Building Learning Centers for Reading

By Gregory Bertsch, M. Ed.

Posted: December 7, 2023

Children's literacy center work

Why Use Learning Centers?

Centers can be altered to match your child’s learning style and level of understanding. They are fun, interactive, engaging, and don’t feel like work. They can allow several children to practice a skill simultaneously, which can greatly help parents who need to get work done or are busy teaching another child. I utilized centers as a classroom teacher every day to keep 20 first graders busy working while completing a guided reading lesson with a small group. An elementary-aged child can work in centers for 45 minutes to an hour. Any topic can be covered, and separate center materials can be used daily to cover more material. Students in older grades can work in more complex and involved centers that require problem-solving skills, project-based learning, cooperative work, and life-skill building.

The Five Components of Reading

Reading instruction requires a lot of practice and repetition to build a strong foundation. Worksheets and PowerPoint are not very effective with elementary-aged students. Learning has to be engaging and interesting for them to stay focused. Centers for reading can be varied, changed regularly, and address each reading component. Understanding the components that build the foundation for solid reading skills will ensure a balanced early literacy ability:

Phonemic awareness: Sounds within spoken words help readers learn and use letters to represent those sounds. Our spoken language comprises individual sounds, with roughly 44 spoken sounds in English.

Phonics: Phonics instruction teaches the relationship between the individual sounds in our spoken language and the letters we use to represent them in our written words.

Fluency: Fluency is the ability to read text accurately, with expression, at a rate that supports comprehension.  Fluency can also involve grouping words within a sentence into phrases that make what is read easier to comprehend. It also increases comprehension of the text more effectively. Fluency in word-solving ability, also known as decoding, supports reading fluency and includes phrasing, appropriate pausing, intonation, and stress.

Vocabulary: A component of language made up of the words a child recognizes and understands. Understanding words and their meanings helps comprehension and fluency. Exposure to new words increases a child’s vocabulary. Reading to your child once a day and discussing new words is one way to help your child’s developing vocabulary.

Comprehension:  Reading comprehension is the ability to process written text, understand its meaning, and integrate it with the reader’s knowledge. Reading comprehension relies on two abilities connected: word reading and language comprehension. The ability to retell events in a specific order, predict outcomes, discuss character traits, make connections between texts, draw on prior knowledge, and make inferences are all part of reading comprehension.

Literacy Center Ideas for Elementary Grades

The following are center ideas taken from the Florida Center for Reading Research. I am including a link to centers taken from each of the important components of reading instruction in the early grades. These are examples of centers related to each area of reading. Each component is important to address to ensure a solid foundation.

Phonemic awareness:

  • RHYME Memory Match: Practice recognizing rhyming words using simple picture cards using an age-old game of memory.
  • ALLITERATION Popular Pals: Learn to produce alliterative phrases in this fun center with a hands-on art project.
  • SENTENCE SEGMENTATION: Nursery Rhyme cards are used to segment and count words in a sentence.
  • SYLLABLES: Syllable Hopscotch is a fun, movement-centered station that promotes awareness and practices segmenting syllables in different words.
  • ONSET AND RIME: Play detective using rime picture boards and cards to segment, blend, and match onset and rimes (Onset Rime is just the breaking up of the first sound or phoneme in the word from the rest of the word.) in words.
  • PHONEME MATCHING: Playing One Card Out allows each child to match the initial sounds in a word in this game of odd man out.
  • PHONEME ISOLATING: Sound Quest isolates a word’s beginning, middle, and ending sounds.
  • PHONEME SEGMENTING: Say and Slide Phonemes is a fun game in which you are challenged to segment each sound of a word as you move a chip into the separate sound boxes. (Known as Elkonin Boxes)
  • PHONEME SEGMENTING AND BLENDING: Picture Slide is a center that provides the opportunity for a child to segment and blend each separate sound from a single word.
  • PHONEME MANIPULATING: Drop and Say is a center that practices deleting initial sounds in a word to match a new word in a picture.


