Reevaluating Literacy Rotations: Are They Really Meeting Student Needs?

Over the years, I’ve tried everything.  Different ways to set up my classroom library, for one.  That has certainly evolved over time.  Another?  Using literacy centers or rotations.  Back in its heyday, I even dove full-on into Daily 5.  That lasted all of 2 months before I totally revamped it. 

Trying things out, then really observing and reflecting is exactly the way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  And for me, I quickly saw that I’ll never do literacy centers or stations again–at least, not during the reading or writing block.  (I did find a wonderful place for them in my content block, though).

When I hear teachers explain anything they do by starting out with “it helps me…”  or something similar, then I know they’re not putting student learning first.  Stations– especially when they’re timed–are usually nothing more than a way for the teacher to manage behavior.  They become more about keeping kids busy than student-driven instruction. 

Why?  Because almost everyone’s getting the same things.  

And because kids aren’t spending the bulk of their time in real literacy practices:  real reading or real writing.

In most classrooms, literacy rotations or centers are set up to answer the question:  what should the rest of the kids be doing when I’m working in small groups?  

More often than not, literacy rotations often become nothing more than a classroom management mechanism.  A babysitter, really.

Here’s a common classroom scenario:

It’s time for kids to work independently so the teacher can work with small groups.  The teacher shows a slide where each child is assigned to a station for 15 or 20 minutes.  Some kids get the benefit of meeting with the teacher for some sort of small group instruction.  Too often, though, this is traditional guided reading, which really doesn’t hit the mark for anyone in the group, and very little time is spent actually reading.  Sometimes, this is also when teachers do strategy group instruction. 

But there’s no time for the kids to apply the strategy to their own reading or writing beyond the guidance of the teacher at the back table,  because the timer will go off in a minute or two, and it will be time to move to another center.  

Literacy stations can quickly become nothing more than a babysitter. Image from Nicoletaionescu via Depositphotos.

While the teacher is working with kids at that tucked away table in the back, the rest of the kids are doing all sorts of things.  A couple are reading, a few more are pretending to read, and others might be engaged in some sort of isolated word work or phonics activity, usually a review of something already learned.  Still more are doing a writing activity unrelated to the writing the class is working on at the moment, or working on some sort of written response to reading. 

There’s a lot of movement and it is not a quiet time.  Which means even the couple of kids who really are trying to read, can’t.  There’s too much going on.  Besides, every 15-20 minutes, the timer will sound or the teacher will loudly announce that it’s time to move, and everyone is expected to switch to something different.  

And that something different is the same for every child in the group, whether it’s something they need or not. 

It’s pretty much this same way every single week.

How much actual reading is happening in this model?  How much actual time is spent building reading skills, in the context of actual reading?

What’s more, the teacher never gets up from the back table.  Kids know this.  They know when they’re going to meet with their teacher, and they know that during the time she’s working with kids, she can’t really see what’s really going on.  She’s far too focused on the kids right in front of her.

This is when, if you really took a step back to watch, kids will pretend to read, go “shop” for another book, talk (or develop their own sign language) to friends, use the bathroom, zone out, doodle, play with that random paper clip on the floor, etc.  I wrote a lot more about disengagement in this post.  

In this unproductive, totally unsupported and unchecked all-too-common scenario, what’s called “independent reading” becomes a complete waste of time. Stamina can never be built, since the timer will chime at a set 15-20 minutes every single day, often multiple times.  It’s a complete distraction.  Kids know this, and just end up with one eye on the timer to track how many minutes are left.  There’s no time to settle in to read.  

As an added kick in the pants…

At the end of a week of this, there are countless papers in the turn-in bin, waiting for you to look at, provide feedback, and hand back.  There is also a whole big stack of unfinished work that you have to try to find time for kids to finish–which is why most Fridays, it’s “catch up day,” not a learning day. That’s a lot of wasted instructional time, by the way.  Like, 30-35 wasted days in a given school year.  And you’re left with another weekend of planning and prepping the next week’s stations, only to do it all over again.

It’s a hamster wheel, and it doesn’t benefit kids like we tell ourselves it will.

