Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

Raising Student Achievement

Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids

by Katherine McKnight

When I hear, “This program works,” I’m skeptical. As an educator, I’ve witnessed many passing fads. My experiences in classrooms for over 30 years confirm my foundational belief that great teaching and learning is always grounded in the relationships between teachers and students and researched based pedagogy. Bearing this in mind, I’m always reading about innovative ideas grounded in research. I am always considering how to effectively manifest these in the classrooms in which I collaborate.

Student eating apple and reading while groupmate working at laptopFor over five years, I have developed the Literacy and Learning Center model for grades 4-12 (for the big kids). When we think of centers, we often identify with K-3 classrooms. However, the Literacy and Learning Center model incorporates these key elements: balanced literacy, content knowledge, movement, differentiated instruction, formative assessment and response to intervention. I assert that if we focus on the Literacy and Learning Center pedagogical model, these elements are effectively integrated.

As I implemented the Literacy and Learning Center model in countless schools, there are tangible advantages for teaching and learning. Students tend to be more engaged in their learning when they work in centers. The combination of self-directed activities and short, specific tasks lends itself to the natural strengths of students. When I interview students, they often report that it is easier for them to focus and ask questions.

The greatest complement that a teacher can receive is when students declare, “I can’t believe how fast class time passed today.” This student declaration is common in a Literacy and Learning Center classroom. Students learn from each other as they collaborate and learn, especially in inclusive classroom settings. As this occurs, teachers also experience key differences in classrooms.

student readingTeachers learn that the Literacy and Learning Center models enable them to cover more content in less time. In the middle schools and high schools where Literacy and Learning Centers were implemented, student achievement on national assessments (such as PARCC and NAEP), rose on average, between 13-18 percent in one academic year. This is a staggering statistic and the success boils down to the reality that students are doing rather than passively engaging in instruction.

Why Literacy and Learning Centers Build Student Achievement

The Literacy and Learning Center model is grounded in several key pedagogical models including:

Balanced Literacy

The focused instructional framework for Literacy and Learning Centers is also built on a balanced literacy model. Substantial literacy research has established the importance of integrating reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, and language in a synergetic instructional approach. In this model, students are provided with ample opportunities to develop their literacy skills in multiple contexts — through integration, not isolation.

Formative Assessment

The Formative Assessment model provides an instructional approach to determining how and what students are learning. When teachers have meaningful feedback from, and insight into, their students, they can adjust instruction to ensure that their students are developing skills and content knowledge. This is usually accomplished through conferencing with students and providing on-the-spot descriptive and supportive feedback. In the Literacy and Learning Centers model, students have the opportunity, through the teacher-led center, to receive this kind of feedback on a regular basis.

Differentiated Instruction

We know that all of our students are not the same and are wonderfully different. Yet, when teachers are faced with large classes, how can we provide individual instruction and choice as the differentiated instructional model promotes? Through Literacy and Learning Centers, teachers can create learning activities that allow for student choice, flexible grouping and modification of skills.

Multi-Tiered Intervention

As a key component for closing the student achievement gap, multi-tiered interventions are offered in response to student data or other classroom performance information. When educators are able to target individual students, and provide specific interventions to improve skill development, students are less likely to fall behind. In the Literacy and Learning Centers model these interventions can be addressed in the teacher-led center as well as in the individual centers.

Gradual Release of Responsibility

The Literacy and Learning Centers-focused framework shifts the focus of learning onto the student, while the teacher provides modeling and guidance through structured activities. When Literacy and Learning Centers are aligned with the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model, students can work toward developing a greater range of skills to increase more independent learning.

Literacy and Learning Center Model: How it Works

I Do It Teacher-Led Mini Lesson or Whole Group Instruction. The teacher models a particular skill, usually through a think-aloud or read-aloud.
We Do It Pairs/Small Group in small groups, the students practice the skill that was demonstrated during the Teacher-Led Mini Lesson/Whole Group Instruction
You Do It The Literacy and Learning Centers include clearly focused activities that foster skill development and content knowledge. Developmentally appropriate centers are introduced as the final component.
Step One: Teacher-Led Instruction

purple flowerThis is an opportunity for the teacher to begin the lesson with a whole-group mini-lesson that models a skill for students. In the GRR framework, this is the “I Do It” component. In short, the Literacy and Learning Center approach begins with teacher modeling. This modeling provides the foundation for the student practice (“We Do It”) and the center time (“You Do It”) that will follow the teacher-led instruction.

Step Two: Student Practice

This is an opportunity for students to work in pairs or possibly in small groups. In the GRR framework, this is the “We Do It” component. During this time, the students have the opportunity to practice the skill or discuss the content that was introduced by the teacher in Step One. The idea is for students to have ample practice time to develop skills and content knowledge. This is an integral factor for successful LLC implementation, and it is especially important in light of Richard Allington’s research (2012) about schools that are able to close the student achievement gap in literacy. Practice is critical. Teachers often ask, “How long should students practice?”

in Step Two, I recommend about 15 minutes for this phase, but here again, the teacher is always the best judge.

Step Three: Center Time

This is an opportunity for students to work in centers. No matter what your area of expertise is, I always recommend starting with the Four Foundational Centers. Once we discuss the Four Foundational Centers, I will provide examples of additional centers, or what I refer to as Plus Centers. In the GRR framework, center time represents the “You Do It” component. Students work within centers to complete tasks/activities that fit specific instructional areas such as vocabulary, writing, and reading.

Group of collaborating students

Next Steps

The Literacy and Learning Center model is based on my work and experiences in classrooms and it is built on research that indicates what the best practices are for the development of literacy skills. Imagine students developing literacy skills and content knowledge in an engaged classroom setting. As educators, this is what we want for all our students.


Allington, Richard L. and Gabriel, Rachael E. “Every Child, Every Day” Educational Leadership, March 2012, V 69. pages 10–15

McKnight, K. S. (Ed.). (2016). Addressing the Needs of All Learners in the Era of Changing Standards: Helping Our Most Vulnerable Students Succeed Through Teaching Flexibility, Innovation, and Creativity. Rowman & Littlefield.

McKnight, Katherine S. Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge (grades 6–12). Jossey Bass, (2014).

McKnight, Katherine S. Common Core Literacy for Math, Science, and Technical Subjects: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge (grades 6–12), Jossey Bass. (2014).

McKnight, Katherine S. Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids: Building Literacy Skills and Content, Engaging Learners, LLC.

Further Reading
  1. Tupelo Daily Journal – Student achievement rising across region
  2. WTTW – Emanuel, CPS Using Student Achievement in Fight for Funding
  3. Herald-Mail Media – Washington County Public Schools students improve on reading, math tests
Share With:
No Comments

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.