Introducing Literacy Centers

My firsties are enjoying their centers. Oh boy, I forget how hard it is in the beginning to train them!  I need to remind myself every year to slow down and explain step by step and then explain it again and again. Is this sounding familiar? I've gotten a ton of questions about how I introduce my centers in the beginning. I hope that I can answer that question completely in this post. 

I start centers around week 3. This does take a while in the beginning. I introduced the menu sometime during week 3 (once they are doing well with daily 5). I showed them the menu under the document camera and made a big deal about how they get to have their very own center menu. First, I point out the headers (here with the red background).
I read the headers and ask them to describe the pictures that go with them.  We talk about how the pictures match the words (reading has a picture of a girl with a book, word work has a boy making words, etc.) I cover the rest of the menu temporarily. Then I show them the folder holders.

I ask them what they notice about the labels and have them whisper to their elbow buddies. This gets them all to notice that the pictures match the menu pictures. I uncover the rest of the center menus. I have them count how many boxes are under the reading column. We count together. Then I have them count how many folders are in the reading folder holder. I explain how all the centers for reading go in this folder holder. I show them the pictuers on the folders and they make the connection that they match the menu too. I show them the sticker labels on the folders that also have the reading picture on them to show them where to return the folder to. I go on to show them the other folders. I take a few out and mix them up. As a class we practice putting them back in the correct bins by using the sticker. We also practice finding it on our menus. 

By this point they are excited to try one out! I start with the easiest to explain, which I think are the writing. I show them what is inside the folders. We do one or two pages together in the Be an Author to model how it should look and how to think of sentences. Then I show them sticker story. I put stickers on in advance and together we think of a story or sentences to go with that sticker story. Later that day during writing, I model an entire sticker story. If I were to do it again, I would pass out random stickers after modeling and have them all do a sticker story under guidance. I go through all the writing centers, which don't take too long. 

The next day we review what we learned about the menu. Since we did sticker story during writing, I model how I color that in on my menu. Then I show them one of the reading centers. We actually do it as a class (and later they will do it again on their own). I go over word work centers next, showing them the contents of the folders. We basically do part of the centers together, calling on different kids to make words while I write it on our worksheet. This takes some time, but they are excited about the different centers. I teach them to look at all the pieces of the center and the paper carefully before starting. We take a break, then later that day I show them another reading center and we complete it together (they will do it later themselves). Later in the day, we go over a couple of sentence building centers. I try to break it up so that they have time to soak it all in. 

By the third or fourth day, they have been introduced to most centers. I let them practice getting centers (that we've introduced already) and we practice finding a good place to do that center. I advise you to practice this one by one. Have a student choose a center in front of the class, then have them choose a spot. As a class maybe help them determine a good spot (if it's word work or sentence building they will need more floor space but if it's writing, they should be at a desk). Later in the day, I introduce the rest of the sentence building centers. We practice again on Thursday and Friday with two rotations. That means that they practice choosing a center, finding a spot in the room, and then getting started. We practice what to do if they can't remember how to do it. They first have to look at all materials and think. Then they can ask a friend closest to them by using a quiet voice. I have the students practice being the helper too! They need to understand how to explain the directions or show a friend how to do a center, without giving away the answers. For Thursday and Friday, I'm there walking around helping kids get settled and help them to problem solve if needed. Every day for the next week I review how to do the centers before we get started (I choose about 5 a day to review). I only spend a few minutes with this. If there is a student who is lost, I buddy them up with a student who has a good grasp or with a parent helper.  As you go around the room, you'll get a good idea of who gets it and who needs some extra attention. 

This month is the month to take extra time if needed. Take time to check menus to make sure they are coloring the centers in after they finish. Before cleaning up, have everyone stop and color in their menu. If they didn't finish, I tell them to color it in halfway, then put their unfinished worksheet in their book box. 

Here are some pictures of the centers in action:

For Rebuild a Poem (above), we do it together the first time so they learn how to do it correctly. I read the poem then cut up the strips into separate words right in front of them. I teach them how to sort the words by color to help them. I always leave the first word of every line in the pocket chart for them. Then together we rebuild it. I have kids come up and take turns putting the next word in. Everyone gets to put a word in. Then I take it all out again (except the first word) and the students will do it by themselves during center time.

For some more challenging centers, I may gather a small group who are my more struggling readers and complete it together.

So obviously, it's the end of September and we've just learned how to do centers. I'm going to use these centers for one more week because October is pretty long anyway. I will post next week about how it goes with using centers and daily 5 and reading group together. 

