High quality literacy centers are a critical component in an effective English Language Arts curriculum both because they provide individual/small group time to work on specific skills or practices and, because when done well, they allow the teacher to provide robust differentiated reading instruction to small groups of students. Whatever your model for differentiating reading instruction, literacy centers are generally “the” critical foundation for providing all students with meaningful tasks in ways that support teacher time for targeted small group reading instruction.
Here’s a brief video on Teaching Channel, by the way, that gives an overview (5 min) of both guided reading and use of centers. What I particularly like about the video is the teacher’s explanation of how she models and teaches the social and cognitive behaviors associated with particular centers before expecting students to do them and then. In addition, she discusses how small group time can be used occasionally to model and practice center work rather than use to support a guided reading lesson. In other words, it is good instruction to provide targeted and scaffolded support for center based learning activities rather than assuming students can independently engage in high quality learning absence direct instruction, modeling, and coaching. This teacher understands that successful centers are based upon providing students with modeling and guided practice initially under her oversight to ensure that students have the patterns of practice in place before independence is expected. The first video (above) is a fifth-grade example. Here’s another one of a kindergarten teacher (longer at about 15 min) talking about how he creates routines to support management.
There are two compelling characteristics of high quality literacy centers that must be held in tension: you want activities that are routine enough to students that they don’t require monitoring and support by adults and yet, simultaneously, provide tasks that are engaging, motivating, and cognitively challenging to students. In other words, you want to create learning environments where kids are actually supported to grow, develop, and put into practice new literacy skills and yet do so without a great deal of adult support or monitoring. Challenging indeed!
We have created a planning template that helps identify the characteristics of high quality literacy centers. We use when planning and evaluating centers with teachers. There is incredible complexity in designing tasks that support differentiated learning, don’t become routine (and thus boring – think management problem!), and can be both cognitively engaging and socially rewarding…all without the teachers constantly present to monitor or support. We encourage teachers to work together to create centers. In one school, the interventionists support this by creating tubs with center tasks organized by literacy focus and skill.
Two great books we like to recommend, both by Debbie Diller are: ·
Practicewith Purpose: Literacy Work Stations for Grades 3-6 by Debbie Diller ·
GrowingIndependent Learners: From Literacy Standards to Stations, K-3 by Debbie Diller
The LOCI Rubric for LIteracy Centers provides an opportunity for teachers to self-assess or peers and coaches to provide feedback and support on creating high quality literacy centers. Below, I share some of most frequent"Ah, Ha" moments we hear from teachers during professional development on centers:
1. Differentiated centers: Not every student needs to do every center. Or written another way, you can and should design centers to align with students’ needs. Students who don’t need to work on letter-sound correspondence should likely not spent time on that center. Centers can be selected based upon student choice and interest as well as by teacher assignment based upon strategy or need.
2. Flexible Grouping: eachers often think that students should rotate as a group through their centers which means that children interact with only those in their differentiated reading small group. This can exacerbate behavior issues as well as limit the possibility for heterogeneous grouping. Significant research supports the social and cognitive value of providing students and opportunity to work with peers of different linguistic ability and skill level. An “old” classic piece I like to share with teachers is an article by Ginny Goatley and Taffy Raphael that looks at a small group of students in a book club (which is an activity that is ideal for older students as part of “center” time). It examines the conversation and expertise around comprehending a book in a group that includes a special education student, an English language learner and two “regular” education students. Each of the students hold expertise at different times.
3. Explicit instruction, which includes modeling and coaching, on the social, as well as cognitive, aspects of a center tasks: It’s essential to teach children how to interact with each other; ask questions (can you explain why you think that); deal with conflict; get help without interrupting the class or your time with a small group. You will want to practice all these behaviors before expecting students to independently engage with centers. You need a well-organized structure and specific, non-interruptive strategies, for students to get assistance. I’ve walked into classrooms where 4-6 students are waiting with their hand raised for the teacher to look up from her small group reading instruction. This obviously increases off-task behavior and management frustrations all the way around. Teach them how to problem solve; allow them to ask peers for assistance; strategies to move on to another task when struggling or silently to come stand next to you and wait to be noticed – all are ways to increase engagement and minimize disruptions.
4. Choice and social interaction increase engagement: Anytime any learner, whether adult or student, has choice, it increases the likelihood of engagement. We are social beings. That doesn’t mean we always want to talk or work with others. However, while some centers should support independent creativity and exploration; others should create opportunities for conversation and discussion which builds oral language; forces students to articulate their thinking; creates an accountability system; and adds to students’ general enjoyment and often engagement in the task.
