Setting Up Literacy Centers in the Upper Elementary Classroom


Whether you call them literacy centers or literacy stations, big kids at the upper elementary level love center time and get so much out of it!

How do literacy centers benefit kids?
  • They add variety to learning and to the routine.
  • They allow teachers to easily differentiate learning.
  • They are a great way to help cover and reinforce all of the standards.
  • They give students a place to practice important social skills, like collaboration, problem solving, and communication.
So how do you set up literacy centers and run them successfully?

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Plan Centers and Center Spaces
Plan Centers:
Since I've been teaching for quite a few years, I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be teaching and when. Of course, I make small changes as needed with each class, but generally my pacing is pretty set. This information helps me make a skeleton plan for the major concepts, games, and activities I'll plan for the year.

If you aren't sure of your yearly schedule, maybe you could schedule them a month ahead of time as you go. Another idea is to meet with your grade level team to talk about your reading themes for the year and to plan together.

Plan Center Spaces in Your Classroom:
Classrooms never seem big enough, so this can be a challenge. I like to have 4 - 5 kids at each center (the smaller number the better) but it depends on the class size. If I have 28 kids, that means about six center areas. Since my classroom is pretty small, when kids do the independent reading center, they stay at their desk/seat. That leaves me with 5 center areas to plan.

2. Types of Centers
One of the questions teachers often ask is what kind of centers to include. Here are some suggestions that I've used in my classroom. I don't use all of the centers suggested at the same time but do mix up some of the centers every now and then for a bit of variety. Each center lasts 20 minutes long and the total center time is one hour, which means students should visit 3 centers each day.

1. Independent Reading - This is one that ALL students do every day! It's important to me that students self-select books based on motivation and not reading level. One of the rules is that kids need to have a book ready before reading time. I don't want them to waste time searching the classroom library during this time.

2. Teacher Time - This could be guided reading in a very structured setting or it could be reader's workshop style, where students meet with me to read a bit and to discuss concepts.

3. Word Work - At this center, students work on spelling, grammar, context clues, and vocabulary. They may have a worksheet but more often they play a game. Since I couldn't find any games already made, I created a bundle of 30 Grammar Games, one for third grade and one for fourth grade to cover all language standards. They target grade level skills and really make grammar fun. A huge time saver for sure!

Abstract Nouns - Click here

4. Magazine Center/Informational Text - This center is filled with children's news magazines (some from last year) like Scholastic News or Weekly Reader. I also include kid's magazines, like National Geographic Kids. I have graphic organizers I use for a bit of accountability. Students read an article, fill out the template, and then are free to continue reading whatever they'd like at this center.

5. Technology Center - Every school is a bit different but whether you are blessed with tons of technology or are scraping by with a few older computers, there are still lots of great websites students can access with your direction at this center. Here are some you might want to check out:

Freckle Education (formerly Front Row)

6. Genius Hour - If you've never done Genius Hour with your students, you'll want to definitely look into it. I used to call these independent projects. Students are able to research and read about topics of interest and then prepare some type of presentation to share what they've learned with the class. 

Genius Hour projects are ongoing projects which students complete on their own time table, although you can set guidelines for how many they need to complete a semester for example. I tend to let it be more open ended, as long as I see them engaged and focused. Since they have selected topics they are truly interested in, I know that some projects may take a number of weeks, while others may take two center rotation times.

7. Reading Skills - At this center, I tie in worksheets which match our current reading strategy. Reading is my very favorite subject so I have lots of reading units already prepared which are no-prep, print and go. Click here if you need some fresh reading units for this center.

8. Writing - Students may create poetry, write a letter to the principal, or create a personal narrative in their writer's workshop notebook. This is NOT our main writing time however. It's more of a chance to let students experience low-pressure writing which is not specifically connected to a writing lesson.

9. Reading Games - I love this center because it is rigorous while masquerading as fun! Kids at this center play games which are connected to the topic we are highlighting, like main idea, cause and effect, theme, or character traits. 

I actually created a whole series of reading games, just because I really needed them for my classroom and thought others might too. There is a game for each standard and they provide so much focused practice. I really love these! There's a set of 20 Reading Games for 3rd Grade and 20 Reading Games for 4th/5th. Each bundle of reading games has 10 Fiction Games and 10 Nonfiction Games.
Context Clues Game - Click here

Elements of Poetry, Drama, and Prose - Click here

10. Read to a Friend - In this center, I have a variety of materials like poetry books and mini-plays to read together, to practice fluency. I also like to place high interest picture books in this center! Even for 5th graders, you might be surprised at the complexity level of many picture books! Kids love them and they really are beneficial for them. 

Sometimes I have students bring their own independent books to share with each other. Other times, I have a book sampling basket at the center filled with book underdogs! These are some lesser known books that I want kids to try. Their job is to read the book summary on the cover and to take turns reading either a paragraph or a page at a time.


3. Prepare Centers
Once you've tentatively planned out your centers, the next step is to make or purchase the centers you'll need. I really do like to get the majority done in the summer time or at the beginning of the year because it's great to just pull out the center I need and it's ready to go.

You can store the centers a number of ways. I really like the gallon size plastic baggies because I can put game boards, task cards, and anything else I might need (game markers or spinners...) in that bag. I just label the bag with a sharpie but you could make cute labels on the computer too, if you want.

You'll also want to have plenty of baskets and trays to organize center materials as you use them each week. The Dollar Store always has a great selection of these!

4. Decide How to Structure the Centers
You can either have students do a rotation schedule that you create, or allow them to self-select within your parameters. Either works well, so you just need to decide which one works best for you.

If students self-select, kids need to know expectations. For example, how many students can be at a single center at a time? How many centers do students need to complete each day or each week?

I actually prefer a rotation schedule. I make some simple cards with center titles on them and create the schedule in a pocket chart with the days on the left side (vertically) and the center titles across the top (horizontally).

5. Set Expectations for Center Time
Just like anything in the classroom, rules and procedures have to be explicitly taught and reviewed or chaos is bound to occur. First, I think through all of the possibilities of what could happen, and then I prepare for that by making up my list of rules on an anchor chart for all to see. We do some modeling of good and bad examples of behavior and discuss them together. If centers are going to work, this piece is crucial!!! There is no way for you to have quality teacher time if you are interrupted every few minutes to put out fires, answer questions, and give more directions. Take the time to set up centers well and you'll find it to be worth it. 

6. Teach Each Center to the Whole Class Before Kids Use It
Getting kids ready for centers is truly a process. To make it successful, you'll want to introduce the center to the whole class before expecting them to participate on their own. This is a great time for thumbs up and down questions to check for understanding, as well as modeling when appropriate.

Once you've tried centers and have them operating smoothly, I think you'll really enjoy them. 


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