I am definitely NOT an expert, but this has worked for me. It's not perfect and I'm always looking for new ways to make it better. If you have tips, I'm all ears! One of my readers said she used color coordinated folders. BRilliant! For example, all of her reading folders are yellow and are in a yellow folder holder. That's so smart! I wish I didn't already have mine done already. 

Weeks One and Two: Introducing Daily 5
For the first two weeks, I focus just on Daily 5. I love all the management tips that The Sisters give in that book. They have so many great ideas. (If you haven't read that book, you should read it sooner than later.) I spend week one training my firsties to do Read to Self. 
We practice:
  • choosing a "just right" book
  • using book boxes 
  • Find a good place to sit in the room
  • Once you sit, you sit! Book boxes go where they go. They should have no reason to get up and move because they have several books in their book boxes. (They later have other things that I will introduce later. At this point, they only have books.)
  • Read in your head or "whisper read". 
  • Focus on your book (read the words, read the pictures or retell the story)
We build our stamina (day one was only 2 minutes). We practice several times a day and they are so excited to get better! I identify who has a harder time with it and work with them a little more (setting goals, figuring out what is challenging for them, and practice more). 

When I feel like they are solid with Read to self, then I introduce buddy reading and writing. We use our writing time (not reading time) to introduce these writing stills. They get their September tab.

These skills are taught and practiced:

  • What to write about? 
  • What to do if you can't think of anything to write about
  • how to turn to the next available page in their notebooks (some kids have just turn to any ol' random page unless they are taught and trained otherwise)
  • What writing notebook pages should look like: draw a picture, write a sentence or sentences to match it, spaces between words, best guess spelling, skip a line.
  • "Once you're done, you've just begun": Early "finishers" aren't actually finished. What to do when you're "done"- Add more details or start a new page. (This is more than just one lesson. I revisit this several more times as they develop more as writers)
  • stretching out words, chunking words, using word wall, best guess spelling

Just like with Read to Self, we work on building our stamina with writing. As a class we troubleshoot things as they come up. This is so important to do! The goal is for them to get used to working independently and to feel confident doing so. You want to prevent tons of interruptions once you start guided reading. 

During the middle of the second week, I'm ready to introduce Working with Words. I don't want to introduce Working with Words until they have built their stamina with reading and writing.  Keep in mind, this is still just daily 5- no centers introduced yet. For Word Work, I keep it simple! Only four choices at the beginning: roll a word, making words with word family magnetic tiles and linking words with cubes. These are all similar in that it is making words by matching onset and rime to make words. I teach them to write their real words in their notebooks. During this week to make sure they all get to practice, I let them have a buddy. We practice Daily 5 with some kids doing read to self, buddy reading, writing and word work. I choose who does word work so I can keep track at first. I work with those students to make sure they know how to do it and make sure they use the materials properly (like not chucking the cubes at each other). I try to let each group practice for 5-10 minutes, then rotate so a new group of kids get to try out word work. My goal is for them to know what to do so when I start guided reading, I don't have to keep stopping to correct them or answer questions. It's a good time to troubleshoot too. 

 You can introduce Listen to Reading any time that works for you. I actually teach it in small groups. During guided reading groups I show them the tape recorder (most have never seen one) and teach them how to put the tape in on day one. We all practice, then put it aside and begin the rest of our group. The next day, we review how to put a tape in and introduce the play button (put a green sticker on it). I think you get the gist. I take my time with introducing this because the tape recorders can be a nightmare if they don't know what they are doing. :) 

To sum up:
  • Week one: Teach Daily 5
  • Week two: more daily 5
  • Week 3: introduce menu and centers
  • Week 4: practice centers and review how to do them each day (possibly begin reading groups)
  • Later week 4 or week 5 (depending on how things are going): Begin reading workshop with rotations and reading groups


  1. Love your centers. Thanks for explaining how you introduce them. Question: How do you make the writing lines on your writing templates? Which program do you use?

  2. Howdo your students choose books or change books in their bookbox? Thank you for telling us how you introduce your centers! It's always a good reminder to remember all the little details!

    1. Hi Kristin,

      I have my students change them as part of their morning routine and then we have some time after recess too. If I see that they're in need of more time to really look, then I will set aside some class time. It also works to let kids go in small groups to look (when they are doing independent work I may let a few kids go switch out book boxes then rotate the kids). It's tough sometimes to manage it all! You sort of have to figure out what works for you. If you figure out a good idea, please let me know!



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  4. I think your center ideas are great! I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate Daily 5 into my literacy center block and your blog has given me a lot of ideas! Once your students are doing the centers independently, do you set a timer for them to know when to rotate or are they on their own to rotate when they finish? I would like to get away from the timer method because some students just need more time! But for read to self or writing, it seems like they almost need a set time. How do you hand this in your class? Thanks!