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Literacy Center Research: 5 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers

Read the 10 Reasons Not to Teach Literacy Centers

10 Reasons Not to Teach Literacy Centers

Literacy Center Research

5 Research-based Reasons to Use Teach Literacy Centers

Although I’ve used, helped to organize, and supervised literacy centers in one form or another for years in the elementary and middle school classrooms in my capacity as an ELA teacher and  district reading specialist, I have yet to write why I find literacy centers (also known as literacy stations or learning centers) to be a valuable means of learning. As a publisher of grades 4- adult ELA and reading curriculum, I’ve recently grouped together instructional resources into subject and skill-specific literacy centers (promotional section and FREE one-month unit follows article); hence a series of articles to both inform and plug my products. Now that my disclaimer and impetus for writing this article is out of the way…

My first article was on 10 Reasons Not to Use Literacy Centers. I figured that I had best cover the objections (many of them certainly legitimate) that teachers have regarding the idea of implementation of literacy centers. Most of the objections, but not all, focus not on the idea, but rather on the implementation of literacy centers. Literacy centers are not for everyone, and let me get this out of the way before I present the 10 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers: You can be an effective teacher without using literacy centers.

However, for the literacy center neophytes or for those veteran teachers who have been there and done that but want to give literacy centers another chance in their classrooms, let’s dig into the benefits and characteristics of effective literacy centers. And, yes, I think that these 5 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers outweigh the 10 reasons not to do so. Thank you to Dr. Jill Buchan for the following research citations.

5 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers

1. Literacy centers can be a superior instructional format. Some learning is best facilitated by direct instruction (didactic telling and explanation, showing, and modeling). For example, there is no instructional technique better for teaching the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. It requires telling and explanation. It also necessitates showing; you have to draw the tree trunk labeled “Government” and the three branches. It must involve modeling through concrete examples of how these abstract concepts work out in life. Other learning is best facilitated by independent practice. As a reading specialist, I can assure you that the best reading instruction is reading. Wait a minute… still buy all of my reading strategy and reading intervention products… they are important and terrific. However, sitting down and reading a book at one’s instructional level produces the greatest vocabulary development, fluency and comprehension practice, etc.

But literacy centers help students learn some things better than direct instruction and independent learning. For example, I learned long ago that the art and science of writing revision was learned best not through whole class direct instruction via mini lessons. Despite my wonderful PowerPoint presentations, incredible graphic organizers, and writing along with my students and sharing my work, the students could not replicate and apply my direct instruction to their own writing. Nor did independent practice work. Students don’t know what they don’t know. In other words, writers don’t intentionally write something incoherent that needs fixin’; they write their best. Writers don’t intentionally misspell words or misuse grammar and punctuation. Only when others provide perspective and feedback on the writing can a writer revise and edit effectively. And, no, the teacher red marks after the fact never provided near the amount of learning that small student response groups achieve. Literacy centers provide the best learning context for some content and skills.

My advice? Use literacy centers for what they teach best. Don’t make literacy centers into square pegs which don’t fit into round holes. Begin with the Standard; create a behavioral objective (Students will demonstrate the ability to…); and decide upon the best instructional method. It may be literacy centers, but it may be direct instruction or independent practice.

2. Literacy centers can be used for rigorous, Standards-based instruction. The rigor of Standards-based content and skills can adapt perfectly to the small group format of a literacy center. Generally speaking, the more rigor, the less goofing around. Plus, whoever concocted the idea that literacy centers had to be fun never achieved the kind of learning results that teachers, parents, administrators, and students want and need. Forget the fun. Challenging work and practice, even when seemingly boring or repetitive, can produce the best results. Students don’t have to like a literacy center to be engaged and learning the rigorous Standards.

My advice? Chuck the silly board games and art projects designed to make learning fun in literacy centers. Your job is not to be liked or to be the fun teacher. Don’t worry about the enjoyment factor; students will appreciate the results and feel good about what they have learned because of your rigorous expectations and challenging literacy center activities or lessons. So will you, their parents, and your principal. By the way, I titled my six grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 product: Academic Literacy Centers. No fluff in my program, although I think (and so do my students and teachers who have field tested) that some of it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Plus, literacy centers don’t have to be cute works of art to engage students and help them learn. Primarily, literacy centers should be functional. Of course how one’s classroom looks and the environment and feeling tone that is created is important to many teachers. However, it’s the learning, not the looks, that matters, despite the fact that other teachers, parents, and administrators all-too-often judge the book by its cover.

3. Literacy centers can facilitate assessment-based instruction. Many teachers begin to use literacy centers in order to run guided reading groups. Teachers have traditionally accepted the fact that reading instruction needs to be adapted to the ability of reader. However, reading is not the only content or skill in which students differ widely in their experience and degree of mastery. Students have different instructional needs in writing, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary to name but a few that can also be taught in ability groups through literacy centers.

When properly assessed, students can be placed into literacy centers which target individual academic deficits. For example, if a group of five of your students do not know their diphthongs, a phonics literacy center can group these students with teacher-led instruction, targeted practice, and formative assessments to teach these sound-spellings. Check out my remedial Phonics Literacy Center HERE. as an example of a well-designed literacy center focusing on assessment-based remedial instruction. Want to download these ELA and reading assessments for free? Certainly. Just click HERE.

