Literacy Learning Centers

06 March 2013

I have had many questions about how I run literacy centers in my classroom.  I thought it was about time I did a post on them.

Let me start by saying that I love creating literacy centers and my students love going to them!   The following is taken from a packet I created for a course I taught on Literacy Centers.  I revamped the packet and if you would like to check it out, click here.  I have created links to my previous related posts and products within this post, just click on the blue words.

What are Literacy Learning Centers?
       Literacy centers are independent literacy based activities designed for students working in small groups.  These activities should take the students about 20-30 minutes to complete.   The activities include centers such as Book Nook, Listening Center, Story Unscramble, SpellingCenter, and many more.  The students complete a rotation of centers in one week.  The centers are designed for the practice and reinforcement of a specific theme and/or phonic element of the week.

Why Use Literacy Centers?
Literacy based centers enable the classroom teacher to focus on his/her guided reading group, while the rest of the class is actively engaged in meaningful literacy activities.  Center based learning fosters team-work, confidence, and a love of learning.   Literacy Learning Centers are designed to take the place of workbooks and “busy work.”   Do you remember when you were a student and the teacher left an overwhelming list of workbook pages on the board for you to complete while he/she met with his/her reading groups?  Well, centers are a fun and efficient alternative to workbook pages.  The same skills can be addressed in centers as workbooks.  

Creating a Productive Learning Environment
Before your even think about beginning centers, you must have your rules and routines in place.   A great book on setting up routines is Harry Wong’s The First Days of School.  Classroom routines help students become better citizens, learners, and friends.  Students need to be taught the following:
1.    How to leave and enter the room
2.   Where to locate classroom materials
3.   Where to store and organize belongings
4.   How to respond to an emergency signal
5.   How to sharpen a pencil
6.   How to use the bathroom facilities
7.   How to respond to your cues (i.e. lights out means quiet)
8.   How to ask the teacher a question

There are many more routines that need to be discussed, modeled, and practiced on the first few days of school.   With time and positive reinforcement, your classroom will become a smooth running, productive, learning environment. 
Assigning classroom jobs to students will help to ameliorate student interruptions during guided reading.  Below, I have listed the jobs that help keep center time running smoothly.
Center Helper:  The classroom center helper takes out the center baskets before centers starts and places them on the appropriate table.
Classroom Greeter:  The classroom greeter greets all visitors who come knocking at your classroom door.  If the visitors have come to share birthday treats, the greeter knows where to get them birthday stickers and you can stay at your guided reading group.  The greeter can be trained by you to handle a number of different situations.
Pencil Technician:  Sharpens the pencils at the beginning or the end of the day so that there are always sharpened pencils on hand for centers.

Rules and Consequences
There must be a reward and consequence system in your classroom.  Unfortunately, students are not innately willing to follow the rules.  The discipline plan that I follow in my classroom is from Lee Canter's Assertive Discipline.  You can read more about my classroom behavior system here.  
When your rules and routines are in place, then you are ready to begin centers.  I start by modeling one center with the whole class, such as spelling center.  As a class we will rotate through the centers until 4 or 5 centers have been modeled.  This may take one or more days to do.  Once, I feel the class is ready for independent centers, I set up the centers for them to rotate through independently.  Instead of pulling a guided reading group, I walk around to monitor and assist the students at the centers.  This is a good time to take mental notes of which students work well together and who should be separated.  You may need to observe the students for one day’s rotation or the whole week.  I prefer to observe for an entire week.  I make sure to applaud exemplarily center work and use much positive reinforcement during this time.  The goal of modeling and teaching centers is to get the students to work independently, responsibly, and productively.  After, the rules and routines are established for both your classroom and centers, adding new centers will become easier.

Center Set-Up
Where to set up and house your centers:
      Centers may be housed at designated center tables or the centers may be mobile and housed in baskets.  I do a combination of both.  Book Nook and Computer Center would obviously need to stay stationary.  I also keep the Spelling, Listening, and Art Centers at the same tables, while the other centers are taken to the students’ desks.  The students’ desks are arranged in clusters of 6-7 desks to create a table.  The supplies for these centers are always stored in a basket.  