5. Design centers in a way that reduces changing the social routines and norms but allows for differentiated access or focus on literacy skill: The class example is a reading or writing center where students are expected to select a book (free choice of books increases motivation because interest is involved), read, and then respond in a writing journal, letter, or personal review. The primary task and routines may stay constant but the genres; prompts; topics; focus may all change. Essentially, students know the expected behaviors and how to access the materials but they get to choose and constantly over time differentially engage in the task. In addition, there might be new standards or learning outcomes that they are expected to transfer into the activity (e.g. use a sticky note on a page every time they make a prediction).
6. Centers should be tied to learning standards: I should walk into a room and very clearly be able to identify what students are learning, practicing, and working on and which standards (or literacy skills) guide the choice of materials; design of the task; and assessment of performance. This seems like an obvious statement but teaching done well is incredibly time consuming and it can become easy to pull out "old standbys" that are really "fun" and thus keep students engaged but aren't tied to explicit learning goals for students.
7. Don’t change everything at once: We generally recommend that small group reading instruction (guided reading or whatever differentiated structure is used) not begin until several weeks into the school year to provide time both for doing assessments and for building the routines to support effective literacy centers. That means that you never, ever want to make dramatic changes in more than one center at a time. When you do make changes, you need to give sufficient time and support to ensure students understand where to get the materials and how to interact.
8. Use other adults in the room to support learning and engagement not focused on behavior and management: Some schools have the luxury of parent volunteers, paraprofessionals, or other adult supports to facilitate the effectiveness of small group differentiated reading groups/literacy centers. A common mistake, however, is for the classroom teacher to fail to help the adult assistant understand the goals of the activity and roles that best support student engagement. I’ve seen adults “help” students by essentially doing the task for them and, in other cases, standing like bouncers ready to pounce on students who are off-task. It’s worth the investment in time to make clear the learning goals for a center and the expected social interaction processes and then give tips or strategies on how to support student engagement.
Now let me tell you about an unintended outcome of a recent PD on high quality literacy centers: After doing a workshop with teachers on effective literacy centers during an early release on a Monday, I went in Tuesday morning to do some walk-throughs of classrooms to observe centers in action and provide formative feedback and support to teachers. One of the classroom teachers had really taken to heart the desire to improve the quality and rigor of her literacy centers. She had created overnight a number of new centers (see tip #7) and modeled them to students. One student, Deshawn, was distraught though, and he kept getting more and more upset. I finally asked the teacher if I could take him out so she could focus on the rest of the students. She nodded and I took Deshawn out with me. What was wrong? He had been looking forward to the Lego center all day. He wanted to make a Robot. He didn’t have Legos at home. He only got to play with them at school and now, with an increased attention and focus on “literacy” centers, Deshawn was only going to get to use Legos on the days when there was indoor recess. He was heartbroken. Legos had lost out to literacy. I didn’t want to go back in and disrupt the class so Deshawn and I sat down with paper and pencil and he drew me the robot he wanted to build. We labelled it. And then talked about all the functions it could do. He then told me a story about “Billy the Robot.” Essentially, then, he engaged in a literature rich practice, because we structured a “robot building” activity into a narrative construction of a Robot.
This experience reminded me of the need to ensure that young children especially have the opportunity for play; hands on manipulation; and an opportunity to construct and explore their world. It’s also a reminder about the multiple forms that literacy can take and the range of tools that can serve as a prompt for literacy development. Deshawn wanted to tell a story. For him, the story began with hands-on building. A focus on creating robust literacy experiences need not preclude hands-on play. My own son told and wrote marvelous stories at a young age based upon the narratives he physically built with his train center and then, a few years later, in his Minecraft world.
I often hear teachers of young children bemoan the increased focus on learning standards as if this precludes the wonderful robust experiences we want children to have. However, what we need to do is ensure that activities are goal directed and designed so they provide rich opportunities for learning, use of language, and literacy. In Deshawn’s case, building Billy the Robot was easily tied to telling a story. It’s not hard to imagine, is it, creating a center that has all the qualities this little guy (smiling in the last interaction between he and I) wants but also structured to require and lead to the construction of a story or use of vocabulary to model, support, and extend language and literacy development? Robust literacy centers can both engage students in wonderfully, creative, inventive play and yet be designed (with built in accountability mechanisms) to support language and literacy development.