Centers in Upper Elementary Classrooms

This post shares the top three reasons why upper elementary teachers should have centers in their classroom. Whether you call them small groups, center rotations, or something else–this post outlines the reasons why they are essential for older students to maximize learning.

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Literacy Center Resources for Upper Elementary Teachers

This post is a part of a series on helpful content geared toward literacy instruction in upper elementary classrooms. Here are the other posts to check out once you’ve read all of this post:

Posts with * beside their titles have free downloads available!

1–Centers Maximize Differentiated Instruction/Learning

One of the best ways to differentiate instruction is through the use of centers.

Many assume that because students in 3rd through 5th grade are older than K-2nd, that they can digest a one-size fits all learning model. 

This assumption is false!

With small groups, I am able to meet different student needs in a fun way that isn’t overwhelming.

For example, with my 4th Grade Literacy Centers, students are working on all the following skills in small groups around the classroom:

  • Spelling
  • Writing
  • Grammar
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Critical Thinking and Verbal Reasoning
  • Fluency and Sight Word Mastery
Literacy Centers Pic-centers in upper elementary classrooms

I wrongly assumed that my students would have many of these crucial skills fully developed by the time they reached my 4th Grade class.

Boy, was I wrong!?! I had 4th Graders who had deep deficits in different literacy skills.

I don’t blame their previous teachers; students just learn and develop at different speeds. [tweetshare tweet=”I don’t blame their previous teachers; students just learn and develop at different speeds. #centers #UEC #smallgroups” username=”Y7#&09P0^Gqp6Wj(!al6J*#cbD7idME):1:0″]

So having centers in upper elementary classrooms gives you a greater reach to meet more learning needs.

2–Learning Still Takes Place Even When You’re Not Talking

Antonym Goldfish-centers in upper elementary classrooms
Here my students are playing “cards” by reviewing antonyms that are common for upper elementary students to know. Click the image for more details on this resource.

My second reason for recommending literacy centers in your upper elementary classroom is because your students are still able to learn well even when you are not talking.

In fact, your students may be able to learn even more when you give them autonomy and leadership in their own learning process.

Running and rotating centers in your upper elementary classroom gives students the opportunity they need to collaborate, problem solve, and work together creatively.

These are ALL skills required in many state standards, including Common Core.

This is a WIN-WIN for you as a teacher because not only are your kids digging deeper into the content skills, but they are also learning life skills!

Our kids need lots of practice working with others. As you and I both know, they will engage in this skill for the rest of their lives!

Featured below are pictures of my older kiddos working in different centers.

The caption of each picture describes their activity. You can click on any image below to get more details about the resources they are using in that center.

Literacy centers in 4th Grade; centers in upper elementary classrooms
Two students work together extending root words on a word family writing center.
Synonym Goldfish--centers for upper elementary classrooms
These guys decide to play goldfish with synonyms in this center activity.
Centers for Upper Elementary Classrooms
In this center activity, a student uses dice and flashcards on a ring to create sentences on his Word Family Roll Maker writing chart.

3–Less Teacher Stress

My final reason for having centers in your upper elementary classroom is because it leads to less stress for yourself as a teacher.

Why? Because you are able to cover so much content within the full school year.

Each year, I am given a pacing guide or curriculum map that is PACKED with content I am required to teach.

School leaders expect my students to meet mastery on many of these objectives even though kids come to me already behind. [tweetshare tweet=”School leaders expect my students to meet mastery on many of these objectives even though kids come to me already behind. #centers #learninggoals” username=”Y7#&09P0^Gqp6Wj(!al6J*#cbD7idME):1:0″]

I may joke about being a Super Teacher, but I truly don’t have magic powers or beans that can grow beanstalk-sized growth in my students’ brains!

As my students work in small groups aka center rotations, they are gaining practice on much-needed skills.

Then I am able to work in a separate group with students to further target areas of lack in their understanding.

You Might Like This: 7 Quick and Easy Math Center Ideas

This eases the tension I feel as a teacher because I know my kids are getting engaged practice with the skills they need.

Plus, I don’t have to come up with detailed lesson plans for constant whole group instruction.

Besides, adding in centers for your upper elementary classroom keeps you from being a boring teacher who just spends all day lecture-style teaching!

You Might Like This: 7 Habits of Highly Boring Teachers

How Do You Come Up With Center Ideas???

