Student Focused: Effective teaching through learning centers

The following post was first published in the January edition of BiBimBap, the bimonthly Jeollanamdo, South Korea teachers and foreign residents newsletter.

The Logic of Learning Centers

Learning centers are a constructivist teaching method designed for Pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms, where students engage in self-guided work, either independently or cooperatively, that attends to multiple learning styles and ability levels. The students are split into manageable groups which then rotate through different areas and different activities. The teacher acts as a facilitator, creating different stations or “centers” where groups engage in different activities that will educate and stimulate them. This is a student-centered method wherein teachers provide structure via planning, modeling the activities, and guidance during the center’s rotation. When I think of the Centers Model, what comes to mind is my Montessori pre-school days of rotating between an art activity, making block patterns, and counting hundreds of tiny toy soldiers; but it can be an effective teaching model for many of us, as well.

The Logistics of Learning Centers

Many NET’s in Jeollanamdo teach small groups of students in extra classes after school or work in rural schools where the class sizes are small. Learning centers are ideal for groups of fifteen students or fewer, especially if there is a wide range in ability levels and managing students is a challenge. However, learning centers are also used in large pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms of twenty or more throughout the world.

There is a significant amount of work up front in the form of planning, creating materials, and modeling the activities for each center. You must also practice the rotations, reinforcing the behavior expectations for individuals or pairs at each center and ensuring that centers are accessible to all students while also providing a challenge for those able to do more.

Once you have the learning centers running, you are free to confer with students as they engage in the different activities. You can also take advantage of flexible grouping so that a lower ability level student has a strong peer model to work with at each center.  However, the real benefit of establishing centers is that you, the teacher, become a learning center where you can provide targeted, differentiated, one-on-one (or small group) instruction to help a struggling student or encourage challenging one that is excelling.

The Lowdown on Learning Centers

I have implemented five learning centers with my extra class of ten 3rd grade students. We meet twice a week for 40 minutes, so it took me about one month (or eight classes) to plan, model, practice, and gradually release the students to work in pairs at the five centers. I do not have a co-teacher in my extra class, so clearly and repeatedly modelling both the task and the behavior expectations was essential. I used ClassDojo prodigiously up-front to reinforce both good and bad behaviors that I saw and then wanted to either encourage or snuff out at the centers.

11 Examples of Tiered 3rd Grade English Learning Centers Activities (easy to challenging):

  1. Shapes, Colors and Numbers practice, draw 10 green squares, 9 purple triangles, etc.
  2. Letter/Sound Recognition practice
  3. Spelling practice with a list of three letter words, a whiteboard, a reader and a writer
  4. Vocabulary matching or memory game with word and picture cards
  5. Number Scrolls, students write the word and the number together using a number grid visual aid, the rolled numbers papers become a scroll
  6. Rhyming word practice with ending sound examples, write as many words that rhyme with ‘am’ on the whiteboard or paper as you can think of
  7. Body Parts Labeling using pictures of people and animals
  8. Phonics Sliders, create sliders with all the vowel sounds so students can see and hear the difference between ‘bat, bet, bit, bot and but’ (nat, net, nit, not, nut)
  9. Word Fragments or Sentence Fragments, students have to put the fragments together and categorize them based on key words
  10., create a visual vocabulary mastery test on the free online site and create a station at a classroom computer
  11. Buddy reading, provide a level appropriate text for students to take turns reading to each other

Currently, my five centers activities are tiered, meaning they vary in difficulty level for the students, and are fully based off the content we have previously covered in the extra class. During the roll-out, I wanted the content of the centers’ activities to be easily accessible for the students even if the task was new. In this way, I hoped to scaffold their entry into the self-guided pair work and set them up for success.

The centers have been running for almost three weeks now. The students are really responding to them and have their favorite center. They are taking responsibility for their own learning, their own behavior, the clean-up of their center before rotating to the next and they are working well with their partners. The next step is adapting and evolving the centers to respond to the learning growth and interests of the students.

If you would like to see my centers in action, feel free to watch a video of my extra class here:

If you would like to see an expert teacher implementing and managing learning centers in their classroom, watch this Teaching Channel video here: