Centers are used in multiple grade levels and in various subject areas as a way to provide small group instruction to a group of students while keeping the rest of the students in the class engaged in meaningful and productive practice. When working with English learners, centers can provide opportunities to deliver specific lessons to help students improve language skills, preview upcoming content or review previously presented content.

Managing centers appropriately can be a challenge, especially when deciding the content of the centers, how you will differentiate and help English learners be successful within them, and the content and delivery of small-group instruction to specific students. With a few considerations, though, centers can be an effective tool to help all students succeed.

Starting with standards

Perhaps the first consideration is deciding what students need to practice in terms of the knowledge and skills built into the state or local standards. Mathematics and literacy skills include a variety of skills that will not only need to be explicitly taught, but also that students will need to practice repeatedly in order to internalize and master the skill.

However, skill in every subject area can be practiced in centers. The key is to decide how you will introduce the concepts, and the type of practice they will need. From there, it can be determined which students will need to begin at particular centers.

There are many center ideas available online and in a variety of publications, based on subject area and grade level. While these centers can be extremely helpful, be sure to choose center ideas that are directly related to your grade level and the standards you are expected to teach.

If you cannot find centers that have already been designed, you can of course design your own. In fact, designing your own centers will ensure the centers are aligned directly to what you teach and want the students to practice. Of course, designing meaningful centers is time consuming, so a mix of the two approaches may be beneficial. Several centers should be chosen, with a variety of skills being practiced.

For English learners, having centers that are based on language practice can help accelerate their growth in English proficiency. The centers can be built upon both receptive and productive language skills.

Students can practice reading and listening skills by engaging in activities such as reading text and determining what is important, or listening to recordings of songs, books or stories, or directions and then responding in some way, either orally or in writing. Practice activities with vocabulary or writing are also appropriate.

Setting up and managing centers

Once the topics have been determined and the centers have been chosen or designed, students will need to learn the expectations of working in the centers. This should begin with whole group instruction.

Centers are not meant to be a substitute for instruction; rather they are a place for students to practice skills independently or semi-independently. Given that, centers must start with instruction in the knowledge and skills that will be practiced. This, generally, is accomplished in a whole group setting.

Students also need to know what they will be doing in the centers and how they should behave while working in the centers. Teachers should lead students through the expectations of each center; what the materials are, how the materials will be utilized, and what the product (if any) will be as a result of the practice in the center.

In addition to leading the students through the centers, the instructions that are at the center should also be presented in a way that is comprehensible for the English learners in the group. A few guidelines when creating directions can be extremely helpful in developing instructions:

Write short statements in command form. Depending on the proficiency levels of the students, these directions can be more complex, or a mix of simple and more complex sentences. Consider color-coding the sentences. That way, you can instruct students to begin with the simpler sentences or more complex sentences based on their proficiency level.

Add sketches or pictures for each step. A visual prompt next to each step or set of directions will benefit English learners by making the directions more comprehensible. For example, if the students are to read a short text, add a picture, sketch or clip art to point out that they are to read first. The visuals also add a level of engagement and interest to the set of directions, thereby benefiting all students.

Have students practice reading and discussing the directions. Students can engage in a short discussion before starting the center, wherein they take turns stating the steps and explaining to each other what they are supposed to do, or asking clarifying questions of their peers. Often times, an explanation from a peer is more comprehensible to students. These conversations should be short — a minute or two before starting is usually sufficient.

While students are participating in the centers, consider adding sentence frames, sentence starters and key vocabulary or signal words to the expectations or directions. Make explicit how students will be incorporating academic language, including both general academic vocabulary and domain specific vocabulary into their discussion or writing during the activity.

Building this expectation into the centers activities helps students to practice both content concepts and language. Because of the close connection between academic language, vocabulary and academic achievement, weaving this into the centers will benefit all students especially the English learners.

Another important consideration in building the centers is to decide how many students you will have at each center. Will students be working in pairs, triads or groups of four? Will you have just two, three or four students at each center, or will multiple students be working with the same center materials, but in different parts of the room?

