MUST Do MAY Do: An Alternative to Rotating Reading Centers

Guided reading groups are hard enough to manage without the constant activity that is created by students moving to and from reading centers.  During team meetings, our 1st-grade team regularly discussed alternatives to reading centers, looking for less disruption during independent student work time.  

What we disliked the most about our rotating centers, was the loss of instruction time when students were stopping what they were doing, watching the “wheel” turn to the next activity, and then cleaning up one area to rotate to the next.  Sometimes it would take 3-5 minutes to move to the next center or to get to the guided reading table. Students not only took too much time to clean up, but also had questions or problems about what center to go to next.  These transitions rarely went smoothly. They also complained that they weren’t finished at their center and needed more time.  There was so much unfinished work to keep track of.

As teachers, we knew there had to be a BETTER, MORE EFFICIENT way to get students to work more independently so we could teach our guided reading groups with very little instructional time lost.

What to do… 

After LOTS of discussions, trial and error, we thought we would try a list approach.

A MUST Do, MAY Do Approach.

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With this approach, students stay at their tables (I seat them with their reading groups) for most of the time except for partner reading when they sit on the floor or carpet side-by side to read. When called to the guided reading table, all they do is stop working and get to the table.  No commotion, no wheel turning, no stopping everyone from what they were doing, etc.
In other words, a lot more time for guided reading instruction at the table!

They have a list of what they MUST Do and when they are finished with that, what they MAY Do.

for copies of our MUST Do MAY Do lists that you can download. 

The list can be edited to fit your students’ needs in each group. You get editable pdf versions:

And you can fill in your own lists to suit each group’s needs like this:

(Notice the list is non-specific for what vocabulary words or what anthology story to read. This is so I don’t have to make a new list each day or week! The vocabulary words are either posted on the board or the next page in their vocabulary notebook. And they know which story to read.)
Easy Peasy!

This is how their lists look pretty much every week. I just change out the materials in their bins weekly.

I differentiate the lists for each reading group depending on their reading goals and color code the lists by printing each list on a different color.

For example, if my struggling readers are working on sight words, I make sure “Flashcards” and “Drills” are on the MUST Do list, not MAY Do so they are getting the practice they need.

In other words, I determine what each group’s goals are first, and then I create the lists and fill their bins with the needed materials.

Speaking of bins…

I purchased these bins to organize books for partner reading so they would stand vertically and titles could be more easily seen.

I found this to be the best way to organize the bins.  All bins and their parts, including the MUST Do, MAY DO lists, are color-coded to match the tables where they sit and/or the reading groups they are in.

In order to target your reading instruction and include materials that meet your students’ needs, you need to do regular testing and group accordingly. Check out my blog post that takes you through a  TARGETED Guided Reading plan!

I select seatwork that is differentiated to meet their reading goals. I use the activity sheets that come with our Houghton Mifflin Journeys series, but you can use any seatwork that supplements what your students are working on. For example, if your students are working on long vowels, my Long Vowel FLIP Books would be a perfect supplement! Or get the BUNDLE of Long and Short Vowel FLIP Books and save $$! There are also many Short Vowel FLIP Books to choose from as well!

7-Up Sentence Writing using sight words is another product that works great as seatwork.

Their vocabulary notebooks stay in their bins all year. In my opinion, Vocabulary Notebooks should be used daily for students to record vocabulary words, define, use in a sentence and draw a picture.

Like many of you, I color-code my groups (red, yellow, green and blue) and their bins and folders reflect those colors. Their seatwork folders can have the Must Do May Do lists attached or displayed somewhere in the room for them to reference.