My first piece of advice on this bonus question is to check your objectives, pacing guide, curriculum maps, and curriculum.

Many schools have these nicely packaged into one document that you can access all year.

This will give you the foundation of what type of centers to choose from.

Progress Monitoring Chart for Prepositions--centers for upper elementary classrooms
I use Common Core State Standards as a guide for WHAT my students need to learn. Then I assess WHERE they are using progress monitoring charts like this one from my Prepositions center activity. Click the image for more details.

Once you know WHAT you’re supposed to teach, that will make the HOW much easier.

Here are some places to check for ideas:

  1. Pinterest Boards dedicated to Centers and Small Groups or Upper Elementary related content
  2. Facebook Groups and PagesThe Butterfly Teacher’s page here often contain ideas that are easy to implement.
  3. Instagram Hashtags on the subject
  4. Teachers Pay Teacherscheck out my page here to get a headstart! I have tons of resources for centers in upper elementary classrooms.
  5. Other Great Teacher Friends!

I’ve put together this special page featuring resources for managing centers in your classroom.

You can also find more tips in the posts featured at the very beginning of this one. That series has tons of ideas for literacy centers in upper elementary classroom.

I would love to hear from my upper elementary teacher friends out there. Do you have small groups or centers in your classroom? If so, share your thoughts about them in the comments below.

Let’s continue to transform learning beautifully together!

The Butterfly Teacher

8 Responses

  1. I will be teaching 4th grade next year. I’m moving up from Kindergarten, so implementing centers won’t be a problem, but I will have 28 students. We will have a 150 minute literacy block that will include writing. I will also pull small groups during this center time. How long do your students stay in each center? Do students rotate to other centers when they are finished, or after a certain amount of time? Do they have to have all the centers completed by the end of the week? Is there a checklist posted to keep track of which centers each student has visited? I will also include a “technology ” center and library time, and would like to also include an independent reading station that when they are finished with their book, they will have to write a book review. I am looking at 5 groups with approximately 6 kids in each, or six groups with five kids each. I am so grateful for finding your blog. It’s been a long time since I taught 4th grade and so many things have changed! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Stephanie!
      Congrats on moving to 4th Grade next year…that’s awesome. But I remember how scared I felt leaving a younger grade and moving up to 4th. You are going to do great at this. I love your ideas already of having 5 groups with 6 kids each. I like smaller group sizes even if it means I’ll end up with more groups. And it’s AWESOME that you have 150 minutes for your literacy block!!

  2. Hi, I just found your site and I teach 5th grade. I was told something similar as well when I started teaching 5th. The problem I have is in making it work. I just feel like I never do well implementing stations. We have so many interruptions, changes, etc and I feel like it just messes it up to be inconsistent. I’m wondering how you structure your whole literacy time. I have about 2 hours for ELA (that includes writing time). I do a read-aloud & we are finishing reading Shiloh whole group, but would like to start using stations if possible. Any ideas/suggestions of how to structure my time?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Annie H.
      I completely understand your situation because I was there too! Not really knowing how to get my centers organized. I love your question, but I think it would be best to answer it in detail with another blog post. I will be sure to contact you directly once that post is live. I will include how I ran centers during my 45-minute and 90-minute literacy blocks! Thanks again so much Annie!

      1. I love this idea, but am running into the same time crunch problem and getting started with stations. Is there a way I could see the blog post, too. Much thanks!

        1. Kathryn,
          Absolutely! I will be sure to reach out once that information is posted. I completely understand that time crunch with centers in upper elementary classrooms. You are not alone. Thanks for reading and reaching out to me.

  3. Hi Tanya,
    I agree with you and love using centers in my 4th grade classroom.
    This year, I am struggling with assessment. How do you have time to assess their skills when you are busy helping out struggling students? Do you have any suggestions?
    I don’t have a minute to spare during center time to go observe with my clipboard and chart.

    1. Julie,
      This is such a great question. I assess my students in several ways because it is time-consuming to only take paper and pencil/traditional assessments. Here are some ideas: 1) I check their center & small group work as one way to assess their progress. 2) I pull students to my “teacher table” based on different skills and goals so that I am spending small group time with everyone each month instead of just the same students. 3) You could also use informal, quick check-ins with tools like Plickers or just plain whiteboards to get an idea of how you’re students are doing. I hope some of these ideas are helpful as you find the best way to take assessments for your centers. Thanks Julie!

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