Introduction to Differentiated Literacy Centers
Teacher and author Margo Southall describes how changing the structure of learning centers in her classroom dramatically increases students' time on task and learning achievement.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
This article is excerpted from Differentiated Literacy Centers by Margo Southall.
To open this book, I begin with a bit of a confession—I was not always successful at structuring my literacy centers to best support all of my students. It took a close look at the center activities I assigned, the procedures I expected students to follow, and my teaching around the center work before I understood how my “one-size-fits-all” approach was leaving some students unsupported and others unchallenged. This book is the result of years of changes that helped me create a literacy center program that truly supports standards-based reading and writing instruction and meets student needs. It is my intention that this guide helps you to create both an effective and easy-to-manage centers program that supports each and every student on his or her literacy journey.
How Much Time Were My Students Actually Reading and Writing at Literacy Centers?
Scenario 1: Brittney at My Traditional Literacy Centers
5 minutes: Brittney stands by the shelf of book tubs, picks up the book More Spaghetti, I Say from the H tub, puts it back, picks up another book. Then she repeats this with two more selections. Brittney finds a chair at the Reading Center area.
4 minutes: Brittney flips through her book and then reads it.
2 minutes: She looks at what the others in her team are doing and asks Tamika what they are supposed to do when they’ve read their book. Tamika points to the form in the tray.
3 minutes: Brittney takes a form, looks at it, and then looks at the sheet that Jayden is writing on next to her. She draws a picture.
4 minutes: She begins to talk to Jayden, asking him if he likes her picture and continues talking off-topic.
1 minute: Brittney begins to copy Jayden’s writing, but he tells her she should be writing about her own book.
1 minute: She begins to write "I like . . . " and stops as the signal sounds for tidy-up time.
Total Minutes: 20 Reading: 4 Writing: 1 On Task: 9 (includes selection of materials)
Where It All Began
Our school literacy team was examining ways to increase the time students were reading and writing each day in our classrooms. We already had 150 minutes dedicated to literacy instruction each day: sixty of these were allotted for teachermanaged small-group instruction alongside student-managed literacy centers; the remaining time was devoted to readalouds, shared reading, word study (decoding and spelling), and writer’s workshop. Surely we offered our students ample opportunity for extended periods of reading and writing each day! Our observations and assessment of students in smallgroup instruction demonstrated that this instructional time was well spent, but we questioned just how many minutes our students were actually engaged in reading and writing at the literacy centers while we worked with those groups. Were we maximizing this time for student-driven learning?
To determine whether this was the case in my own classroom, I decided to block off one day of small-group instruction so that I could observe and track the number of minutes a specific student spent engaged in reading and writing. For this purpose, I chose one of my struggling readers, Brittney. You read the summary of this observation in Scenario 1. But Brittney wasn’t an anomaly. Further observations showed that many of my students were having trouble managing their time and completing their work during literacy centers. I discovered that students were:
- spending more time browsing the reading materials than reading them.
- unsure how to respond to their reading.
- drawing and talking off-task.
- depending on directions from and/or copying the work of other group members.
Comfort Zone Meets the Zone of Proximal Development
This lack of productivity was not what I had envisioned for the literacy centers in my classroom. I realized that behind the management challenge was an instructional one: students with more advanced literacy skills were completing activities in their comfort zone, while struggling students were not able to keep up. Few students were working in their zone of proximal development, the level of challenge at which learning takes place (Vygotsky, 1978). The more advanced students were not getting the challenge they needed to grow and my struggling readers were leaving tasks unfinished, or relying on their peers to “get them through” the activities without developing an understanding. Either way, they were not maximizing their literacy center time, and this was precious learning time that none of us could afford to waste.
I was familiar with the concept of tiered assignments in which the same task is presented at varying levels of challenge to ensure success for all students. Why could I not use the same data I used to guide my small-group instruction to plan tiered activities for my literacy centers so they would be more closely aligned with student need? The direction was clear, but I wasn’t sure how to make this manageable, given an already overloaded work schedule. The challenge was to plan and prepare multilevel activities for the literacy skills I was teaching, in a way that would be sustainable throughout the year. I set out on a creative journey (the part I do so love as a teacher), and the culmination is the book you hold in your hands.
Differentiated Literacy Centers in Action
Scenario 2: Brittney at My Redesigned Differentiated Literacy Centers
2 minutes: Brittney takes her book box from the bookshelf. She walks to the Comprehension Center area, takes a seat, and looks around at the other team members.
4 minutes: Brittney reads her book Robert and the Rocket.
1 minute: She picks up the green-colored (beginning level) task card with picture-cued sentence starters and reads the prompts.
1 minute: Brittney chews the top of her pencil for a moment. She flips through the pages of her book again, looking at the pictures.
3 minutes: She writes a sentence in her centers notebook “I see . . . ”
1 minute: Brittney stops writing and looks at the card with sentence cues again.
3 minutes: Brittney writes a second sentence “I wonder . . .”
1 minute: She reads her writing to herself.
4 minutes: Brittney asks Jayden if he will be her thinking partner, reads her sentences to him, talks about a part she has read, and shows him a picture in the book. Then she listens to Jayden read his questions about Shipwreck Saturday and they talk about the story.
Total Minutes: 20 Reading: 7 Writing: 5 On Task: 17
What’s the difference between Scenarios 1 and 2? Nearly double the time spent reading and so much more time spent writing! Time on-task increased dramatically when Brittney was provided with the following:
- Her own box of reading materials at her independent level, selected during morning routines and during guided reading. Students now spent more time actually reading and responding during center time because they were able to focus on a few preselected books, rather than browsing leisurely through book tubs. By having these books ready to go, Brittney was ready to go, too.
- Picture-cued differentiated tasks that supported her response to the reading. Often the hardest part for my struggling students is getting started—writing those first words. The picture-cued, open-ended sentence starters made a huge difference in helping students like Brittney produce a focused response—and giving more advanced readers the opportunity to engage in a higher-level response.
- Teacher modeling along with ample opportunity for students to discuss their understanding of a strategy. I began to integrate pair-share activities throughout the day during read-alouds, shared reading, and classroom discussion of content material. Oral discussion of the reading became an important element of the literacy centers, as well. Expressing her ideas aloud and responding to the questions and comments of her peers during center time was critical to Brittney’s success in processing her learning.
We know that in order to close the achievement gap for students like Brittney, it is critical that they receive ample explicit instruction and time to engage in authentic reading and writing. When we make fundamental changes, such as the ones above, to our literacy centers, the amount and quality of reading and writing practice increases dramatically, taking students who struggle much farther along the path to literacy, while also helping their more skilled peers push ahead.