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Learning Centers

Posted 06-27-2010 at 04:13 PM by Mariely
Updated 07-01-2010 at 10:02 PM by Mariely

Learning Centers is a topic that comes up from time to time. So, here's some information about centers.

I'm actually going to try my best to explain how we do centers in our district. Being that I was the Intermediate Reading Coach last year, I can offer a bit of what we have shared with our teachers.

For one, centers should be a part of your differentiated instruction time within your reading block. We have a total of 90 minutes of reading instruction in our district. Of those 90 minutes, 50 minutes are for direct instruction or whole group instruction and the remaining 40 minutes are for your centers or differentiated instruction time.

You start planning for your centers by first placing your students into groups according to their reading needs. We sometimes tell teachers to have 3 or 4 groups depending on the amount of students in the classroom. Each group should have no more than 7 students, 5-6 students preferably.

After you have your student groups, you can start planning out what type of center activities to provide for the students. Now, the centers should not be places the students go to just to go to them. You actually have to give students accountability for going to each center by providing:
  1. Rules and Expectations for attending the center
  2. An activity for the students to complete that is meaningful and differentiated according to their abilities
  3. An organized system where students know where to get the activities and where to turn them in
The key to implementing centers is ORGANIZATION. You really need to think about every little detail. In addition, because these learning centers are occuring during Reading time, all centers should be geared towards reading instruction and should reflect one of the Big 5 components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). You can also have centers during other subjects such as math, but be sure that the learning centers focus around the subject that you are teaching at that time.

Some ideas for centers during Reading instruction include:
  • Computer/Technology Center: If you have enough computers in your classroom and a differentiated reading program like Reading Plus!, Achieve 3000, or other, you can assign students to attend this center. Since the program is already differentiated, you don't need to do anything else other than assign the student groups to the center.
  • Classroom Library Center: In order for this center to truly work you need to have your classroom library leveled and labeled. You need to inform the students which books they should read while they visit the center. You should also display a chart that informs the students how the books are leveled (whether it's by colored dots and what each dot represents). This center should work like this: (1) students come to the center and choose a book on their independent level, (2) students read the book for 10 minutes (for example), (3) students complete an activity for the remaining 10 minutes related to what they read in the story that day, (4) students turn in their activity to their learning center folder or to another area chosen by the teacher so the teacher may review how students are working in the centers.
  • Listening Center: Pretty much works the same as the classroom library with the exception that the students are listening to books on cassette, CD's, or through Leap Pads.
  • Skills Center: The teacher may choose to have students work on a particular reading skill for the week. The teacher will first teach the activity to the class as a whole, have them practice the activity, and then place it in the skills center for each student group to practice.
  • Teacher-Led Center: This is the center where the teacher works with each individual group while the other students work independently at the other centers. When students visit the teacher-led center, the teacher works with students by helping them with good reader strategies, fluency, as well as various reading skills.
These are just a few center ideas. The most important thing to do before having students use centers is to introduce one center at a time to students. You can start this in the beginning of school. The first week you introduce one center, go over the rules and expectations, the activities to be completed, model the center to the students, and then have them practice using the center. The next week you introduce another center, and so on. It's important to note that you should not place a new center or a new activity at a center before introducing it and teaching it to the entire class first.

So, once you do all this, how do centers work? You create a schedule which informs the students and visitors when each group is visiting which center. You should see your lowest group every day. Your medium group should be seen three times a week and your highest group is seen twice a week. So, you could have your teacher-led center see two groups a day (if you are doing 20 minute sessions) or three groups a day (if you are doing 12-13 minute session, which in my opinion is not a lot of time).

While the teacher is working with an individual group, the other groups are working independently in the other centers. Again, in order for this to run smoothly students should be taught each center separately and told what to do if they have a question. For example, students may be told to "Ask 3, Before Me" where students will ask three members of their group the question before they ask the teacher. The teacher-led center should also be placed in a part of the room that allows the teacher to view all students working independently while she is working with the individual groups in the teacher-led center.

Where do you ge the center activities from? Is there a resource book I can use? Or do I need to create them from scratch?

Well, let me start by saying that all centers don't need to be created from scratch. If you have a classroom library center, there's not much you need to create here other than the rules, what students are expected to accomplish while they are visiting this center, making sure all the books are leveled and labeled, and an organizational method for collecting the work. The activity you have your students complete can be a simple handout, log, or activity that you provide for them. It could be something simple like a reading response log, drawing your favorite part and writing about it, making predictions, answering some general comprehension questions, etc. Two other centers you don't have to create yourself are the Listening Center and the Computer Center. In the listening center you will need to make sure you supply students with books on tape or CD that are again, leveled and labeled. If using a Leap Pad make sure the books are also leveled and labeled. In the computer center, you just have to make sure students are using a meaningful software program usually provided by your school.

How about other centers? Well, don't forget that the Teacher-Led Center is also a center. When you meet with your students you will choose skills your students are lacking and then choose activities that will help your students practice those skills. Whether it's making words, working with vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, etc. Some of these activities you can come up with yourself. Some you can search for on the Internet or by looking through your own teacher resource books. This is the same for the Skills Center. You decide which activity to use with your students so they may practice a particular skill. A place I go to find some more ideas and activities for Student Activity Centers is the Florida Center for Reading Research. Their site has two sections one for K-1 and one for 2-3. Even though they don't include 4th grade, you can search through their activities and modify them to suit your students. The activities are also divided among the Big 5 components of reading. Here are the links to both of these pages:



Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the different sections of these student activities. Don't forget to also check out the Teacher Resource Guide at the bottom which is filled with ideas on how you can start centers, organize them, and ideas for setting them up.

Another resource I use for centers to help my students with phonics and vocabulary are the books by Patricia Cunningham which include: Making Words, Making More Words, and Making More Big Words. If I remember any other resource I will let you know. I know that Evan Moor has a variety of Take to Your Seat Centers. I purchased some of their books but I haven't used them yet.

How do you manage and keep track of who goes where and when?

Well, at the beginning of the year the school usually tests students using DIBELS. That usually gives you an idea of how students are doing based on their Oral Reading Fluency (ORF). But since DIBELS only tests ORF in fourth grade, I'm going to do something a little different next school year. I am going to test students using an Informal Reading Inventory to see how they are overall. Since I will also be implementing centers during my math time, I will also give my students a Math Inventory to see where they are. Once I know where my students are academically, I place them in different learning groups. I give each group a name, whether it's a color, a letter, or another name, and then I create a rotation chart. I usually make about 3 or 4 groups based on the number of students. I try to have more learning centers available than I have groups just in case a particular group finishes early and they need to go to another center. Along with my center rotation chart I also develop a weekly schedule which shows which groups are going to what centers on each day of the week as well as what skills they will work on when they attend the Teacher-Led Center. One thing to think about is that your student groups are not going to remain the same throughout the year. As students move up in their learning abilities (which you do want them to move up) you will need to rearrange them in various groups.

As far as what type of system I set up, last year I used a wheel rotation with velcro spots for my groups. After each 20 minute interval, I rang a bell, rotated the wheel, and the students moved to their next center. I also posted my weekly schedule so students knew in advance which centers they would visit daily. I have posted some pictures showing ways teachers have set up their center rotations.
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