Consider the grouping configurations based on the content and complexity of the centers, as well as the intended goals. Will students be working independently on the tasks? Should they be discussing throughout the center activity?

Remember that the more students in a group, the less each student can contribute to the discussion. For example, if students are working in pairs, half of the class has the opportunity to be talking at the same time. If they are working in triads, one-third of the class will be talking at the same time, and so on.

These considerations are important, as you will likely want to have several different centers that students can rotate through during the course of the day or period, with different goals at each center. In some of the centers, students may be working in pairs and engaging in high levels of discussion. In another center, students may be using hands-on activities in groups of four.

A variety of grouping configurations and practice scenarios will make the centers more engaging and interesting for your students.

Using data to determine which students need specific practice

It is important to consider which specific students should be assigned to the centers. Start off by looking at any data that has already been collected on student achievement, success and areas of need. Data may have been collected formally through a variety of standardized tests used in the school or district, and can be helpful in pointing out areas of need of your students.

Of course, these are not the only and perhaps not even the best sources of data on students. Through your observations, assignments and experiences with students, you may have a firm idea of which students need practice in particular areas. Formative assessments based on observations, conversations, exit tickets and other activities can also be helpful tools.

Consider which specific centers you will assign students to begin with, and why. It may be that you begin by assigning students to centers where you feel they will have some success so they build confidence before going to centers that you know will be more challenging for them. For other students, you might start right away with those areas in which they need significant practice in order to maximize the amount of time they have to practice the essential knowledge and skills they need.

In either case, using data as well as your personal knowledge of the student to determine these decisions will be helpful and beneficial.

Differentiating with centers

As mentioned in the previous section, students can be assigned to different centers based on their needs. Centers, then, are one way to differentiate for students; they can be designed as a review of previously taught and practiced material that has been mastered by some of the students, but with which other students still need practice.

Students who have already mastered the knowledge and skills for that center need not rotate through it, or may spend less time at that particular center as a quick review of previously taught topics. Alternatively, centers can be designed to push students to the next level of understanding about a topic, or designed as a challenge center.

This can be beneficial for students who have already mastered particular topics or for students who have been identified as gifted and talented. It is important to mention here that English learners may have a lower incidence of being identified as gifted due to language proficiency. In these situations, provide language scaffolds for students to practice the challenge center with the language supports they might need to be more successful.

Using centers for small-group instruction

Perhaps the greatest use of centers and the most important is allowing the teacher to pull flexible, small groups during centers time to provide targeted instruction. Of course, prior to pulling small groups of students, teachers should allow sufficient practice with centers in which students clearly understand what they are supposed to do and are able to work independently while you are working with other students.

This does not happen immediately. Teachers will need to manage the centers over the course of several practice sessions, depending on the grade level and maturity of the students, monitoring student engagement and understanding, answering questions as needed, etc. Once students can work at the centers for 15-20 minutes or more with little or no aid from the teacher, it is appropriate to begin pulling a group of students to provide instruction.

Small group instruction can benefit English learners, and indeed all students, in a variety of ways. The teacher can take the opportunity in this scenario to preview upcoming vocabulary and language skills, or review vocabulary and language or content knowledge and skills as an opportunity for repetition. Teachers can also use this time to extend practice and instruction on current skills with students that need a bit more time or support.

One thing to keep in mind with small group instruction is that it can be flexible. Various students can be pulled at various times for various reasons. Avoid designing these groups so that they are static, essentially tracking students. As students are experiencing success or are struggling with a particular skill, they can be pulled into these flexible groups for differing purposes.

Centers are a tried and tested way to help students practice content and language in an engaging and fun way. Through the use of a variety of games and activities, students can practice those skills they are learning about, review previous skills or move to deeper levels of understanding.

Teachers can use centers as a way to differentiate for all students including English learners by helping them to practice language and content skills as well as pull small groups of students to extend instruction, preview, review or launch students forward on their learning progression. With just a few careful considerations, centers can be a beneficial addition to any classroom, in any content area.