Quick Tip Tuesday: Literacy work stations

August 4th, 2009

Literacy work stations help teachers solve the dilemma of what to do with the rest of class while they work with a small reading group. Debbie Diller’s book, Literacy Work Stations: Making Centers Work, offers some practical advice and answers teachers’ most frequently asked questions about literacy work stations.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literacy Work Stations
As you read the following, keep in mind that there is no one right answer to any of these questions. Management styles are as varied as the teachers in classrooms. There is no one ideal way of managing literacy work stations that will solve all problems.

The best advice I can give is to use your common sense in dealing with challenges that arise.

How many students should work together at a station?

Most problems that occur in work stations are interpersonal. The troubles are usually among the children working there: kids don’t share; they argue; they get too loud; they push or use hurtful words. Many teachers I’ve worked with have found that by having only two children work together at a work station, noise and behavior problems are dramatically reduced. The old saying “Two’s company, three’s a crowd” seems to hold true in the classroom. When children work together in pairs there are often fewer problems. Of course, if you have three or four children working well together, don’t change it! In some cases, certain children work better alone at work stations. They may march to the beat of a different drummer, or they may simply prefer to work by themselves. Ryan was one of those kids. He did better when he worked on his own. When he was with a partner, he’d sometimes be gruff or impatient. When he was alone, he could focus better. He would occasionally listen to what others beside him were doing and join in, but for the most part he worked best unaccompanied. Work station time, after all, is time for independent practice, and if a child works better alone, that’s fine. There will be other opportunities during the day for students to work in small groups, perhaps during science or social studies, on projects. Literacy work stations should not be the only chance during the day for kids to work in small groups.

How many work stations should I have? How often should I change them?

You must decide how many stations you and your students can handle. Many teachers have ten or more work stations set up that they use all year long. They do not change activities every Friday, so having this many students is not much work for them. The practice activities that are moved into the work stations are things that students have already learned to do with the teacher during instruction. Students practice them over and over during work station time. A variety of work stations keeps kids’ interest high. You don’t have to be tied into a Monday–Friday rotation, so don’t worry if every child doesn’t get to every work station in a week.

How long should work station time last?

As part of a teacher research project, some first-grade teachers timed their students at literacy work stations to see when children began to get restless or problems began to erupt. They found problems starting at around thirteen minutes! Many teachers I work with change stations after fifteen or twenty minutes, which seems to be just about right. If you let kids stay too long in one work station, behavior problems will begin to occur. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the time and move students to a new activity before trouble starts. Many teachers keep a timer by their guided reading table and set it for twenty minutes. When the bell rings, the students automatically clean up and begin moving to the next station. Most teachers let students work at two or three work stations a day for a total of about forty-five minutes to an hour. Of course, at the beginning of the school year, literacy work station time might last just fifteen or twenty minutes, with students going to just one station.

How do I decide who should work with whom?

There are many ways to pair students. Decide on your purposes for the grouping before making decisions on who will work together. For example, if you want students to practice activities on the cutting edge of their development, if you want them to do things that are just a little challenging but are within their range of successfully accomplishing, then you might pair students reading at a similar level who need practice with the same type of thing. If two children are emergent readers and you’d like them to practice reading emergent books together, it would make sense to pair them at the buddy reading work station. Many teachers pair students heterogeneously so they can help each other. This has its place, too. If you want children to be able to help each other by reading directions, for example, you might pair students this way. At times, you might want students to choose their own partners. This may motivate some children because of the added choice provided. Think carefully about how you set up your partners at work stations, and don’t stick to only one way of choosing partners. Vary the pairings occasionally to keep interest high.

Should the children decide or should I choose which stations they will go to?

Research has shown that choice helps motivate students. However, when it comes to classroom management, many teachers do better initially giving children “controlled choices” at literacy work stations. It is generally easier to start the year by assigning students where you’d like them to go and eventually turning over more of the choice to them than to begin by letting everyone go wherever they’d like and ending up with chaos! Provide choice within each literacy work station by having several open-ended activities children can choose from. This allows students to have some choice in a controlled way, which will help establish a predictable routine. For example, when a child goes to the ABC/word study station, he or she may choose to put words in alphabetical order, write words on a dry-erase board, read an alphabet book, and/or create sentences with word wall words. At the listening station, there may be three different tapes and several types of response sheets for children to choose from. In one classroom I visited, the teacher had assigned only one activity for students to do at each station. She wondered why they were getting done so fast and why she was having discipline problems. When she added more choice within the stations, her problems disappeared. Again, it is up to you to decide how to determine which stations children go to. Teachers must know their students and what they can handle.

What if some students finish before everyone else? What if someone isn’t finished when it’s time to switch to another work station?

If the activities in the station are varied, open ended, and interesting to the students, they generally won’t be finished early. However, some students may become engaged in an activity and not be ready to move on to the next station. Be flexible! Allow the child to take his or her work to a desk to finish, and skip that next rotation for that student. (One exception to this is the computer station, because of the limited time available.)

What if students misbehave during literacy work station time?

Children sometimes don’t do what they’re expected to during work station time. They should be made aware beforehand of what they are supposed to do and what will happen if they break the rules. I use the “one strike and you’re out” rule in literacy stations. This time is highly motivating to the children, and they don’t like to miss it. So if they know the teacher means business, they will be more likely to do what is expected. I simply tell students, “This is what you may do at the stations. This is what you may not do. If you break the rules, you will have to leave the station at once.” I don’t give idle threats or warnings. I tell them what I expect and then I follow through. Most teachers have found that simply having a chair or two by their guided reading table for children who have not followed the rules works best. When I sent students back to their desks to put their heads down, they still acted out and wanted my attention. But if I sat them near me but didn’t involve them in my lesson, they tended to pay attention to what the other students were doing and may have even learned something from this vicarious learning experience! One teacher shared with me a surefire method for discipline in her class during literacy work station time. If kids had to be removed from stations due to poor behavior, she had them take a piece of paper and draw a picture of how their behavior would change when they returned to that station. Notice that she didn’t ask them to write, nor was she “punishing” them. She was simply asking them to reflect on their behavior in a nonthreatening way. She said that many times students began writing spontaneously about their behavior after they drew. In fact, she got some of her best writing samples from some of her “behaviorally challenged” students this way. If you find the same students having to be removed from work stations day after day, take a look at those individuals. You may want to design an individualized plan to help them get back on track.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

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