So you’re a teacher who is trying guided reading in a young children’s classroom for the first time?
However, you haven’t solved the problem of how to best structure the time of the other students. The common practices here, known as learning centers, sometimes seem like glorified busy work for the kids. What are other teachers doing to create an environment in which young learners can construct their own understandings — independently and for which you can hold yourself and the students accountable?
Here are my suggestions based on my years of engaging students in elementary classrooms:
The teacher has to set up learning centers, but the children have to be trained so they know what to do at each one. The teacher needs to assign children to them so that the students are not on the same one all the time and can move from one center to another. It is a lot of work but it can be done. I have used suggestions from the book Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. It’s a good place to start with this issue. And various reading resource teachers have visited my rooms to help us out.
Your classroom should be a print rich one. Have a center for reading with big books of their own writing. The students can use sentence strips to make sentences and stories, alphabet charts, and poems to read. They can use the pointer to read them. The children can match pictures with sounds, sound their words out, and made a word book. For science, they can do observations and draw in their journal. For example, with plants they can start with the seed and watch the growth. Math would be numbers, calendar with dates, associate the dates with their birthday. They can use manipulatives to do numbers also and make up number stories. There can also be an art center where they can make pictures. As I stated, the teacher has to model for them so they know what to do.
The problem regarding learning centers is a common one when teachers begin thinking about implementing guided reading instruction. After all…what ARE we going to do with the rest of the kids? My suggestion: don’t even think about doing guided reading groups until you have taught the children how to work independently. I often advise taking the first four to six weeks of the school year to teach the independent work routines before doing any small group work.
The Fountas and Pinnell text and suggestions for independent activities that were already offered should help you get started. I also like name activities for the early grades (such as matching student photos with name cards; sorting names by first letter, last letter; cutting apart name cards letter by letter, putting them in baggies and have children reassemble them). Please consider a story retelling “center,” which is terrific for comprehension and oral language development. Here you can have puppets that match storybook characters so the children can retell familiar stories; simple costumes for dramatizations; stick puppets, finger puppets, or felt story pieces.
You might want to look at additional textbook resources for more suggestions. I like Linda Dorn’s “Literacy Corners” activities that are described in her book: Apprenticeship in Literacy. I have been most successful when teaching students to work independently in “centers” by teaching them in small groups as opposed to showing the center area to the whole class in one shot. I teach one area or activity at a time, making sure that all of the students know how to work successfully before introducing the next independent activity.
Give yourself time and permission to make mistakes while learning the procedures that work best for you and your students. In my experience, those who have tried to do too much too quickly feel overwhelmed and often abandon independent work thinking it “doesn’t work for my kids.” It really can work well…so well that you won’t want to return to whole class dominated instruction. But there is a learning curve involved. Let yourself learn one step at a time without requiring perfection along the way.