A Research Based Approach



There are many things that a teacher can do in the classroom to facilitate differentiated instruction through the use of Learning Centers.  I have seen first hand how Learning Centers inspire students to become engaged in the curriculum.  As part of my Specialist Degree I conducted a Qualitative Research study on how teacher can use Learning Centers to differentiate instruction.  I have used the information from the study to provide teachers with information on how to create Learning Centers that meet the needs of all learners.  

Having a well balanced curriculum  is the key to a successful learning environment.  I hope that you are able to use some of the ideas listed in these pages. If you have suggestions for Learning Centers that could benefit another teacher, please send me an email.  Not all suggestions will make it onto the website, but your time and thoughtfulness are appreciated.  Please be sure to put "Learning Centers" in the subject line.

Thank you,
Mrs. McDavid 



Link to
Learning Center

Click the link to find resources on printable Learning Centers



Research on
Learning Centers

Today general education classroom include students of mixed ability levels.   The goal for the teacher is to create classroom environments that are inviting, engaging places for student to grow and learn.  For students to succeed they need to believe that they can learn. They need to feel that what they are learning is important, relevant, and useful to them.  

In a differentiated classroom students are asked to demonstrate mastery in ways that are of interest to them.  Learning Centers provide opportunities for students to work in flexible groups, recall and rehearse information presented in whole group instruction, and become actively engaged in the learning process.  Learning centers add novelty, choice, individuality, and accountability on the part of the student.  The best learning occurs when students take an active rather than passive role in the learning process. 


What Is Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated Instruction is a teaching practice that ensures "all students are actively engaged in the learning process.  Not all students are alike and teaching to the middle is no longer an acceptable teaching practice.  Differentiated Instruction requires teachers to be flexible in their teaching approach and to adjust the presentation of information.   

Learning Centers allow teachers to facilitate differentiated instruction by grouping students in meaningful ways.  

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What Is Flexible Grouping

Flexible grouping allows teachers to group students based on their ability and/or interest level.  In flexible groups, students work in teams of four to five students, which allows more concentration on specific targeted skills.  Once students have mastered a concept, they are removed from the group a new group is formed based on addition needs or interest levels. Gregory & Chapman (2002) remind us that flexible grouping encourages students to learn social skills as well as cognitive skills and they use higher levels of thinking as they discuss and clarify information.   For more information on Differentiated Instruction through flexible grouping, please read the article Differentiating Through Flexible Grouping by Michael Ford.  He includes examples of various flexible grouping models.   

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What Is a Learning Center

A Learning Center is a place or activity that invites students to practice and apply strategies that have been taught or modeled in shared inquiry or whole group instruction.  Through the use of Learning Centers, teachers are able to create outcomes that accommodate the needs of all learners.  Learning Centers are based on targeted standards that are designed to meet the needs of a variety of learners (Gregory & Chapman, 2002).  Learning Centers provide students with opportunities for choice and provide them with a voice in their own learning, which builds a sense of autonomy (being responsible for their own learning).

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Defining Learning Center Workspaces

Learning Centers include clearly defined workspaces that facilitate movement and easy transitions in the classroom.  

  • Student Desktops
  • Lab Stations
  • Tables
  • Computer Stations
  • Carpet Squares
  • A Corner of the Classroom
  • Rugs and Carpets
  • Designated Areas of the Classroom (Library, etc.)

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Designing A Learning Center 

Learning Centers include a collection of materials designed with a purpose in mind.  Multilevel tasks should be designed for each centers.   


  • Standard:
    Identify the standard that will be addressed in the Learning Center
  • Objective:
    Identify the objective of the Learning Center (What do you want students to be able to do)
  • Essential Question:
    Identify an essential question that students should be able to answer after completion of the center.  

How will being able to use a dictionary correctly help me to become a better speller?

  • Task/Activity:
    Focus in on the Task.  Design a task that will address remediation, on-grade level, and accelerated learners
  • Location:
    Decide if the Learning Center should be stationary or portable.  If it is stationary, create a designated location in the room for the center
  • Materials:
    Decide what materials and resources will be needed for the center (crayons, markers, scissors, glue, books, pencils, paper, etc.)