You may also want to keep a small garbage pail at each center for easy clean up.  The center group will be responsible for emptying the garbage pail when they clean up the center.   I like everything to be away when center time is over.  Clearly label the center baskets and supplies.  Make sure the students know where to get the center baskets and where to return them.  This is an important routine you should go over before you begin centers.  Wherever you set up your centers, make sure you can see all of the centers from your guided reading table.

Center Rotation and Grouping
      I have a bulletin board set up as a center rotation board to show the students what center they are at.  This is also called a “Center Management Board.”  See my photo for an example.  I velcro the students’ photos to different colored squares to represent groups.  For literacy centers, I have 4-5 heterogeneously grouped children in a center group and usually have 6 groups.  I try to place only one child from each guided reading group in a center.  That way, when a guided reading group is called, there are still other students left in the center group.  This is important for centers like BINGO, Buddy Reading, and Memory.  Above the group photos are the center cards.  I rotate these cards to the right when we rotate centers.  The center cards are just clipped on for easy movement.  Velcro also works well for rotating the cards.   Under each center group is a center reward chart, where the students can earn “Center Stars.”  Center rotation may also be set up using a pocket chart with students’ names on index cards.  Or you may use library pockets with popsicle sticks to represent the students.

Manage Center Behavior and Productivity:
Introduce centers slowly.  Teaching procedures for material use and housekeeping will lead to successful independent center time.  You can introduce the centers in a whole class setting and brainstorm with your students what the center should look like and sound like.

  •  Keep your students accountable for their independent center work by periodically walking around while centers are going on.  I like to have my centers run for 30 minutes and have my guided reading group for only 20-25 minutes.  This gives me enough time to observe the students in their center groups. 
  • Announce when there is only five minutes left until clean-up.
  • Reward center groups that have worked well together.  I staple a rewards chart under each center group on the center board.  After every rotation, I decided if the group earned a “Center Star.”  This is simply a star sticker on the reward chart.  To earn a center star, a group must work well together, clean up nicely, and work productively.  When a group earns five center stars, the group is allowed to pick a prize from the prize box.
  • Reward individual students for trying their best.  At the end of center rotations, I have the students sit down at their desks with all of their center work they have done that day.  Students may stand up to share their work with the class.  The other students are encouraged to give positive comments on the center work.  Not all students have to share.  I walk around during the sharing and look at the students center work.  I give students one ticket if they have used their center time productively.  The students store their tickets in snack size zip-lock bags and can earn them throughout the day for other positive behaviors.  At the end of the day, the students can cash in their tickets. Five tickets equal one prize from the prize box.  If I feel a student has done an exemplary job on his/her center work, it gets hung up on the  “Exemplary Center Work” clothes line.  Students strive to get their work on this line.
The cute border above is by The Bubbly Blond!  My adorable font is by Cara Carroll!

  • Minimize interruptions by designating "Center Captains."  Select a student to be the "Center Captain for the other students.  You can even make a cute little "Center Captain" necklace or place a star next to/on his/her photo.  Make a stop sign to hold up to students who come up to you during guided reading.  (Interruptions are allowed for emergency situations.)

      I have a poster hanging in my room to remind students of the things they can do when they finish their centers early.  It is an easy reminder for the students and I can just point to the poster if they come up to me.  A great thing to have in students’ “Stay in School Folder” is a "Bonus Packet."  These are coloring sheets, word searches, and other fun activities that relate to the month.   Basically, it is all the extra worksheets from my monthly files that I don’t do with the students but are easy enough for them to do independently.  *I have had a few requests to create "Bonus Packets" to sell. That is one of the projects on my "To Do List" for this summer.

