Launching Small Groups & Learning Centers (Literacy)

How many of you have already gone back to school?  One question I'm often asked at the beginning of the school year is, "When do you start guided reading?!", so I thought we'd chat about how all that gets started in my classroom today  :)

The beginning of the year is important not only for establishing rules and routines, but also for assessing our students.  We need to know where are babies are so we can determine how and what we need to teach.  We're all given grade level objectives and standards to teach, but our kids also need differentiated instruction to meet their individual needs.  Where does this fit in?!

Most of my differentiated instruction happens during small group (guided reading and math).  It's during small group that I'm truly able to assess and observe and plan my instruction...for each child...accordingly.  It's definitely a challenge at the beginning of the year.  Especially in Kindergarten.  But this is all part of establishing those rules and routines our kids (and we!!!) so desperately need!!!

I think it's important to start small group instruction sometime during those first three weeks of school.  Sound crazy?!  Hear me out.  

When I'm facilitating small groups (guided reading), my kids are independently engaged in literacy centers...listening, reading, word work, etc.  I, I kids to know exactly what to do and what my expectations are while they're working independently before I can successfully manage my guided reading groups.  This DOES NOT mean giving them worksheets to keep them busy.  I want them ENGAGED.  I want them EXCITED.  I also want to give them autonomy over their learning.  

This can all be a big ol' mess if expectations aren't modeled and reinforced and kids aren't given the opportunity to practice.  We need to give them direct, explicit instruction and then give them ample opportunities for practice.  Practice, practice, practice!!!

Starting the second week of school, I introduce small groups and learning centers.  I teach my kids EXACTLY what to do in their learning centers and model for them what I expect to see when they're working cooperatively and independently.  This is SO important!  I start slow so that I can finish strong.  While my kids are practicing the learning center routine, I start pulling kids up to the teacher table for small group activities.  Since I haven't administered any DRA's or started my literacy assessments, I use this time to teach my kids simple small group games and informally assess and observe their abilities.  This set-up also makes me available to any of my kids who have questions or challenges in their learning centers.

When my Kindergarten friends visit me for small groups during those first few weeks before formal assessments, here are some things we might be doing in our small groups....

1.  I always start the linking chart routine the first week of school.  I include motions for each letter and sound as well.  This carries over into a quick warm-up activity for small group until October.  You can read more about how I use this chart HERE.

2.  Alphabet Puzzles - I will only lay out a handful of different letters...maybe 8-10...and then have the kids work with me to assemble them.  This makes a great assessment, too.

3.  Roll & Remove - These are such fun games!  I love teaching them how to play them in a small group setting so that I can eventually put them in their literacy centers for independent use.

4.  Interactive Alphabet Notebooks - I introduce our Alphabet Notebooks during our small group time together.  I give each of my students a notebook and we work in it a little each day during small group until I feel like they have a firm grasp of how to do this independently.  You can read more about our Alphabet Notebooks HERE.

5.  It's Time to Rhyme - We play several different games using our rhyming and non-rhyming pair cards. This is a great skill to implement during those first few weeks of small group since most kids have been exposed to rhyming prior to Kindergarten.  And if they haven't been exposed to rhyming by the time we play these games, I know right away who will need intervention/more exposure.

When we start small groups in First Grade, our kids have already (typically) been exposed to a variety of literacy concepts and skills, so I like to introduce games and activities covering various skills to assess ability and understanding.  This is what some of those activities might look like.

1.  Short Vowel Word Puzzles - I will only lay out a handful of different word families...maybe 5-6...and then have the kids work with me to assemble them.  I like to teach them how to do this activity in small groups so that I can eventually transfer them to their literacy stations along with the rest of the short vowel activities.

2.  Deep Dish Digraphs - this is seriously a classroom favorite every single year!  I would say that in my experience, most kids come to me with a pretty good working knowledge of digraphs and digraph sounds.  They LOVE this game and I love that I can see who does/doesn't understand these spelling patterns. 

3.  Spin & Cover Long and Short Vowel Games - Small group is a great time to informally assess my kids' understanding of long and short vowels.  These games are great because they're hands-on and engaging and the kids LOVE to play.  They're great for playing when trying to establish routine and perfect for reinforcing these concepts throughout the year.

