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Differentiated Literacy Centers: A Primary Teacher’s Guide

Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.

-Barack Obama

Today, we are here to talk about two of my favorite subjects…literacy and differentiation. As the quote above so eloquently reminds us, literacy is really the gateway to all other learning. In the primary grades, we know how important it is to ensure that all of our kids are reading and comprehending before they enter the upper grades. In fact, students being able to read at grade level by third grade has been one of the most significant predictors of future success in both college and career. After third grade, students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Therefore, having a strong, successful literacy program in place is imperative for any primary-grade teacher.

Literacy center rotations are perhaps one of the most commonly used models in the primary grades. They can consume a ton of prep time, however. Whether you are a veteran teacher looking to enhance your centers or a first-year teacher to the primary grades, I hope to shed some light and perhaps save you some prep time when planning your literacy block. Let’s start by addressing three commonly asked questions regarding differentiated rotations:

  • How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?
  • How do I group students?
  • How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

In this blog post, we will address these questions to help you successfully implement differentiated centers without adding more stress to your already full teacher plate.


How do I start literacy centers? What is the first step?

The first step is to assess your students’ literacy levels. Literacy can be divided into three categories: phonics, fluency, and comprehension. Although all three are important to a child’s overall success, I would address them in the order listed. In other words, address any concerns with phonics before tackling comprehension. I am NOT saying that comprehension is not just as important, but if a child cannot decode the words on the page, it is going to be near impossible to understand a text to its fullest, even with pictures and context clues.

Therefore, I recommend giving a phonics assessment to EVERY student in your primary grade classroom, regardless of the primary grade level you teach. For your convenience, I have created a quick, teacher-friendly phonics assessment. It includes a student copy, a teacher copy, and a scoring guide. The best part? The scoring guide tells you which group to place students in depending on their assessment results. Make sure to download a copy!

For the students who are able to pass the entire phonics assessment, I recommend giving a fluency assessment. (Download the FREE fluency tracker below if you need one.) The purpose of this assessment is not to see how quickly a student can read but to observe if their fluency rate may potentially affect their comprehension of a text. For example, if a student is spending so much time/effort decoding each individual word, that s/he is struggling to remember the gist of the passage, that student’s reading goal should be chunking phrases. After giving both assessments, it is time to group students according to both their reading levels and goals.

How do I group students?

Now that your students have their reading goals (phonics, fluency, or comprehension), it is time to group them. There are several ways to group students, but I prefer mixing them by reading goal and then reading level.I would start by looking at the students’ phonics assessments. Group students according to the phonics skill they need. Please note that you can group skills together. Do not feel the need to have a separate group for EVERY single phonics skill. For example, if you have two students who need CVC words (level A in the assessment above) and three students who need digraphs (level B), place them in one group. In cases like this, I would always teach the higher skill and perhaps make the lower skill a warm-up for each individual lesson. My lesson progression would look something like this:

Warm-Up: Vowel Sound Review and CVC Word Practice

Instruction – New Sound: SH

Challenge: Two-Syllable Words with SH Sound

Independent Practice: Read CVC Words and SH Words

Of course, your groups are going to be determined by your students’ needs, but I wanted to provide you with an example. Please note that the column “Assessment Scores” shows the phonics level where the student stopped the assessment. This would be considered that student’s instructional level.

Here is a sample class:

StudentAssessment ScoresReading GroupGoals
1Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
2Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 70 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
3Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs
4Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
5Phonics Level C
No Automaticity; Struggled with Blending
RedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
6Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
7Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
8Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
9Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs
10Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
11Phonics Level ARedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs and Review CVC
12Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs
13Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs
14Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
15Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 50 wcpm; decoding each word
GreenFluency Passages
16Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
17Phonics Level BRedIntervention Phonics: Digraphs
18Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
19Passed Phonics Assessment
Struggled with Two-Syllable Words
PurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
20Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
21Phonics Level COrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
22Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 63 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
23Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs
24Phonics Level DOrangePhonics: Long Vowels and Magic E
25Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 75 wcpm; no pauses
GreenFluency Passages
26Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 68 wcpm; no expression
GreenFluency Passages
27Phonics Level FPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
28Phonics Level EPurplePhonics: R-Controlled and Diphthongs
29Passed Phonics Assessment
Fluency Assessment 58 wcpm; choppy
GreenFluency Passages
30Passed Phonics Assessment
Passed Fluency Assessment
BlueComprehension
Book Clubs

Notice that my groups above are not equal. This is another misconception in my opinion. Groups do not need to be exactly even. They should be based on data. If your class happens to be evenly separated based on reading goals and scores, then no problem, but do not place a student in the wrong group just because you would like to keep the groups even in size. Your groups will eventually change anyways as students make progress.

According to the table above, I have 4 students in my intervention group (red), 7 students in my near grade-level group (orange), 6 students in my grade-level group (purple), 7 students who no longer need phonics instruction (green), and 6 students who are currently working above grade-level (blue). For each group, I have selected a goal and an activity for our targeted intervention time. Sometimes called “Response to Intervention”, or RTI, this is a time during the day when students are all working towards their own goals. Note that not all groups are going to receive the same amount of teacher time. In the next section, I will go over how to make these “centers” work:

How do I run differentiated literacy centers? Is it manageable?

The first several weeks of literacy centers should be dedicated to training. I would start with your advanced learners. I recommend training them to either participate in Reading Workshop or Book Clubs. (NOTE: The linked blog posts were written with upper-grade teachers in mind, but the same ideas can be used in the primary grades. If you would like to brainstorm ideas, feel free to write a comment on this post or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would be more than happy to help!) Once this group is trained, they will be able to run Reading Workshop or Book Clubs on their own. I would plan on having a quick check-in with them once a week or perhaps even once every other week.

After blue group has been trained, I would recommend training the green group. I suggest having a targeted fluency lesson with this group perhaps once or twice a week. The other days can be dedicated to fluency practice with partners. If you are looking for some NO-PREP fluency passages, check these out! There are themed passages for every month of the year, and each theme includes 6 different passages (4 levels each passage). HUGE TIME SAVER!!!

The rest of the groups are phonics groups. I suggest meeting with these groups every day for 20 minutes each. (If you cannot find 60 minutes to dedicate to intervention, perhaps meet with orange/purple groups every other day.) While you are meeting with each group, the other students can work on these ready-made activities. The instructions are recorded on the digital Nearpod lessons.

*If you are new to using Nearpod, make sure to watch this webinar. I gave this webinar during the pandemic while schools were closed, but a lot of the ideas shared can be used in-person, as well.


Literacy centers do not have to be as daunting as they seem. I truly hope that this post has helped you take that first step towards differentiated centers. Again, I know how time-consuming planning these centers can be. I have a resource that includes hundreds of activities, passages, and pretty much anything you could need to meet the learning needs of your students. Make sure to check it out!

Should you have any questions or just want to share how your literacy rotations are going, feel free to either comment below or email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com. I would love to hear from you!!!


Other Blog Posts Your May Enjoy

5 Goals of Reading Workshop: Is It Effective?Learn about the many benefits of Reading Workshop.
Reading Workshop: Incorporating Classroom Book ClubsLearn tips and tricks on how to successfully add book clubs to your reading workshop.
Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Using Nearpod to Differentiate Phonics InstructionLearn how to incorporate Nearpod into your phonics rotations. These ideas can be used inside or outside the classroom!

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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