5 Mistakes You’re Making with Your Literacy Centers (And How to Fix Them)

You see the cute pictures on Pinterest and Instagram. Then you hear other teachers raving about them. Literacy Centers! But when you try launching them in your classroom, it feels overwhelming and stressful. Well, this post tells you why. Not only are you going to learn the 5 most common mistakes you’re making with your literacy centers, but you will also learn practical solutions to fix them. Get ready to be the one raving about using centers, teacher friend! 🙌

PLUS you can grab a FREE resource that shows you step-by-step how to set up your literacy block.

1–Launching Literacy Centers Without Fully Training Your Students

When I first started teaching, I was a 2nd grade self-contained teacher. I fell in love with small group instruction, because I had a veteran mentor teacher who walked me through the ropes.

But I will admit, I was a hot mess during that first year of using centers. Eventually I got the hang of it, but was moved up to 4th grade after a few years of teaching 2nd.

The biggest mistake I made when trying to set up literacy centers with my 4th graders was NOT fully training them to use centers.

I assumed, since they were older students, that they would catch on to certain things without me having to spoon-feed them directions.

Wow, I was so wrong in that assumption!

Try these tips to fix this literacy center mistake in your own classroom:

  • Make a list of all the expectations and procedures you want your students to know. Or you can use my free list HERE.
  • When you sit down to make your lesson plans, weave those procedures into your daily activities by explicitly teaching them to your students.
  • Model or act out how you want students to do things during center rotations. I even modeled for my 4th graders how I wanted to them to walk to each center and how I wanted them to clean their area once we finished.

I am now convinced that procedures training with students is the number one way to ensure smooth literacy center rotations in class.

2–Having Too Many Literacy Centers Each Week

Once you train your students on the procedures and routines of literacy centers, give them an appropriate number of centers to complete.

Even though I have lots of literacy center options in my lesson plan book, I don’t pull all of them out for students each week.

Having too many literacy centers create overwhelm for students. I tend to offer around 6 different center themes each week:

  • Fiction Reading Centers
  • Nonfiction Reading Centers
  • Grammar Games
  • Vocabulary & Word Work Activities
  • Technology Centers
  • Writing Activities

Should You Have Centers Everyday?

We do not have literacy centers everyday in my 4th grade classroom, so I will offer around two centers under each theme.

For example, under the Nonfiction Reading Centers theme, I may have Magazine Scavenger Hunts and Informational Text Mystery Pictures for one week.

Then I train my students to use choice boards when selecting their centers. I DO NOT put every theme on their choice boards.

This ensures that they have about 6-8 centers total to choose from each week. Depending on your students’ maturity level, you may need to decrease that amount to 4-5 centers each week.

That cuts down on the overwhelm of having too many literacy centers.

“But My Students Can’t Handle Choice Boards!” What Should I Do?

When I taught 2nd grade, I did not use choice boards. I organized my students into fixed groups based on skill and behavior.

I would also set up their centers in fixed locations around the classroom.

Then I had a timer on the board that everyone could see so that they knew how much time they had for each literacy center they could complete with their group.

My literacy block was 60 minutes and I rotated students every 20 minutes. So my literacy centers looked like this:

  • Group One: Grammar Game
  • Two : Word Work Activity
  • Three: Reading & Writing Center with me at the teacher table

This meant that students only had three literacy centers to complete on our small group rotation days.

You will know based on the maturity level of your students–no matter what grade you teach–whether they can handle choice boards or they need to be in fixed groups.

3–Choosing Activities That Are Too Complicated To Understand 

Along the same lines of having too many center options, another common mistake is choosing activities that are too complicated for students to complete independently.

I failed miserably in this area when I first started using literacy centers!

Now, I stick to activities that don’t require detailed instructions or have elaborate steps.

These include things like:

Go-Fish Games

Matching games like Go-Fish are popular and well-known, which makes them easy for students to complete. The examples above show parts of speech games that can be played “go-fish” style or “partner-game style.”

  • Easy to follow book and magazine scavenger hunts
  • Reading games where students roll the dice and move their “game piece” along a clear path
  • Bingo
  • Matching activities, etc.

Students don’t get bored with these simple activities because the content they are practicing keeps changing.

When I want to try something different during literacy centers, we complete the activity as a whole class a few times first.

That allows me to coach them through any steps before I release them into small groups.

Antonym Goldfish-centers in upper elementary classrooms
These students are playing a card game that practices antonyms. Simple card games allow students to be successful during center time. This game is included in my 4th Grade Literacy Centers Set.

4–Incorporating Activities That Take Too Long to Complete

You know what else I enjoy about simple literacy centers? They don’t take forever to complete!

Using lengthy, detailed activities during literacy centers presents another challenge to your rotations.

Students work at different paces; sometimes you will have early finishers and sometimes you will have students who take forever to finish one thing.

The way I have learned to fix this problem is to add in an extension activity with each center. This extension is optional and available for early finishers.

For instance, when I have Synonym Goldfish as a word work activity, I include several blank cards for students who finish a round of goldfish quickly.

Then I challenge them to write new synonyms on their own cards to play additional rounds, while other groups are finishing their first round.

Always keep in mind how much time you have during your literacy block so that you can choose activities that can be completed during that time.

5–Not Using Literacy Activities That Can Be Used Flexibly with Your ELA Curriculum

Many elementary curriculums come with supplemental activities that can be used with literacy stations.

The problem with these extras is that they tend to be hard to differentiate and modify to fit students’ needs.

That causes so much frustration for the teacher because now you have to spend so much lesson planning time adapting these resources.

The best way to fix this is to look for literacy stations that have these qualities:

  • work with any ELA curriculum because they cover a wide range of standards and skills
  • have editable features so you can easily change them when needed
  • come with some differentiation already built into the activity

I wish I would’ve known this early in my teaching career.

Since I switched grade levels, all those 2nd grade activities that I spent so much time and money on could not be adapted to fit my new 4th grade class when I was moved.

And I know so many teachers who have moved grade levels over the years–sometimes by choice, sometimes by force.

As you keep a look out for flexible of literacy centers, you will save so much time and money.

Want More Help With Your Literacy Centers?

Take a deep breath! If you’ve struggled using literacy centers in your classroom, you are not alone.

Running small groups efficiently takes time, perseverance, plus some trial and error.

I have several other posts under the category “ELA & Literacy Centers” that share more nitty-gritty details to help you along.

Just hoover your mouse over the Teaching Resource tab at the top and you’ll find them.

You can also find specific grade level ideas for stations with any of these posts:

And don’t forget your FREE Literacy Centers Rotation Schedule Guide below.

It details how to set up your literacy block for 45, 60, 90, and 120-minute time slots. That way you can see some options you have when planning your literacy centers.

Let me know in the comments if you have more questions. Cheering you on teacher friend! 🎉

The Butterfly Teacher

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