Environment: Overview

The physical environment plays a crucial role in helping children feel both comfortable and supported in their learning environment.

The physical environment is defined by four elements: space that is organized and appealing; print that makes your children’s learning and thinking visible; books that reflect your children’s home cultures and broaden their exposure to new ideas; and time that is devoted to literacy instruction. Creating a joyful place to learn requires thoughtful planning and attention so your room can evolve as the children’s needs and interests evolve. When working in conjunction, these elements will help you create a classroom where children feel safe to learn, have opportunities to work and grow both independently and collaboratively, and enjoy themselves as they progress along the path of becoming lifelong readers, writers, and thinkers.

Mini-Lessons that Support Successful Literacy Environments

In order to create and maintain a successful literacy environment, it is important to explicitly teach lessons that will support your goals. The following lessons are a few suggestions to launch this work. All of these suggestions use the language of “we, us, and our” in order to communicate shared responsibility. Remember to work with the children to establish procedures and guidelines. Specific and consistent procedures in the classroom will aid in creating an environment where independence, responsibility, and caring are paramount. Tailor and add lessons to make sure you are meeting the needs of your individual group of children.

Topic Suggested language explaining what you will be teaching and why it is important
Taking care of books “Today we are going to learn how to be responsible in our classroom library. We’ll learn exactly how to take care of our books when we are in the library so we can always enjoy them."
Housekeeping “Everyone is responsible for keeping our library clean. Let’s discuss ideas about how we can take care of our library and make this happen. As we work together on keeping our library clean, we will feel even more comfortable when we are reading.”
How to put books away properly “When we put books away with the covers facing out, it’s easier for the next person to find a book quickly. When we put our books away properly, we are showing how much we care for our books and our friends who will be reading them next.”
How to use the Book Hospital “It’s important that we put aside our books that are in poor condition so they can be repaired. This will help our library stay in good condition."
How to use the Home Lending Library “Today we will learn how to use our Home Lending Library. One of the best ways to become better at reading is to read at home.”
Readers understand how the library is organized “Today we will learn how our library is organized. Once we learn how our books are organized, we are ready to begin to choose books on our own.”
Using the child-made alphabet chart “We’ve finished our alphabet chart and it looks amazing! Today we will talk about how to use our alphabet chart to help us when we read and write.”
Understanding and using the labels around the room “Today we will practice using these labels that are displayed all around our room. The labels in our room identify different places and help us to understand where to put materials. They also help us with our reading and writing.”
Ways to use the word wall “Let’s discuss different ways that we can use the word wall to help us as readers and writers. The Word Wall can be a great resource to help us spell and read words.”
Understanding the purpose of anchor charts and how to use them “I’ve noticed that sometimes children ask questions that are already answered in the anchor charts in our room. Let’s review the different charts together and discuss ways to use them. When we learn this it will be like having another teacher in the room to help us.”
How to sit on the rug “Today we will learn how to sit on the rug so we can stay focused on learning. By focusing on your learning you will be taking care of yourself and each other.”

Reflect on Your Classroom’s Physical Environment

How does your physical environment support what you know about how children learn and what they need to learn? What feeling or mood does your physical environment convey? Use this viewing lens to reflect on your classroom’s physical environment.


Large Group Meeting Area

  • Materials & Storage

    • How are materials used?
    • How are they stored?
    • How do children gain access to items they need?
    • How do the materials support instruction?

  • Furniture

    • What furniture pieces are vital to instruction?
    • How does their arrangement support instruction?

  • Children’s Needs

    • How do children function in the space?
    • How are their various needs met?

Small Group Spaces

  • Materials & Storage

    • How are materials used?
    • How are they stored?
    • How do children gain access to items they need?
    • How do the materials support instruction?

  • Furniture

    • What furniture pieces are vital to instruction here?
    • How does their arrangement support instruction?

  • Children’s Needs

    • How do children function in the various spaces?
    • How are their individual needs met?

Children’s Desks

  • How are they grouped?
  • How does the arrangement support children’s learning?

Teacher’s Space

  • How is your space used?
  • How does it support your teaching?
  • Is it neat and uncluttered?

Wall and Display Space

  • Do your displays reflect current instruction?
  • Are they authentic and purposeful?


  • What is the overall ambiance in your classroom?
  • What child-centered elements have you incorporated?
  • How does the ambiance reflect the personalities of the children in your class?

Getting Started with the Physical Environment

Here are our recommendations for first steps you can take to build, change, or enhance the physical environment in your classroom.

The classroom contains a large group meeting area.

This is the heart of the classroom, a place where all children can be seen and heard and can actively participate. It should be a space that can be used for multiple purposes throughout the day, such as whole class instruction, read alouds, and class meetings. An environment with children sitting in close proximity to you and to each other promotes natural conversations, allows you to more easily assess children’s understanding, and fosters a sense of community.

  • Select a space with enough room for everyone to fit in rows and/or in a circle.

  • Use carpets and shelves to clearly define the space.

  • Place the space near a board or easel so your children’s learning can be charted.

  • The space should also be located near important displays (e.g., your word wall), so that you and your children can easily access and refer to them.

  • Teach procedures for how to sit on the carpet and interact in this space.

The children’s desks and/or tables are arranged to promote collaboration.

The children are seated in groups of three to six rather than in rows. This seating arrangement conserves floor space for literacy environment essentials, such as a large group meeting area, a small group meeting area, a classroom library, and literacy centers. Additionally, when children are grouped together for learning opportunities, it sends the message that the classroom is child-centered and that collaboration and discourse are valued.