4.  CVC/CCVC/CVCe Isolate, Identify, & Build - I love incorporating this activity the first few weeks of small group because it helps me to identify the kids that might need intervention.  We isolate a target sound, identify the position of that sound in a word, and then build the word...independently.  Of course, I model first, then let them independently practice while I observe.

5.  Roll & Remove Phonics Games - this is pretty much the same thing we're doing the first few weeks in Kindergarten, but incorporating different phonics skills. 

6.  Initial Substitution and Final Consonant Deletion - both such important foundational skills, yet tricky to master!!  I use these prompt cards and game boards the first few weeks in 1st grade mostly for assessment purposes, but then continue to incorporate them throughout the year for repeated practice.  

7.  CVC Puzzles - again with the puzzles, but I like to teach them small group so they can be used independently in centers.

So in a nutshell, this is how I set up small groups at the beginning of the year.  We might not be reading right away, but we're practice important phonics concepts and skills necessary to build a strong foundation in decoding and reading words in and out of context.  If you're looking for some small group phonics based activities to implement into your instruction, you can check out my BIG bundle of Guided Reading Phonics Activities (Volume 1).  I'll be talking all about these activities for Phonics Friday this week!!!

You can also click on the links mentioned above in the small group activity descriptions for more!!

Now what about literacy centers?!  What are my kids doing independently the first few weeks??  
Sounds crazy that I would expect them to work independently (successfully!!!) the first few weeks, doesn't it?!  Not so at all!!!  

You remember me saying earlier that I need my kids to know exactly what to do and what my expectations are while they're working independently before I can successfully manage my guided reading groups?!?!?  This is SO important.  I don't want 20 little bodies interrupting my guided reading instruction and these first few weeks before administering the DRA are key to training my kids in literacy centers.  I make sure that the activities on which they are working are easy enough to complete independently without a ton of redirection and reteaching while still being hands-on and engaging.  No busy work. I want them truly engaged.

In Kindergarten and 1st grade, this is what my writing center looks like.  There are plenty of differentiated activities from which my kids can choose (I definitely limit the choices) and they can choose based on interest.  You can read more about my writing center HERE.

My Word Work stations house a variety of activities.

In Kindergarten, we're working on lots of alphabet and name activities the first few weeks of school.
In First Grade, I'm incorporating a lot of different remedial skills just to get them used to the routine.  Some concepts I include are beginning/ending sounds, medial vowels (short and long), building CVC words, sight word sorts...just to name a few. The key is independence and building routine.  

If you get nothing else from this post, just remember that it takes time to establish routines and procedures.  The more you practice and the more time you take establish those routines and procedures, the less time you'll take out of your instruction to reteach and redirect.  
Start simple.  Hands-on, engaging activities in centers and hands-on, engaging games & activities in small group.  Assess and observe.  Reteach & redirect when necessary.  Establish your expectations.  

I'll be back tomorrow with some more back to school ideas and activities!!  

In the meantime, the annual Teachers Pay Teachers sitewide sale is in full swing.  You can grab some great resources to start your year at a big savings!!  Just make sure to use the promo code BTS15 at checkout to save big!! 

Here's a quick little shopping tip.  

If you're looking to see if I have something you might need, you can always type keywords in the "Quick Find" bar (pictured below).  For example, if you're wondering if I have any Apple themed resources, you can type in "apples" and the products I have relating to that keyword will pop up.

You can also browse through the Custom Categories tab on the left hand side of my store.  This is a great way to search based on specific concepts/skills, thematically, subject area, etc.  

Until tomorrow, friends!!!


  1. I am new to first grade. I have always taught 4th grade so going down a couple of grades is a whirlwind of a change for me. I have been overdosing on your blog post ( hope that doesn't sound too bad). Anyways I see that a while back you posted your detailed lesson plans. Is it possible that you can post your detailed lesson plans from last year or this year if they are done. I like to see how the day unfolds. So far your plans have been the best and easiest to understand.

    New to 1st grade,

  2. Thank you ever so much for all you share. I learn and am getting much better prepared to start the year with your helpful blog. You are wonderful, wise and FUN! :)

  3. Thank you ever so much for all you share. I learn and am getting much better prepared to start the year with your helpful blog. You are wonderful, wise and FUN! :)