Literacy centers can involve both homogeneous ability groups as detailed above for remedial and accelerated instruction and heterogeneous groups for the grade-level content or skills best learned with that group composition. Researchers and teachers have long noted the sociological, academic, and linguistic values of peer tutoring and collaborative learning. Students helping one another out is never a waste of time. However, be careful to limit the peer teaching to common sense amounts and have the group share the instructional load. Furthermore, using the academic language of a content rich literacy center promotes vocabulary acquisition. Essential for English development!

In summary, students can catch up while they keep up with grade-level instruction through mixed group compositions in well-designed literacy centers.

My advice? Plan a rotation of 7 to 10 literacy centers: 6 grade-level heterogeneously grouped and the balance homogeneously and flexibly grouped by ability, in other words by assessment-based literacy needs.

4. Literacy centers can help teachers get out of their traditional roles and serve as coaches instead. Years ago a veteran teacher asked me, “Why are you a teacher?” I immediately responded, “To teach my students content and Standards.” The questioner said, “You will begin to accomplish that when you change your answer to “To help my students learn content and Standards.” Gulp. A real wake up call for me.

Our job is to facilitate learning. Now there is nothing wrong with being the “sage on the stage” for much of what we do as teachers. After all, we have “the goods they needs to gets” as students. But for other aspects of our jobs, being the “guide on side” will be a much more successful means to accomplish our goals. According to research completed by Fisher and Frey (2010), adopting the role of facilitator or guide allows the students to become self-directed learners.

When designed and implemented well, literacy centers can place teachers in the coaching role as students collaboratively complete center work.

My advice? Have students talk at least as much as you do in the classroom.

5. Literacy centers can promote independence. Much of our tasks as teachers should be to “work our way out of our jobs.” According to Boushey & Moser, 2014; Harvey & Goudis,2000, this observation “highlights the importance of trusting students as they practice and demonstrate autonomy. To teach students to become independent learners, strategies need to be presented, modeled, and practiced.”

Pearson and Gallagher (1983) introduced the term, gradual release of responsibility to “… promote independence Using this mode of instruction, teachers gradually release the responsibility for a task to students through four components: demonstration, shared demonstration, guided practice, and independent practice” (Fisher & Frey, 2008).

Trusting students to independent work means giving them enough rope to help themselves or enough rope to hang themselves. Literacy centers help students develop an independent work ethic within an accountable peer structure. Teachers can help inculcate the virtues of hard work, personal engagement in a task, individual responsibility, organization, initiative, and positive collaboration, but students have to practice these values independently. However, not quite independently. Using appropriate peer pressure and accountability within well-defined, modeled, and practiced group norms and leadership roles nurtures work ethic. The literacy center can become “… a common gathering space establishes a tone for respectful learning, trust, cooperation, problem solving, and a sense of community in the classroom” (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002). True, students will sometimes take one step backwards for every two steps forward when left to fly on their own.

Literacy centers will have a high degree of success when the center routines and rotations are well-modeled, rehearsed, and reinforced. Researchers Harman and Nelson (2015) write, “Keep the same procedures: The ability to do things without having to consciously think about the task is known as automaticity. Automaticity can be achieved through simple repetition and practice. Students who engage in ongoing repetition of tasks are able to more effectively establish automatic response patterns. Ultimately, when students achieve automaticity, they are able to use the saved brainpower to do more, resulting in the ability to further build on their automatic skills.”

Academic Literacy Centers

Collaborative Academic Literacy Centers

Literacy centers are well-chosen instructional formats to develop leadership skills. Assigning group roles and holding students accountable for exercising these roles on a rotational basis is not only effective for center procedures, but also to control behavior. Many teachers have abandoned any form of small group learning or literacy centers because they can become classroom management nightmares. While this is a legitimate concern, the value of teaching students to work on their own is important in-it-of-itself.

Providing some measure of choice does promote effective independent work in literacy centers. “Boushey and Moser believe that children are more engaged, motivated, and successful when they have choice. The ability to choose empowers them and helps to create self-motivated learners” (Boushey & Moser, 2014).

My advice? I would argue that guided choices are more effective. Students will make wrong choices. But the design of rigorous literacy centers with sufficient modeling and well-established routines will limit the setbacks of wrong choices and motivate students into choosing what is best for them. I see nothing wrong in manipulating student choices. We are the adults. Of course students would rather choose to play a video word game, rather than complete a vocabulary worksheet in a vocabulary literacy center. They would rather eat candy than vegetables every day. We can limit their choices and still derive the benefits of student decision-making if we are clever. And we are if we use the right resources.

The Academic Literacy Centers

Academic Literacy Centers

I’m Mark Pennington, the author of Academic Literacy Centers, a decidedly different approach to grades 4-8 literacy centers. I invite you to download absolutely FREE my first month’s six center lessons and activities (180 pages) below… If you do try them out, there’s a good chance you’ll visit my Pennington Publishing site next month to purchase the next unit.

Get the Academic Literacy Centers Grade 4 FREE Resource:

Get the Academic Literacy Centers Grade 5 FREE Resource:

Get the Academic Literacy Centers Grade 6 FREE Resource:

Get the Academic Literacy Centers Grade 7 FREE Resource:

Get the Academic Literacy Centers Grade 8 FREE Resource:

Grammar/Mechanics, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,