  • Assign children to heterogeneous groupings, taking into consideration gender, diverse needs, social issues, and levels of achievement.

  • Arrange the groups’ desks or tables to enhance the flow of traffic to other areas of the room.

  • Provide opportunities for children to work together on tasks.

The classroom contains an organized library with quality books and comfortable seating.

The library corner is the designated area in the classroom where quality children’s literature is organized, categorized, and displayed. It is the focal point in the classroom and has cozy furniture items and spaces where children can read alone or together. In a small classroom, the library corner is often combined with the large group meeting space. Children are taught to value this space and understand how to work in it. Having a central comfortable place to display and interact with books makes children feel at home and elevates the importance of books in the classroom.

  • Designate a corner of the classroom that is away from noisy areas, the classroom door, and traffic paths of the room.

  • Furnish the area with a rug, enough comfy seating for multiple children, accessible shelving within the children’s reach, and intimate lighting (lamps).

  • Designate a display area in the library to promote books, authors, and children’s recommendations.

  • Create a child-friendly check-out system to circulate books.

  • Teach procedural lessons on how to use the library and take care of books.

  • Post anchor charts to remind the children of the procedures.

Clusters of books are organized according to theme, genre, and/or author.

The classroom book collection contains a variety of high quality children’s books in a variety of genres that are developmentally appropriate for the children’s age and reading levels, and that appeal to and represent different children’s interests, genders, and cultures. Books are grouped into categories based on the particular collection and the needs of those in the classroom. The categories can be based on content area, author, or genre. Each category is labeled and has a designated spot, shelf, or other container in the library or around the room. Children help maintain the organization system and are taught how to do so. Organizing books in this way gives children easy access to books that are on topics they are learning about, match their interests, and/or are by favorite authors. A vast and balanced book collection tells children that this is a classroom where reading is valued, purposeful, and constant, and where books that meet the needs and interests of everyone are available.

  • Create categories for the library that best meet the needs of the class. Make sure that you have sufficient books for each category that you designate.

  • Acquire a sufficient number of heavy-duty, colorful containers to accommodate all of the categories.

  • Make labels for each category. Include an image on each label to support emergent readers and language learners. Laminate the labels and securely affix them to their respective containers.

  • Consider color-coding the containers as an additional support (e.g., red for fiction, blue for nonfiction, and yellow for poetry).

  • A collection of leveled books can be included in the library to support children’s search for readable books.

  • Teach procedural lessons and post anchor charts to help the children navigate, use, and maintain the library.

Print is authentic, not commercial.

A print-rich classroom is filled with authentic print, written in teacher and children’s handwriting, that is developed with, by, and/or in front of the children. Children are taught to use authentic print to support their literacy learning. Displayed authentic print of different types, such as anchor charts, word walls, labels, and child writing, gives the message that this is the children’s classroom and that print is purposeful. It also makes evidence of children’s thinking permanent and public.

  • Begin the school year with labels only on classroom areas and material containers. All other print will be introduced and displayed in the children’s presence.

  • Display print on light backgrounds with dark ink. Do not use multiple colors in a single word or sentence. Make your letters easy to read, avoiding possible distractions such as “cute” curlicues.

  • Co-create anchor charts with the children. Each one should be co-created during a lesson as a substantive part of the lesson.

  • Display anchor charts in areas where they are needed and where the children can easily see and read them.

  • Be sure to retire anchor charts when they are no longer needed.

  • Display “juicy words,” the rich vocabulary from the daily Intentional Read Aloud lesson.

  • Display children’s writing that shows the diversity of development in the class.

  • Change the children’s writing displays frequently to reflect instructional focus and children’s growth.

  • Encourage the children to use the print in the classroom to support their writing.

Establish a daily schedule that incorporates key components of a comprehensive and balanced literacy program.

A minimum of 90 minutes, but ideally 120 minutes, should be allocated daily to the literacy block. This includes daily time for foundational skills instruction; modeled, shared, guided, and independent reading and writing; and opportunities for discussion and collaboration. The right balance of grouping methods and instructional practices is planned to meet the needs of all children, and skills and strategies are taught in the context of reading and writing. A literacy block that devotes enough time to high quality comprehensive instruction contains components that require varying amounts of active child participation, allowing the teacher to gradually release responsibility to the children during the process of teaching them to be better readers and writers.

  • Plan and teach an Intentional Read Aloud lesson to address comprehension and vocabulary objectives appropriate for the class as a whole.

  • Engage the children in modeled writing and shared reading using Message Time Plus.

  • Conduct mini-lessons in reading and writing to help children learn effective strategies that will help them become better readers and writers.

  • Provide small group reading instruction each day to better address the diverse instructional needs of the children.

  • Give the children an opportunity to independently practice the skills and strategies taught in the whole group and small group lessons through independent reading and work time activities.

Post the daily schedule and explain it to children.

Create and post a child-friendly daily schedule in a prominent area of the classroom. Use images to support the children’s ability to read it. The posted daily schedule will help the school day run more efficiently and facilitate transitions by giving children a visual reminder of what is happening next. When children know what is going to happen, when it will happen, and what they need to do, they feel more secure.

  • Create labels, including images, for each of the class activities of the day.

  • Display the labels in chronological order in a pocket chart, on a whiteboard with magnets, or on a bulletin board.

  • Engage the children in reading the schedule aloud each day at the beginning of the day.

  • Questions such as “When is lunch?” can be answered by referring the children to the daily schedule display.

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