Using a design template when creating a Learning Center will ensure that all of the critical areas are addressed and that the Learning Center will be a success.  The book Differentiated Instructional Strategies: One Size Doesn't Fit All by G.H. Gregory and C. Chapman is a wonderful resource.  The book includes a design template for Learning Centers as well as examples of differentiated Learning Centers.


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Types of Learning Centers 

Elementary classroom include a wide range of Learning Centers.  Most K-1 classrooms include Literacy based classrooms where 2nd - 5th grade classrooms tend to focus on learning stations or learning centers that include Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Research. 



Language Arts Centers


Listening Center Writing Center
Leveled Readers Reader's Theatre
Big Book Center Research Center
Pocket Centers Poetry Center
Instructional Games Computer Center
Guided Reading Center Spelling Center
Response to Literature Center
Self Selected Reading Center


Poetry Center

Students choose activities from the poetry pocket that go along with a selected poem.  Most poems were downloaded from the Internet and activities range from the author's purpose to grammar and language skills.   


Cassette player storage units were purchased from The Dollar Tree.  They are actually shower caddies.  Too cute!.

Listening Center

Books and cassette tapes are kept in clear Zip-Lock bags.  The books on tape are stored in a two-tiered metal crate.  Students choose books on tape and then select a numbered portable cassette player. 


Library Center

Students choose books
from the classroom library
to read independently 

Writing Center

Students work on individual writing projects 


Self Selected
Reading Center

Students choose books
from the classroom library
to read independently 

Learning Center

Students select and complete independent learning activities
from the pocket 


Activity Boxes

Students choose activities from the red activity boxes during Independent
Learning Centers. 

Activity Pockets

Students choose phonics, language, or math activity pockets during Independent Learning Centers. 




Math Centers


Real World Exploration Computer
Numbers & Operations Problem Solving
Exploratory Investigation Geometry
Puzzles & Games Measurement
Response to Literature Guided Instruction


Puzzles & Games Center

Students practice math concepts through math puzzles and games 


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Managing Learning Centers 

Learning Centers can be implemented and managed using many different formats. Most Kindergarten and First Grade classrooms begin by having a teacher directed center where the teacher can focus on specific targeted skills though direct instruction.  While the teacher is modeling appropriate strategies other students are visiting independent learning centers or stations.  Students sign up for a center each day and during the course of the week rotate through 4 to 5 different Literacy Stations.  Another strategy is to allow students to visit two Learning Centers each day.

One Rotation (20-25 minutes)
Students sign up for a center or station each morning and spend 20-25 minutes in that center each day. 

Two Rotations (40-50 minutes)
Students are assigned two 20-25 minute learning centers each day. Students begin working in the first center and upon hearing a designated signal students rotate to their second center.


Two Rotation Literacy Centers

Two Rotation Math Centers

Directions for Designing a  Learning Center With Two Rotations
1.   Decide on the type of centers that will be used (there are four 
       centers in the pictures shown above)
2.    Assign students to flexible groups (there are four groups in the 
3.    Each group is assigned a group number or group name
4.    Each morning groups are assigned to two learning centers
5.    Groups begin in the first center and remain there for 20 minutes
6.    The classroom lights are dimmed and this signals that students
        have 1 minute remaining in the center. Students begin cleaning up.
7.    At the sound of the signal (music playing) students rotate to the
       next center
8.    Students remain in the second center for 20 minutes
9.    The classroom lights are dimmed again and this signals that  
        students have 1minute remaining in the center. Students begin
       cleaning up.
10.  At the sound of the signal (music playing) students move to the 
       carpet or back to their seats

Creating Center Cards
The center cards and group name cards were designed using Microsoft Word.  Each card was printed on a 3 x 5 index card and then laminated for durability.  Each card was then  assigned a graphic using clipart.  Graphics are a great way of getting student's attention.  Without spending too much time, students quickly scan the transition chart for the two centers they are assigned to by first locating their group name or number and then by identifying the centers they will be attending.

Creating Student Picture Cards

Student picture cards were created using a digital camera.  Each card is approximately          
3 inches x 3 inches and laminated for durability.  Students like to see their picture displayed in the room.  Display student pictures, names, and student work makes students feel important and a valued member of the classroom environment.