Center Focus
      For literacy centers, I focus on the phonic element and story theme of the week.  So if the phonic element is short e and the story is about fish, I will have the students read and write the room for short e words.  The Writing Center will focus on fish and fish books will be on display in the book nook.  The Listening Center will either have a book that follows the phonic element or the theme.  The same holds true for my choice of guided reading books.  If there is no reading story for the week, I will focus on the holiday for the month or a thematic unit. 

Time Limit
      You may choose your own center rotation time limit.  I prefer center rotations to last for half an hour each.  This gives the students ample time to settle into their centers before I pull a guided reading group. 

Unfinished Center Work
      Students who are pulled from their group for guided reading are not responsible for their center work.  I find that most of my students finish at least part of their work when they are pulled for guided reading.  If students do not finish their work and have been working productively they are not penalized.  If this happens to students all the time in a certain center you may want to revaluate the center task.  If students choose not to do any center work, I send it home with a form (see form) and it has to be returned to school the next day.

I hope this post helped you.  I created a Literacy Center Packet from this post.  The images shared in this post can be found in the packet.  Click here to check it out on TpT.  I plan on adding more to the packet.  Right now the packet is only $2.50.  As I add more, I will raise the price.  So, if you want to purchase now and download again when the updates come, you will be saving yourself some money.  I am also open to suggestions for what you would like added to the packet. 

Thanks for reading!


  1. Thanks for the shout out! I love the way you setup the pictures and the rotation of active and inactive centers! I may need to adapt mine! Ohhh and smart thinking with the star and clean-up!

    1. You are welcome for the shout out! I love the borders. I am glad you liked the post, too.

  2. Love all the detail! I'll be back to reread this bost this weekend.

    1. Okay post not bost. I'm a little tired tonight.

    2. Thanks Cecilia! I hear you...

  3. These centers look like they have taken many trial and errors to get here. I am sure that through the different trails you have found what works well for the class. Thanks for putting this post together. They are so packed and organized nicely. I am going to share it what some of my co-workers that say they can't do it!

    Thanks for the interesting post.
    :o) V.
    Special Teacher for Special Kids

    1. Thanks V. I like to switch it up. I get bored myself. The students love the variety and I think it helps them stay focused. I introduced a Fluency Center by DeeDee Wills last month and they went nuts over it. I love that they think learning is fun.

  4. Oh I just love this. I do my centers similar to this but I love the behavior management tip! I am going to implement that next week. I always have trouble getting them to work well together, to stay on task and clean up their station nicely! Thanks!!

    Fluttering In First

    1. Jessica, this year my students are still struggling with cleaning up! Even with the stars. As for working together, they are getting better. Sometimes, I just randomly call out a center that looks like they are working quietly and tell them to go get a prize. All the other center groups get real quiet after that!

  5. This is such an excellent post about centers!! I just sent it to my student teacher from last year since I would have loved reading something like this when I was just getting started. The star stickers is also a great idea. I may need to work that into our routine.

    ❤ -Stephanie
    Falling Into First

  6. Erica- This was so incredibly helpful! I think that I was one of your followers who had emailed you about centers and guided reading. I have been struggling to make them work this year(my first year in first) and I look forward to using these great ideas to help me set up my centers for next year. I tried the daily 5 but it did not work for my kiddos. They love centers! The pictures are sooo helpful. I just purchased your spelling center book from Scholastic and am looking forward to adding it this year! You rock! The amount of thought and time you put into this post is much appreciated. Your firsties are so lucky to have such an amazing teacher!

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    Ms. Emma's Edventure

    1. You are welcome Emma! Centers take a bit to figure out what works for you. I personally think Daily 5 is boring but easier to set up. I am always rushing on Monday morning setting up my centers, but once they are set up, everything runs smoothly. Good luck with blogging. Thank you for the kind words!

  7. Love these ideas, especially for accountability. The page you send home to parents is very helpful...I have kids work outside at recess on their work if they don't finish, but think it would be really great for parents to know and see when their children aren't being as productive as they should be, and also to see what work they're doing during centers. Thanks!

