Pre-planning the literacy and language activities children will work on during Independent Work Time is crucial.

As Beverly Tyner advises in her book, Small Group Instruction, children should be practicing what they are currently or have recently learned. This is not a time to introduce anything new. It’s an ideal time for children to get the practice they need with what has already been taught - and particularly a good time to review things for which they have a demonstrated need for additional practice.

Types of Centers

The number and the kinds of centers you set up in your classroom will vary depending on the age of the children you work with and the number of children in your class. There are several centers you will find in most classrooms such as the library center, the writing center, and the ABC/Word Work center because these address the most essential literacy and language skills emerging readers and writers need to develop. Other centers such as the listening center, poetry center, and Big Book center also speak to literacy and language development and provide children with opportunities to apply their skills in different authentic literacy experiences.

The Purpose of the Center

If you have a clear sense of the purpose of the center you want to plan for, the tasks you need to create or want children to get practice with will become much clearer. To determine the purpose, you have to know your class. What should they be doing independently? What is right for their age and stage of development? For example, if you are creating a library center, think about the purpose of the center. At a library center, children practice:

  • Selecting books
  • Decoding using authentic texts
  • Comprehending books
  • Having ideas while they read
  • Talking about books
  • Writing about books

The content should then flow from the purpose and match your goals. For example, at the library center, children can:

  • Read to self
  • Read with a partner
  • Read and understand familiar books
  • Read and understand books at their independent reading levels
  • Share favorite parts of a book with a partner
  • Write a response to a book
  • Write a book review
  • Keep a reading log of the books they have finished

It’s necessary to launch these activities one a time, starting small with a single activity that has been taught and modeled to the class, and building up to a menu of choices. This menu will allow both you and your children to make strategic choices about how and what they spend their time working on.

As you can see from the list above, these tasks tend to be generally open-ended and allow for natural differentiation. Take for example, “read to self.” This is a task that can be completed by any reader in your classroom, regardless of their reading or language levels. It is differentiated by the books the children choose and the length of time they read. It also involves choice, a hallmark of child engagement. Children can choose which book they read to themselves, which will impact the amount of time they read, their comprehension, and their enjoyment.

Some center tasks and activities will result in a product (such as a list of words that rhyme with “bat”) while others will celebrate the processes of literacy learning. Asking children to read together in buddy reading, for example, will not result in an actual product but it will result in stronger oral language skills, reading skills, and a joyful outlook.

When planning learning tasks, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What level of reading and writing can the children do without me being beside them?
  • What activities have we done together as a whole group or in small groups that children can now manage on their own?
  • What kinds of support (in the way of familiar materials) can I place at a station to help them be successful? For example, familiar read alouds or familiar reading response sheets.
  • What additional language considerations will need to be addressed in order for all of my children to be successful?

Reflecting on Center Tasks

Use this checklist when reflecting on the tasks and activities for your centers. The goal is for children to have the opportunity to review what they have previously been taught and solidify their literacy and language skills. Giving children choices in the tasks they complete is equally important.

  • Are these tasks simple for you to create and teach?
  • Are these tasks familiar to the children because they have experienced them in either a whole class or small group setting?
  • Do the tasks include content that the children are learning or have already learned?
  • Do the tasks match the learning goals?
  • Do the children have choices in the content? In the process? In the product?
  • Do the tasks include listening and speaking, reading, and writing?
  • Do the tasks have language supports so all children can participate? Do the tasks have visual cues for the children to connect new language with the expectations?
  • Does the task have a product or is it process-oriented?

Strategy Sheets

Tasks at centers should be differentiated so children can work at the skills and strategies that best meet their needs. Open ended reading responses such as strategy sheets are one tool for supporting differentiation.

Strategy sheets are useful templates that can be used during Independent Work Time for children to record their thinking about what they are reading. Strategy sheets often focus on helping children work through and record their understanding or comprehension of a text or a piece of a text. However, they can be used for a broad range of literacy skills, either before children read, while they are reading, or after they complete a book. By recording their thinking on a strategy sheet, readers make their thinking explicit and concrete, allowing them to revisit and perhaps revise what they first thought. These can also be used by teachers to check in with children’s thinking about their books.

Although strategy sheets may resemble worksheets their purpose is quite different. Worksheets are book specific, asking children to answer specific questions about a particular book. For example, a worksheet might prompt children to describe how Fern changes in the story Charlotte’s Web. Strategy sheets, on the other hand, are open-ended and are generic enough to be used with a wide range of texts. For example, a strategy sheet might ask children to read a narrative text and describe how one of the characters changes. The open-ended strategy sheet offers children choices and thus can be more motivating and draw more information from them as they write.

When introducing strategy sheets you should always model how to use them before asking children to use them independently. This can be done in a whole group or small group setting, such as Guided Reading, depending on the need. Depending upon the child’s language ability, you might consider adding some additional structures and support such as word banks for targeted vocabulary and partially completed graphic organizational tools as models. Once children understand how to use the strategy sheet and have had some guided practice with it, it can then be placed at a library or reading center for children to work on independently.

Ideally, strategy sheets provide short-term scaffolds. Once children have internalized the thinking that skillful readers do automatically, they won’t need to record it any longer. Confer with your children to see how the strategy sheets are helping them move towards automaticity.

It is important to remember that strategy sheets should not necessarily be completed each time children read independently. As with all reading supports, if they are overused they can end up interfering with a child’s comprehension and motivation to read, rather than supporting it.

Updating Centers

Keeping centers engaging and manageable is a goal many teachers work towards. Spending hours creating centers that rotate on a weekly basis, and contain “cutesy” materials, however, can been enervating and does not reflect the best use of our time. Keep it simple so children can learn procedures. Keep it simple so you aren’t overwhelmed with the amount of preparation. And keep it simple so children can focus on the learning and content.

There should be many times when you are not introducing anything new to the center. The activities themselves remain the same. For example, at the ABC/Word Study center, you might have an option for children to sort words. You have showed them how to do this and they are proficient at the procedures around it. This is an activity that remains at the center relatively unchanged in terms of the procedures. However, the words that children sort will change on a regular basis, depending on the spelling pattern you are studying. In other words, the content of the activity changes but the process does not.

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