Keep Students Engaged at Reading Centers with 5 Easy Tips!

Keeping students on task and engaged during guided reading centers while you are teaching small group lessons is by far one of the biggest challenges in the primary classroom. But it doesn’t need to be that challenging.

When students are off-task, there’s a reason. Your first reaction may be to discipline. Stop. Take a moment to identify the reason your students aren’t engaged in their centers. Once you have identified that reason, your classroom management solutions may become more clear.

Some reasons your student(s) may be off-task:

  • the task is too difficult/rigorous
  • the task is too easy
  • the task directions are unclear
  • materials needed are not available or unorganized
  • students may need more support on a task or with transitions
  • too many tasks are expected
  • your expectations may not be clear to students
  • more practice is needed with transitioning to the next activity
  • an established routine is needed

*Keep in mind, there are other reasons a child may be off-task that are out of your control. A student may come to school hungry or tired, or other basic needs of a student may not be met. You may need to seek help from support staff (counselor, admin., etc.) for these students.

First, decide on a system for your centers.

We recommend a Must Do May Do System where students follow a list of Must Do and then May Do activities. This allows students to move through predetermined activities at their own pace while the teacher teaches guided reading lessons to small groups. When the teacher calls the next group, all other students continue to work on their list of activities.

Read more about Must Do May Do Centers in the following blog post: Must Do May Do: An Alternative to Rotating Reading Centers

Second, know exactly what you want them to do and how you want them to do it.

Once you have a clear picture in your mind as to what your centers or your MDMD should look like in your classroom, then you can make those expectations clear to them.

TIP: At first, keep your MDMD activities targeted to their needs and very simple so they are just focused on the routine procedure, not necessarily a challenging task.

Third, make sure your students know exactly how and what to do at each center.

Be sure to tell them what to do, model how to do it, and praise them repeatedly when they are doing it right.

Repeat often.

One way to repeat the procedures often is to gather them on the carpet and use MDMD Question Cards or “What do I do when… cards”. Have a set ready to go near the carpet and grab them once a week on Mondays or as needed to quickly go through a few of them to get them restarted after the weekend.

Grab a free set of MDMD Question Cards at the bottom of this post!

Fourth, keep students engaged by using familiar resources.

Students will stay more engaged in reading centers when you keep the activities routine.

For example, your MUST Dos each week could stay the same: partner read, vocabulary, and seatwork. The only things that change each week would be the books for partner reading, the vocabulary words, and the seatwork activities that you provide in their folders. Keep the MAY Dos similar as well, with Roll and Read activities and other familiar games. Just change the sight words (for example).

Keep materials organized. Color-code materials for each group so clean-up is a snap.

Fifth, assign an “expert” to help those who need support.

Have the Star of the Week (or pick a student each week) who is the “expert” to help those who need support. Train them and be explicit about what their job entails. This should keep students more engaged during centers and cut down on the tap-tap-taps from students who ask for help from you while you are teaching guided reading groups.

Read more HERE about the Star of the Week!

Have your trained student(s) wear a lanyard that says EXPERT and they usually take their job very seriously!

BONUS TIP: Some teachers find it helpful to wear a crown or something that reminds students they need to problem solve and not interrupt the teacher.

Okay, so this is a little dramatic, but you get the idea.

Read in more detail about MDMD and keeping students engaged at reading centers:

Grab your MDMD Question Cards down below!

Thanks for stopping by!


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I am a newly retired first-grade teacher in the beautiful state of Colorado. I taught for 32 years (17 of those in 1st grade.) Watching my students learn and grow was such a blessing for me, and I'm excited to share what I've learned over the years with you. Read More

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