  • LETTER RECOGNITION: Clip-A-Letter is a center that works with matching upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet using a paper plate and clothespins.
  • LETTER-SOUND CORRESPONDENCE: Students get to match initial phonemes (single unit of sound * /c/ in cat) and graphemes (a group of letters representing a single sound */ch/ in chin or /air/ in stair) in a fun game of memory.
  • ENCODING AND DECODING: Vowel Stars is one of my favorite centers. It addresses the skills of consonant letter recognition with middle vowel sounds to create real and nonsense words.
  • HIGH-FREQUENCY WORDS: High-frequency words are the words that appear most frequently in written text. Many cannot be sounded out. This game of Word Fishing is a way to expand the knowledge of the most frequently used words in our language.
  • VARIANT CORRESPONDENCES: Various corresponding spelling patterns for a specific sound or a variety of spelling patterns for one sound (e.g., long a spelled a, a_e, ai_, _ay). This game of Vowel Slide combines the manipulation of sounds and addresses the ability to recognize various spelling patterns.
  • SYLLABLE PATTERNS: Use puzzle pieces to assemble words with broken-up syllables.
  • MORPHEME STRUCTURES: A fun bean bag game to create awareness of the small parts that make up a word. The child will blend base words and inflections to make words.


  • LETTER RECOGNITION: A game called Speedy Alphabet Arc allows your child to work on letter recognition using letter tiles. Letter and sound recognition are some of the first steps to learning to decode words.
  • LETTER-SOUND CORRESPONDENCE: Make a Match is a center that helps the development of letter sound recognition. Letter sounds are the building blocks of all words.
  • WORDS: Word Climb helps children gain speed and accuracy in reading words.
  • CONNECTED TEXT: Speedy Phrases allow practice gaining speed and accuracy in reading simple phrases quickly.


  • WORD KNOWLEDGE: Synonym Spider is a game in which a child can take a word and find synonyms that help expand vocabulary and foster better understanding.
  • MORPHEMIC ELEMENTS: Compound Word Hunt is a great way to explore compound words and how to build them.
  • WORD MEANING: Multiple Meaning Bugs gives experience using multiple meanings of words.
  • WORD ANALYSIS: Cube Word Sort provides independent work for sorting words into categories. Organizing words into separate groups encourages pattern recognition as well as vocabulary knowledge.
  • WORDS IN CONTEXT: Another Word: This center encourages identifying antonyms in context. When children work with antonyms and synonyms, their vocabulary expands.


  • SENTENCE MEANING: Silly Sentence Mix-Up is a center for creating real and silly sentences using cards with three parts of a sentence to be combined and then written down.
  • NARRATIVE TEXT STRUCTURE: Story Sequence Organizer involves reading a book on a level with a child’s ability and writing about the story’s beginning, middle, and end.
  • EXPOSITORY TEXT STRUCTURE: Summarizing Station is a center to practice close reading skills with non-fiction text. This skill is so important to comprehension. Reading a paragraph at a time and pulling out the most important information and details is a critical skill.
  • TEXT ANALYSIS: Fact Versus Opinion is another critical skill for writing and comprehension. Knowing the difference between them provides an integral piece to critical thinking skills.
  • MONITORING FOR UNDERSTANDING: A KWL chart can be utilized in so many ways. The idea is to create a bridge between what is Known and what the child Learns after reading a text. Background knowledge is brought in, and then questions can be created for what could be learned and finally, what is learned from the text.

The Importance of Balanced Reading Instruction

Reading does not come naturally. One must take a balanced approach when building the foundations of reading with a child. It is a very involved process that requires a lot of patience and attention to all the important building blocks. Following a strategic path comprehensively is critical to ensure gaps are not created in the foundation of your child’s reading ability. Children learn to read from a combination of explicit direct instruction, lots of scaffolded practice, exposure to quality modeling, and immersion in a rich and diverse text. Instruction should allow each child to work with a well-trained and highly-skilled teacher. Family support is critical to the success and self-esteem of their child’s ability to read, interact, comprehend, and write about the text they are exposed to. Developing this foundation is one of the biggest steps in all future learning. Creating centers is an extremely fun way to engage and foster your child’s reading journey. Encouraging independent skills and working with each of the components of reading will be a giant gift to your child’s future. If you have not read my blog about creating centers for your child’s learning, you may want to go here for more information.