Every day I insert new differentiated seatwork into their folders on the “Not Done” side with names on. I have found that if I write names on the top, I can better keep track of who has completed their work. It takes a few extra minutes each day, but is well worth it! When they are finished, they insert their work on the “Done” side. The next day, I staple any unfinished work to their new seatwork. If their stapled packet of unfinished work begins to grow after a few days, it is time to decide

  1. Is the work too challenging? Do I need to modify for that child?
  2. Is the student off task during their seatwork time?
  3. Do I need to move the student closer to the guided reading table so I can better monitor their independent work?
  4. Is seatwork even appropriate for this student? Perhaps this student is not an independent worker and needs to be included in two guided reading groups.
  5. Is it time for a note/call home?

Games for the week are included right inside the bins unless they are too large. Then students are instructed on my expectations for the week. I try to include games that are simple and those they are familiar with so I am not constantly giving directions. I make sure all materials are included:

I include games/activities (most have this listed as a MAY Do) that will support their reading goals as well (sight word games, fluency games, etc.  Whatever their reading needs are at the time).  Here are some sight word games to check out:

I change out books as needed, but research shows that repeated reading of familiar text can support fluency building.  I make sure the books are at their independent reading level so they can easily read them with a partner with success.  I also include books that they have read successfully at the guided reading table. I include games/activities (most have this listed as a MAY Do) that will support their reading goals as well (sight word games, fluency games, etc.  Whatever their reading needs are at the time).  Here are some sight word games to check out:

I include sight word drills, fluency phrases, sounds drills etc. that will support their reading needs.  See below for an example of a Houghton Mifflin Sight Word Roll and Read Game:

See my TpT store for lots of center activities like the one below.

Partner reading is a practiced skill.  We regularly review expectations for partner reading.  How they sit, who reads when, how to point, etc.  I include 2 copies of each title per partnership if possible, but sometimes they share. 🙂  Expectations for both of these scenarios is important as well.

So far, our MUST Do, MAY Do system is working!  As with any program, teaching students your expectations for each activity is a must.

Our students enjoy mostly uninterrupted, quiet work time (unless they are called to the guided reading table) and much more instruction time at the guided reading table!

More time in text. Isn’t that what they need?

Let me know your thoughts! If you liked this blog, check out some other great blog posts:

Thanks for stopping by! 

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1st Grade Pandamania

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  • nbsmith January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi! I love this idea and am trying I out in my classroom next week. Do you put all of their seatwork for the whole week in their seatwork folder, or do you put it in every day?

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello! I'm so glad you love this idea. We do too! I choose to take out their completed seatwork daily and add new seatwork just to stay on top of it. I also write their names on the top of their seatwork because I have found it is challenging to determine who has not completed their work if I don't. It takes a couple minutes, but well worth it.
      Thanks for stopping by!

    • joberg September 30, 2022 at 1:38 am

      Sorry about this very delayed response. I was not receiving notifications on comments.

      Each day I removed the completed seatwork and inserted their work for the day. I also wrote names on the top so I could keep track of who completed their work (as you know, they forget to put their names on!).

      I hope that helps!


  • Unknown January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Is the Must Do/May Do sheet for each day or each week?

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello Heather!
      The Must Do/May Do sheet is used daily and changes as needed. I keep it generic without listing specific activities. For example: 1. Partner Read 2. Vocabulary 3. Seatwork Then I list the May Dos in the same fashion with "Game" and then I just switch out the game choices once a week. That way students are familiar with the routine and there are fewer questions about what to do.

      I hope that answers your question!

  • Patrice January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Ok, so I understand how you set up the MUST DO/MAY DO process, but how does it flow in practice? Are there timers for the students, or are they mostly at their seat the whole time (I think you said this) until they finish their MUST DO activity OR until they are called over for guided reading? Then are the students moving about to their MAY DO activities without a timer? How do you prevent students from hopping from one MAY DO activity after 5 min. to the next? I know you taught expectations about what it should look/sound like to your students, and I will too but I think I need a little more information about how a MUST DO/MAY DO work session actually flows. I hope you find my questions in this ridiculously long comment 🙂