Teacher Directed Instruction
One center is always designated as Teacher Directed Instruction or "Guided Instruction".  During Teacher Directed Instruction, students report to a designated area of the room (the carpet, a table, a circle of pillows) where they will receive direct instruction from the teacher.  During this time the students who are working independently must understand that they are not to disturb the Guided Instruction group.  Procedures must be in place to guide students in what to do if they need materials or have a question. The first ten minutes of the lesson involves guided practice or modeling.  The last ten minutes of the lesson includes independent practice.  During the independent practice portion of the lesson, the teacher should remove herself for 3-5 minutes to allow students the space they need to work independently and to monitor the progress of the other centers.  It is important that the teacher walk the room to ensure that all learners are engaged during Learning Centers. 

What To Do If Someone Needs Help
During Guided Instruction it is inevitable that someone will require assistance.  Someone will need a restroom break, have a question about directions, or need additional materials.  During Guided Instruction students need to understand that they are not to interrupt the group to talk with the teacher.  The following procedures will help to guide students on what to do if they need the teacher.

  • Handling Restroom Breaks

Should a student need a restroom break during center time, have a log or chart by the door.  The student silently signs their name and the time they leave the room.  Upon returning to the room, students silently record the time they return and then quietly resume the activity they were working on.  For students who do not yet know how to read an analogue clock, then have a small digital alarm clock by the door so that young students can read the time.

  • Handling Student Questions

Student Notes
When students have questions or need materials, they can use a sticky note to write the teacher a note.  The student should write their name and the question they have on the sticky note and then place it in a designated location.  Once the teacher has the Guided Instruction group working on independent practice, he/she can retrieve any notes from students and address their needs.

Ask 3 Then Me
Another strategy is for student that have a question to ask three classmates before asking the teacher.  If a student does not know how to complete a task, he/she can ask three other students who have already been through the center.  This will ensure that the student remains on task and that the teacher remains free to work with the Guided Instruction group. 
Teacher's Assistant
Another strategy is to assign a teacher's assistant during Learning Centers.  The student assigned this task should be responsible for answering questions and assisting students in following learning tasks.  The Teacher's Assistant can wear a hat or visor that reads "Ask Me".  This will ensure that students have a resource when they have a question or need assistance but will enable the teacher to work with the Guided Instruction group.

(Picture Coming Soon)

Student Accountability
During Learning Centers, students are responsible for the time that they are in centers and for the tasks they are assigned.  Center work is just as important as the time students spend in direct instruction.  Learning Centers provide students with opportunities to become engaged in the learning process and demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.  Students are to complete audit cards or learning logs during each center.  

Audit Cards
An Audit Card is a form that students fill out at the conclusion of a center that documents their time and products created in the center,   The Audit Cards are left in the center.

Learning Logs
Learning Logs are secured in a 3-Prong folder with pockets and travel with the student as they move from center to center.  At the conclusion of each center students record the date, name of the center, and a short description of what was learned.  Any work created in the center is held in the front pocket of the folder.

Students need to be able to recognize when transitions are expected.  During the last minute of a center students need a signal that they have one minute to put away materials and straighten the center for the next group of workers.  During the last minute of a center, teachers can ring a bell, clap, or dim the lights to signal the one minute countdown.  Students will need a separate signal to indicate when to transition from one center to the next.  Music is a great transition device.  Teachers should select a song that is long enough for students to move safely and effortlessly but short enough that time is not wasted.  A 1.5 to 2 minute song is adequate.  For more information on transitions please click on the transitions link.

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Assessing Learning Centers 

In a differentiated classroom, assessment is ongoing.  Data drives instruction and the way teachers design lessons.  Assessment is essential during center time.  It is important that the teacher move in and out of centers to interact with learners and monitor progress.  Monitoring how well students accomplish tasks at Learning centers is important for student accountability and for the teacher's awareness of when centers need to change. Assessment provides the teacher with the necessary information to reorganize flexible groups, determine needed materials, assist groups who become stuck and need feedback in order to move on, and design centers that target specific learning objectives.

Types of assessment include: 

  • Teacher Observation
  • Student Created Products
  • Checklists
  • Student Conferences
  • Rubrics
  • Portfolios
  • Anecdotal Records
  • Student Self Assessments
  • Choice Boards

An additional assessment that works well in Learning Centers are Audit Cards.  An Audit Card is a form that students fill out at the conclusion of a center that documents their time and products created in the center, 

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