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How to Start Literacy Centers | Upper Elementary and Middle School

Upper elementary and middle school literacy centers are qualitatively different than primary literacy centers. Recognizing this fact can mean the difference between success and failure of your literacy centers. Since literacy centers have long been the staples of self-contained primary classrooms, much of the available curriculum, articles, videos, and pins focuses on what works for a cute group of teacher-pleasing, eager-to-learn, well-behaved second graders. Those are not your kids, right?

Following are some of the relevant definitions and research regarding literacy centers and 12 solid tips about setting up or revising your grades 4-8 literacy centers to make them achieve your instructional goals. And, yes, a disclaimer is in order. Note my sales pitch at the end of the article.

Definitions and Research

According to the Reading Rockets site authors: A literacy center is a physical area (or station) designated for specific learning purposes. It is designed to provide appropriate materials to help students work independently or collaboratively (with partners or in small groups) to meet literacy goals. A literacy center can be portable, temporary or permanent.

The integration of literacy centers can support improvement in reading comprehension, language, social, and writing development (Fountas & Pinell, 1996; 2000; Morrow, 1997; 2003). Literacy centers facilitate problem-solving because students are able to explore, invent, discover, and create alone or with others at centers (Stone, 1996).

Effective literacy centers allow for student choice, have explicit and ongoing routines. Literacy centers promote student collaboration, facilitate student motivation, and provide targeted practice for students (Daniels & Bizar, 1998).

The integration of literacy centers can support improvement in reading comprehension, language, social, and writing development (Fountas & Pinell, 1996; 2000; Morrow, 1997; 2003). Literacy centers facilitate problem-solving because students are able to explore, invent, discover, and create alone or with others at centers (Stone, 1996).

Students 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).

Multilevel center activities are strategy-based tasks designed at three levels of challenge: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. By using these tiered center activities, teachers enable students with different learning needs to apply the same key skills and strategies but at varying levels of complexity and open-endedness (Tomlinson, 1999).

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).

However, these authors and researchers have not cornered the market on what literacy centers should look like in your classroom. A few of my comments regarding these definitions and research: Any instructional methodology must be adapted to teacher and student needs. Square pegs don’t fit round holes. Students don’t have to love literacy centers. Learning can be fun, but it also can be plain old demanding work. I have found that the “explore, invent, discover, and create” goals of the ideal literacy centers are highly overrated. These terms usually are euphemisms for goofing around and doing little, or no work. Regarding student choice… Obviously some degree of learning choices empowers students, but they are kids. They will choose candy over vegetables every time. I favor guided choices for literacy centers. “Yes, you do have to do that activity in that literacy center, Jamie, but you can also choose this or that.” I prefer multi-level lessons or activities in different literacy centers for curriculum creation and management purposes. Every literacy center does not have to have differentiated instruction within each center. I favor a mix of grade-level (or accelerated) centers and remedial centers with both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings.

Clarify why you are doing (or thinking about doing) literacy centers:

  1. Start with your students. We often say that we teach Name Any Content or Skill or the Common Core State Standards or Name of School District or State Benchmarks or to the PAARC or Smarter Balanced Tests. But it’s not really true. We teach kids. An important distinction. Of course we teach content, concepts, and skills to standards criteria, but we’ve got to do so through the lense of the teacher-student relationship. We’ve got to know our students and adapt instruction to what will work for them. Stop at this point and ask yourself if literacy centers are the best instructional methodology for you and your students.
  2. Start with you. You aren’t the teacher next door. You have your own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. You have your own temperament and your own levels of risk tolerance. Are you primarily interested in maintaining the status quo: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (nothing wrong with that by the way) or do you want to experiment at this point of your teaching career? If things are crazy in your life at this point, you may want to tweak or totally re-vamp your teaching style. Are you primarily interested in cute? If the visual appeal of artful literacy centers appeals to you, impresses other teachers or parents, or is motivational for your kids, fine. If not, fine as well. In sum, be yourself.
  3. Start with this year’s situation. As much as you’d like to be in control, you can’t control everything. If your administrator is not going to be comfortable with your literacy center approach to instruction, count the costs. If you’ve got an especially behaviorally-challenged class, literacy centers may not be practical. However, many literacy center hacks can work to minimize the negative behavioral affects if you are not a literacy center purist and understand that what works for the majority of the class will never work for Bobby, Juan, and Thieu.
  4. Start with the purpose(s) for your grades 4-8 literacy centers and keep this/these foremost in your planning. Are you primarily interested in giving students good stuff to keep ’em busy while you work with a small group? Are you interested in using literacy centers to teach grade-level standards? Are you interested in using literacy centers to differentiate/individual instruction? Are you mainly interested in giving students a social context in which to learn? Are you chiefly interested in centers as a way to create a less-boring instructional approach for some of the school day?
  5. Start with your role as teacher. Will you be a floating supervisor, a mini-conferencer, a specific literacy center facilitator, or a little of each?