Now, picture this:  It’s time for independent work.  The teacher signals that it’s time to read, and kids go read.  The teacher hangs back for a few minutes, watching to see who gets started right away, who dawdles, and who might need support.  She then spends a few minutes conferring with 2-3 kids at different places around the room, giving her an in-the-moment view of everyone’s budding reading habits.  Then, based on data collected from yesterday’s exit slip or even today’s lesson, she pulls a quick small group to review a skill or teach a strategy that each of them proved a need for.  Then they quickly get back to reading, where that skill can be checked on during conferences.  

Authentic reading is the simplest way for students to practice their reading skills while the teacher works with small groups.
Image from Monkeybusiness via Depositphotos.

Now, because the teacher is extremely watchful, she sees that kids are getting a little wiggly.  So she might gather them together to teach a more granular skill, maybe something related to fluency or grammar.  Or she will begin a beautiful read aloud, knowing she’ll pull countless lessons from it in upcoming days.  Or plug in a word work activity everyone will benefit from, under her guidance and watchful eye, rather than “independently,” when there’s no guarantee at all that kids will do it correctly.  She might just provide a bit of a rally cry to celebrate a few students’ reading habits that day, and send them back off to get back into it.  This tiny shift was just the small brain break they needed, and the teacher knows they’ll be able to work again for a little more time.  

“Follow the child.” Don’t get too firm about them. Do what students need and keep flexibility alive. Today, “Jasmin” may be in the enrichment group but next week, she may need reteaching when we move to another topic. Small groups are fluid. They move and change with the time, topic, and needs of the learners.”  

Larry Ferlazzo, Education Week, 11/8/21

Next, the teacher meets with two kids who seem to be having trouble focusing on reading this week.  They quickly meet, and the teacher provides a strategy to try.  Together, they set a stamina goal.  The teacher will monitor these students, too, in the next couple of days.  From there, there is still plenty of time for another small group–perhaps a review or frontloading of a specific phonics skill, perhaps it’s a more planned out lesson to work on understanding the big idea of a text.  Or perhaps it’s an enrichment group for kids who are ready for a little more complex work.

And then, because the clock on the wall reminds her, it’s time to wrap things up for the next part of the day.

And the teacher gives herself a satisfied silent pat on the back. 

She knows that all the kids all got what they needed that day.   She knows that not everyone needs to even be in a small group each and every week, because she balances the time with 1:1 conferring.  Even so, she met with quite a few students today, while the rest of the class read books that she had supported them in choosing, ensuring that they were truly able to engage in true reading. 

In doing so, they all worked on their phonics application (thereby also honing their phonemic awareness skills), built vocabulary and background knowledge, practiced fluency, and did tons of “in the head” work like visualizing and realizing they were confused and trying a strategy the teacher had taught them to get unstuck–getting to the real purpose of reading:  arriving at comprehension.

They all did important work that every independent reader needs.  

Over time, of course, as reading stamina grows, schedule adjustments will need to be made, as there will be less and less time for these sorts of “extra” things during this particular block of time.  But this is a great “problem” to have, and easily solved!  (In fact, I’ve created 5 totally unique literacy block schedules built to adjust over time, as kids’ needs evolve.  Download the guide here!)

No one needs to catch up on unfinished work.  The teacher will not have to sift through papers to grade or jot any feedback.  She will not be spending her precious prep time or her Sunday planning and preparing another week of literacy rotations.  

How did this teacher get to this place?  

By keeping it simple.

When she planned for what do the rest of the kids do while I’m working with small groups, she knew the answer was simply:  they’ll read

She’s in this place because no one was watching for the 15 minute timer, and engagement, proficiency, and stamina grew.

She’s here because independent reading time is fully supported, through guidance in book choice, conferring, targeted small group work, and being a visible presence around the room.     

She’s in this place because she didn’t worry about “seeing everyone in a small group.”  No busywork needed to be planned.  

Who wouldn’t love to be in this teacher’s shoes?  

Keep it simple.  It’s the best way!

Literacy block schedule guide.

Looking for more ways to save time?  Check out this post!  And be sure to grab my FREE schedule guide, where I share 5 unique ways to break up a literacy block to truly fit it all in and even share tips for making them fit your specific needs even more.  Or,  reach out for a coaching call!  I’d absolutely love to help you find more time in your day so you can feel more effective and less stressed.

And consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 25-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls

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