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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach Early Childhood Literacy

Designing Center Activities
Stephanie Bartell

A common concern teachers have about using literacy centers is the amount of time they will have to spend planning and preparing materials to be used at centers. Some teachers think that centers need to be changed or updated every week. Not so. The most important thing to remember about using centers in your classroom is that the students should be doing more work than you are. If an activity takes you more time to gather and make than it takes students to use it, you shouldn’t be putting it in your centers.

Before adding any activity into centers, you should have used it in your teaching. Activities done in whole group or small group settings are appropriate for center activities. Even after you have used an activity in teaching, you will still need to model, practice, and discuss the activity.

Here are some center ideas based on common teaching practices in the early elementary grades.

Independent Reading

  • Reread stories read in class.
  • Provide phonics phones for independent reading.

Making Words

  • Use materials from a guided lesson with a partner and repeat lesson.
  • Use letters to make the secret word, glue onto drawing paper and illustrate.
  • Challenge students to see how many other words they can make with the same letters.


  • Record a story read in class on tape and then write/draw specific information such as favorite part, story element, etc.

Big Books

  • Return to books read in shared group experiences for rereading.
  • Use highlighting tape or Wikki Stix to identify word wall words, highly reoccurring phonics patterns, rhymes.
  • Use post it notes to change words in the story, so that the sentences still make sense.


  • Write poems read in class on chart paper, have students reread with a partner for fluency.
  • Draw a picture to go with the poem.
  • Use post it notes to record connections or thoughts about the poem.
  • Have students glue copies of poems in a poetry journal, then illustrate.

Read the Room

  • Use pointers to read print around the room.
  • Give students lists, and have students write the words they find i.e., find all the –an words, find 10 word wall words.


  • Use story frames to create books
  • Add stickers for illustrations, have students write stories about their pictures
  • Make cards/ write letters
  • Use models of writing done in writers workshop for students to follow

ABC/Word Center

  • Wordo
  • Word wall review games with a partner
  • Use a rhyme to create as many words as you can think of.
  • Use word family words in sentences.
  • Use magnetic letters or letter stamps to make word wall/spelling words.

Once you have decided the skills and activities you would like students to practice, you need to ensure that you introduce each activity completely. The following procedure is helpful, and very similar to the way you opened each center when they were first introduced.

Introducing New Activities to Centers

  1. Introduce the materials.
    Give students an opportunity to see the materials and explicitly explain how to use them and care for them properly.
  1. Model the activity.
    Demonstrate what the activity should look like in the center. Model using the materials and have students model for each other. Be sure to include all expectations for work habits and behaviors. Role play with teacher and student and then with two students. Have students who are watching say what they noticed about the activity.
  1. Practice the center.
    After centers are over, discuss behavior and work observed in the center. Talk about what was seen and done.
  1. Remodel as necessary.
    If there are problems with a center or activity, take the center away until you have an opportunity to remodel expected behaviors. Students should not be allowed to continue working in a center incorrectly.

Following this progression and using authentic learning materials will ensure that your centers are productive and successful throughout the entire year.  

If you have questions about this article or experiences you’d like to share, please contact me.

See also Getting Started with Literacy Centers by Stephanie Bartell


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