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hi Patrice!
      Thanks for stopping by! The way I work it is I set a timer first for partner reading (a MUST DO) and that is up to 15 minutes this time of year. But that is the only thing I set a timer for. The rest of the activities are on their own time (except for small group of course). Then after partner reading they move to their next 2 MUST DO's: Vocabulary Notebook and then Seatwork. Somewhere in that time I have probably interrupted their work to have them come to the table for small group. I don't have a lot of May Do activities–maybe 3 different choices per week– so there is not a lot of hopping from one activity to another. If you have too many activity choices for them, I could see that happening though. I like to keep them busy with mostly their MUST DO activities for most of the time (or they are with me at small group). Keep the MUST Do activities routine so they know what to do and what the expectations are. There will be fewer questions about what to do and hopefully fewer interruptions and behavior problems. I also try to keep the Vocabulary and Seatwork at their independent level so it is challenging enough to review needed skills but not so difficult they struggle or don't understand what to do. I spend time each week differentiating seatwork for each group. Kind of a pain, but well worth the effort. If your students are getting to their May Do activities too soon, perhaps you need to add another MUST DO activity or lengthen their partner reading or independent reading or if they are ready, include a written response to reading or graphic organizer. OR if your students are working on fluency, include sand timers for them to use during their partner reading to time each other as they are reading familiar passages to keep them engaged for longer periods of time. So in other words, to keep them from hopping from one May Do to another, I try to keep them involved in their MUST DO activities for longer periods of time and only provide about 3 May Do activities.

      I hope that answered your questions! You have to play with it and make it your own. I would love for you to come back and let me know what you have found works best for your students!

      Again, thank you, Patrice for stopping by! Happy Holidays!


    • Patrice January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hi Joyce! (my mom's name!)

      Yes, your explanation answers my questions! I could visualize in my mind how this may unfold. Christmas break is upon us and I would like to try this for 2nd semester. Your point of time being lost as students transition from one station to next rotation is profound and I live it daily, so I am open to changing things up to give students more work time and also give us more guided group time. Thank you and I hope to share updates soon!
      P.S. Do you have any products outside of your school curriculum you use to differentiate for seat work?

      Thank you and Merry Christmas to you!

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hi Patrice,
      I get that a lot (that's my mom's name lol). One activity that is a great seatwork activity for all levels is my 7-Up sentence writing that uses Fry sight words to write sentences with between 7-10 words. Students are encouraged to write longer, more interesting sentences while practicing their sight words. It is good for all levels. See it here:
      Some kind of daily spelling practice is a good routine (Monday-write words 3 times each in their notebooks, Tuesday-practice 3 times on their white boards, Wednesday-rainbow write with markers, Thursday-give a test to partner)
      If you don't have a vocabulary book for your students, this is a great option and you can pre-fill the words prior to printing the books.

      Enough rambling. I could have just written another blog lol.

      Enjoy your break!

  • Ashley January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    So, their must do assignments are for the day? For example: in your photo above you have as "Must Dos"- partner read, vocabulary log, seat work, read anthology story. So are these Must Do's for let's say Monday? Then on Tuesday you make a new Must Do May Do sheet that lists other tasks? Or do you use that same cover sheet and just change the seat work?

    I purchased the vocabulary notebook you highlighted in your blog. This took my my kids some time to complete. Maybe it was because it was their first time.

    Also, how long is your reading block or how long do you spend on must do may dos a day? Do you do this Monday through Friday? How many small group rotations do you get through a day?

    So, as you begin your Must Do May Do activities you begin with 15 minutes of partner reading? Does the whole entire class do this before you start to take small groups for guided reading? What books do they read? The books you put in their must day may do bins?

    I apologize about all of the questions. You have great ideas. Thank you for sharing.