    1. You are welcome! Thank you so much for commenting.

  8. This is a great post Erica! I love seeing how others set up stations in their room. Thanks for sharing in detail how you do yours.

    I hope you don't mind, but I pinned it and I'm sharing it on FB with my followers! Thanks again.

    First Grade and Fabulous

    1. I don't mind at all! Pin and share away. Thank you!!!!

  9. I love your center set-up. I recently revamped mine and went from 2 centers per day, with 4 kids at each center to just one center a day with 2 kids at each. We were trying to rush through 2 centers in about 30 minutes, now they have a half hour at one center. It really made a huge difference. I have something like your bonus packet, I call it a challenge pack and it stays in their folder too. I always have about 10 options for them to do when they're finished with a center. We're finally at that sweet spot where everything is humming along and before you know it the year will be over! Pinning this to come back to over the summer when I'm planning for next year.Thanks for sharing all of your great ideas! Your kids are so lucky to have you :)
    Sunny Days In Second Grade

  10. Love this post! Great information and pictures about centers. My students rotate through centers for a week also. Instead of the stop sign to keep interruptions at a minimum, I use a little lantern that I got at the Dollar Tree. If it is on, students know not to disturb the group. Love all your ideas.


    2nd Grade Pig Pen

  11. Great explanation of centers and set up. I always have so many questions from readers about this. Your detailed plan is an easy layout for readers to understand. Nicely done Erica.
    A Differentiated Kindergarten

  12. Posts like this makes me miss being in the regular classroom. I am definitely going to share with our first grade teachers. I love your organizational ideas!
    Jd's Rockin' Readers

  13. Wowzers, girl! This is YeT another inpirational post! You are SUCH a wonderful blogger! Thanks for all the tips!
    Growing Firsties

  14. Love the way you set up your center. The pictures are a great idea along with the colorful bins! I'm loving all your ideas that I may just have to steal. The greeter idea is just so adorable and I could totally use a center helper! Thanks for this awesome post. =)

  15. Thanks so much for this post, Erica! I love how everything is so organized! I am returning from a year-long maternity leave and I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. This post has really helped me get my ideas together :)
    I have one question... What do you do with the kids' work when they are done? Do you put it all in one place, do you keep it, or do they just take it home?
    Thanks for your help,

  16. I know we teach different grade levels Erica, but I feel I've learned so much from you. Thank you for sharing such detailed information on's always so helpful to read how others manage these independent activities. :)

  17. I loved reading about your set up! I'm already planning to use your group star charts. So easy and sensible! Thank you so much for sharing!
    Peace, Love, and First Grade

  18. I love your set up! I'm saving this post for when I get a full time position and can re-vamp my routine! Great ideas and techniques!
    The Teacher's Treasure Chest

  19. I love your post! Thanks for sharing! :)
    Crayons and Curls

  20. Wonderful post! I do my stations very similar to yours! I *love* that "unfinished work" note. SO many times I have students that do not finish work..sometimes it is their fault (for playing and such) and others it really is a lack of time. I try to, but we don't always have time to go back and catch up! I love that it holds them accountable, though!
    Thanks Erica!!
    Rowdy in Room 300

  21. This is so helpful, thank you. Some of it I was already doing, but many things were new to me. I LOVE all the ideas, and plan on using them to make my centers run more efficiently:)

  22. Hi Erica, do you have a post that shows what is in your center bins? I'd love to see what exactly you're centers are. Thanks!

  23. Thanks for always sharing your posts in such great detail! I love the accountability note! Often times because center work isn't graded, my students THINK they don't have to to put as much effort into it. I've been using a WOW work display to serve as motivation, but LOVE your note in terms of accountability! Thanks for the idea! =)

    A+ Firsties

  24. Love the note home to parents to hold children accountable for finishing their work! I am always trying to scramble to find time for children to finish up their incomplete center work during some other part of the school day. Great post!

    Kindergarten Kel

  25. This will be my first year teaching 1st grade and your post has been an EXCELLENT help as I prepare to organize what centers will look like in my room. Thank you!


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