Follow these 12 steps to give your literacy centers the best chance at success:

  1. Start small. Just because one of your teachers runs 16 centers, you don’t have to do so.
  2. Be realistic. Time is a factor as well as the number of students you have. Again, don’t rely too heavily on primary teacher literacy center resources or advice. You can’t do literacy centers with 36 students the same way that the second-grade teacher can run literacy centers with her 18 students.
  3. Minimize set-up and tear-down times. Teachers frequently abandon literacy centers because it gets extremely old moving desks, putting out signs, changing rotations, etc.
  4. Teach group norms and refer to them repeatedly. I’ve developed the HEROIC acronym to make these memorable.
    Leadership Roles for Literacy Centers

    Literacy Center Leadership Roles

    HEROIC Leadership Roles

  5. Assign and teacher LEADERSHIP ROLES. Small groups fail when everyone is in charge of everything. Develop a rotation for these roles, but again, don’t be a purist. Don’t assign Tami as the Reader, if she can’t read well. Don’t let Brenda serve as the People Manager when she will snitch on every kid in her group for everything. Don’t make Pedro the Task Manager when he can’t tell time. Don’t let Sam be the Clarifier if he is too lazy to get up and ask the teacher a question. You get the idea. We want to develop leadership and social skills of working together, but the learning should be our chief goal, rather than solely the learning process.
  6. Make sure that your rotations between centers will work. Click to see seven workable rotations HERE. Practice these rotations before you begin instruction. Time students and reward effective transitions. “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).
  7. Before you run your centers, model any new centers by teaching the key center activity whole-class. Be flexible. If a literacy center is not working, dump it. Add on literacy centers as you go.
  8. Have students evaluate their own work. In other words, have students do the bulk of self-correcting to learn from their own mistakes and save you grading time.
  9. Decide on whether to put together weekly literacy center packets for each student or provide the instructional materials in each
    Rotations for Literacy Centers

    Literacy Center Rotations


  10. Limit the fun. Grades 4-8 literacy centers work best with rigorous work, specifically designed for collaborative learning. Plus, I highly recommend keeping things simple; limit the number of center activities or lessons and keep the directions predictably the same. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!) You don’t want to be pestered with questions about complicated literacy center directions.
  11. Limit independent literacy centers. Many teachers will disagree, but I prefer independent reading as homework with specific accountability. Keep most of your literacy centers as interactive, cooperative groups. With grades 4-8 students the centers are going to devolve to this format anyhow. Unless you are relentlessly supervising independent work in an independent work center, they just won’t get it done. And “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Rely on you group norms and leadership roles, along with challenging and accountable center lessons and activities, rather than on independent work.
  12. By all means, get some help. Fairly priced, quality literacy curriculum that is classroom-tested will be a lifesaver. Check out the following grades 4-8 grade level specific and remedial literacy center kits with everything you need to set up effective literacy centers. Mix and match and add to your own centers.
Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLES

Academic Literacy Centers Grades 4-8 BUNDLES

I’m Mark Pennington, the author of Academic Literacy Centers, a decidedly different approach to grades 4-8 literacy centersAcademic Literacy Centers are designed to teach the grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core English Language Arts and Reading Standards with these six rigorous and well-planned 20-minute centers for grades : 1. Reading fluency and comprehension (includes YouTube modeled readings 2. Writing sentence revisions and literary response 3. Language Conventions grammar and mechanics lessons 4. Vocabulary 5. Spelling and syllabication 6. Study skills. This user-friendly program bundle includes lessons and activities designed for independent, collaborative centers with minimal prep and correction. Plus, biweekly unit tests and all literacy center signs and rotation options are provided.

Also check out our remedial literacy centers: Phonics Literacy Center, Remedial Grammar and Mechanics Literacy Center, Remedial Spelling Literacy Center, and the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

Grades 4-8 Remedial Spelling Literacy Center

Remedial Spelling Literacy Center

Grammar and Mechanics Literacy Center for Remediation

Remedial Grammar and Mechanics Literacy Center

Literacy Center for Phonics

Guided Reading Phonics Books Literacy Center

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books









Mix and match with your own centers.

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

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