    Thank you,
    Ashley McElroy

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello Ashley!
      The must do's pretty much stay the same since they are generic…Partner read, vocabulary notebook, seatwork and anthology story all stay the same as a must do for a month or even longer. I just change out the books in the bin weekly that they use for partner reading. Students simply turn the page in their vocabulary notebooks and do the next page each day. I change out seatwork in their folders daily and they read their anthology story for the week and re-read their favorites. I keep it the same as much as possible so there isn't confusion and no questions while I'm teaching a group about what they are supposed to do. Routine is key so things move smoothly. It may seem dull, but students love knowing what to expect and enjoy seeing new books weekly seem excited about what will be in their seatwork folders each day. So to answer your question, yes I use the same cover sheet while changing out books, seatwork and games.

      How many vocabulary words are you requiring them to complete daily? Perhaps you can limit it to one or two words each day.

      Our reading block is 2 hours. We have an hour of whole group and then an hour of small group guided reading time M-F. I do 3-4 small group rotations. When my highest group is pulled by GT, then I have 3 groups 20 minutes each and I LOVE having the longer time to work with those groups. I understand that not everyone has that luxury. I am able to pack in a lot in those 20 minutes. Key–Keep it moving with little to no down time. Use every minute by having everything planned and ready to go.

      Yes, I begin with 10-15 minutes of partner reading at the beginning of the year and extend that to 15-20 minutes by mid year. Increasing time in text to above 50% and reducing paper/pencil activities by mid year is key to increasing fluency and comprehension. At the start of guided reading I pull my first group to the table and everyone else starts partner reading for the prescribed time depending on the time of year as mentioned above. Then I stop them and tell them to continue with their list of must-do's. This may coincide with the end of the first guided reading group (by mid-year this is typical) or I set a timer for 10 minutes at the beginning of the year and tell them to stop and move on to the next must-do while I continue with my first group. (I hope this makes sense.)

      We are lucky to have shelves of leveled books. I usually put books in their bins that they've already read with me in their guided reading groups the week before. That way they are familiar with the books and are more confident readers. They won't be frustrated spending time decoding and can use their time working on fluency and comprehension when they partner read. I also leave some of their favorites in their bins for more than a week. I will ask them to tell me which books to leave in their bins so they enjoy this reading time more. (one thing to note…once they are reading fluently with 50 wpm or more, I may allow them to skip the partner reading and just read silently. It depends on the students and how well they are doing in group. If they are reading below 50 wpm, I do not allow independent reading yet.)

      Don't apologize for your questions. Those are all good questions and I'm happy to have you pick my brain. I am considering writing another post to clarify the process. Is there anything else you think I should include in the post? If you can think of anything, or have further questions, email me I am retired now after 32 years of teaching, but I still use the present tense as if I am still teaching! It's hard to let go.

      Good luck and enjoy those kids!

  • Ashley January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Congratulations on your retirement and thank you so much for spending so much time on your response to me. I appreciate it very much. We use Wonders Reading Series by McGraw Hill. The curriculum has 8 vocabulary words per week. Our curriculum came with leveled readers that somewhat pair with the weekly stories in their textbooks. I will maybe keep those for my time with them and put other books in their buckets. At the previous school I taught at were given tons of levels books. Unfortunately, the district I work in now did not provide that for us. I’m not the biggest fan of the leveled readers that came with the curriculum.

    Have you ever had the higher group do a chapter book study?

    You mentioned the anthology book as a must do activity. Did you use Wonders? Quite a bit of the students I have cannot read the weekly story from our textbook independently. However, they are tested on the weekly story every Friday so it’s be beneficial to read.

    This week I put a must do as read the sight words for the week for the on level groups and above level group. My below level group has nonsense words to help build their decoding skills.

    Thank you again. This sounds great. I guess some of the questions I had would be helpful for you to add to your blog. You could post a question and answer it. ��

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello Ashley,
      I was just looking through comments and noticed that my response back in November was never published for you to see. I'm not sure what happened. I apologize for that, but I know I replied to your second comment.

      Thank you for the congratulations. I am enjoying the second chapter of my life.

      Yes, depending on the level of the higher group I have had students read chapter books. I checked in with them daily and gave a purpose for reading dependent on the comprehension strategies and skills that were the study for the week.

