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

Getting Started with Literacy Centers
Stephanie Bartell

Literacy centers are small areas within the classroom where students work alone or together to independently explore literacy activities while the teacher provides small group instruction. Literacy centers provide meaningful and authentic learning opportunities for students. The activities at literacy centers are designed to actively engage and stimulate students, as well as to allow them interact with other students in order to increase their problem solving skills.

Why Use Literacy Centers?   

For students, literacy centers:

  • provide an opportunity for self-directed learning;
  • provide authentic and meaningful literacy practice;
  • allow students to interact with their peers and problem solve.

For teachers, literacy centers:

  • create a block of time in which the teacher can work with small groups of students;
  • reinforce skills that have been taught to students;
  • individualize instructional practice.

How Do I Get It Started in My Classroom?

  • Teach your students independent reading routines.
  • Provide a variety of reading and writing experiences at the beginning of the year that could later be put into centers.
  • Teach mini-lessons on how to handle materials as well as proper behavior.
  • Model using the center and have students model as well.
  • Fishbowl the center, modeling so other students can talk about what they notice.

Getting Started with Centers

In the beginning of the year, the first procedure I teach is independent reading. My students use book baskets at their tables in which they select books to read independently. Early in the year students at every grade level should be taught procedures for choosing a “just right” book. Depending on the grade level, you can choose books for students, or limit their selection until “just right” book procedures have been learned. Students are explicitly taught the expectations for independent reading through a few mini lessons, then have an opportunity to practice. While the students are reading independently the teacher circulates around the room, monitoring student book choice, volume, and on-task behavior.

Independent Reading Expectations

  • Choose a “just right” book.
  • Read quietly to yourself.
  • Read your own book.
  • Stay in your reading spot.
  • Read the whole time.
After my students can read independently for about 15-20 minutes and are beginning to understand how to choose a "just right" book, I begin introducing centers. The first center I introduce is the library. After all that time learning how to read independently, the library is a natural choice. The mini-lesson to introduce the library center includes spending time modeling what students can do in the library center and making an “I Can” list of these behaviors.

I Can…

  • Read quietly to myself.
  • Read a new book.
  • Practice reading a familiar book.
  • Read to a stuffed animal.
  • Read with a phonics phone.
  • Read a read aloud book.

The "I Can" list remains in the center as a reminder of the behavior that is expected from my students. For very young children, a picture (either clip art or an actual photograph) can be added to each statement. After making the “I Can” list, a few students model these behaviors while others watch those students carefully and share what they notice about those using the center.

After the mini-lesson, all students go to their seats to read independently. Before they get started, I let them know that I will choose a few students who are following independent reading expectations to try out the library center. This direction serves several purposes:

  • Students who are meeting independent reading expectations are rewarded.
  • Independent reading expectations are reinforced.
  • Students who are not meeting expectations have a model of behavior which they can follow.
  • Students who are not reading because they are watching other students in the library center are at least observing appropriate center behavior.
  • Centers are established as a privilege in the classroom.

The center introduction process continues with the other centers in the classroom. Eventually all centers will be introduced and the teacher can model using a center work board so students become independent in their use of centers. Once students have gained that independence, the procedures have been put in place for teachers to work with individuals or small groups.

If you are looking for more information on literacy centers, check out the following resources:

Literacy Workstations by Debbie Diller
Practice with Purpose by Debbie Diller
Literacy Centers in Photographs by Nikki Campos-Stallone

Literacy Centers Yahoo! Group:
Share your questions, ideas, and files about literacy centers with over 2,000 educators across the country.

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

See also Learning Centers in the Early Childhood Classroom by Julia Millin


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