once per rotation each day, just to ensure my students are on task.  At this time I am also doing a quick scan to ensure that mistakes aren’t being made.  I’d rather catch them sooner and get it corrected than allow them to practice incorrectly all week.  “Practice makes perfect, but imperfect practice leaves us with more work to do than before.” ~ Anonymous

These accountability sheets can also be used as grades, or as documentation if you have a student who is struggling academically and you are pursuing intervention.

Get More Use Out of Your Centers

I change my centers out each week, to ensure that all skills are being met.  This also helps to reduce behavior issues and boredom in my students.  Here are a few tips to get the most out of your centers and more “bang for your buck!”.

Some of our centers have a lot of options for practice (there may be up to 30 passages in one center).  You can choose to place half of the materials in the center for the first week and then switch out and use the other half for the second week.  This is especially important if it is practice for a more difficult skill.

I also will hold onto those center(s) that my students struggled with the previous week after checking their accountability folders.  This center will be one that I review and reteach during small groups the next week.

Another use is to create “file folder centers” for your students.  Those students who finish assignments early can grab a folder and work until it is time to move on.  Watch this video for our “how to” on turning your centers into file folder activities.

Lastly is to set aside your centers for new students.  We’ve all been there, when a new student walks in the door who is “way behind” your class academically.  Having them work on past centers to fill academic holes is perfect.  It also allows you to differentiate for them during small group center time.


Storing Centers For the Long Term

Now that you have aligned the centers to your curriculum, what is the best way to store them.  I place each center with its pieces in a zipper envelope.  Every center I want to use in a given month then gets stored in a storage container.  I recommend the Iris Portable Project Bins, as they are small and stack easily.  Then I stick a monthly label on the bin and put it away in my closet or storage corner.

As I stated before, there will be some prep work the first year you implement centers.  But I like to think of it this way… Next year, just open the bin, pull out the center, and copy your accountability sheets.  TA DA!!!  Think of how little time that will take!

I hope you were able to take a few golden nuggets from this article.  If you have any ideas to add, be sure to add them below!

Written by: Janessa Fletcher


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