      The anthology we used was Journeys Houghton Mifflin.If they cannot read the anthology story independently, it is important for them to partner read the story repeatedly with a competent reader. Another way to have them get more practice is to have them follow with a CD recording if possible.

      If your on-level readers need to practice the sight words, then that is perfect. Students reading fluently (50+ words per min.) typically don't need sight word practice. You may need to test sight words to know for sure. Your above readers may not need sight word practice at all.

      Thank you for your patience with my response. Again, I repied but it didn't post for some reason.

      Hope your second semester is going well.


  • Unknown January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi Joyce,
    I’m trying to visualize your idea. We are required to do rotations and I struggle with that waisted transition time. I’m wondering how how to manage this when you do not have equal amounts of children for each group. I have 24 students by myself and a large range of reading levels. I have 3 groups with 4 children and 2 groups has to be that way because of their level. I have no students pulled out. 1/2 of my students have attention issues or difficulty with time management. I don’t think they would be able to switch from one activity to the next on their own. We only have an hour so I have 4 15min rotations and I have to rotate my 2 higher reading groups as I can’t get to 5 groups a day. Do you have an aide? I feel like that would help.

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello Bridget!

      I hear you about the wasted transition time. If your students are currently working independently at centers now, they should be able to manage working through a MDMD system with some guidance at first. Have you subscribed to my email? You get a free MDMD guide that helps to set up the system and there are tips and tricks included in the guide. You will also be subscribed to a newsletter that has many freebies and tips that might help. Look on the side of my blog to sign up.

      1. Keep it simple with activities the students are familiar with and that they can complete independently.
      2. Practice with them without guided reading for awhile so you can monitor and praise as they work from one task to another.
      3. If students still struggle with completing activities independently, try to partner them up with responsible partners for awhile or assign an "expert" who wears an EXPERT lanyard or name tag. The expert can help when needed.

      It's frustrating when you have students who have special needs and they are not getting the intervention needed. When I was teaching (currently retired after 32 years), I did not have an aide. I had many student teachers who helped along the way, but I had many years where I had children who struggled academically and behaviorally. It is difficult to implement any system with some children, but this system encourages independence and can be beneficial to these students. They feel a sense of pride when they accomplish tasks well at their level.

      Let me know if you have other questions.

      Best of luck!

  • Unknown January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi! Any advice of adapting this method for Kindergarten?

    • 1st Grade Pandamania January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Hello! Thanks for stopping by!

      Must Do May Do can certainly be used in the kindergarten classroom and our kindergarten teachers use it with great success. With the proper practice, instructions and appropriate MDMD lists, students in kinder can work independently and be proud that they are working like the big kids do. Please don't be offended if my steps below seem obvious to you.

      First, I would make sure your Must Do May Dos are simple steps and all the same for every student when you first begin. That way students can better understand the steps and support each other if needed.

      I would create a large MDMD poster that you post in the room for everyone to follow. I doubt kindergarten students would be ready right away to all have different activities at the onset. (You can gradually start differentiating once students are proficient with moving from one task to another.)

      I would also gather them together and discuss the procedures and steps with them your Must Do May Do list. You may only want to have 2 Must Dos and 2 May Dos to begin with that are super simple and already familiar with if possible.

      Must Do:
      Partner Read
      Sight Word Seatwork (perhaps a read, trace, color and write page, but some sort of paper-pencil activity that you change daily)
      May Do:
      Game (provide in bin or other easy access place and keep all week to use independently or with a partner)
      Sight Word Flashcards (to use for matching or sorting or whatever you have to work with a partner)
      Please remember that the above are just examples to get you started. Keep them the same all week except for the seatwork that you change daily. Show them where to find the seatwork (folder with DONE and NOT DONE sides)

      You want them to understand that they have to do the MUST DOs in the order given and before the MAY DOs can be started. Make sure they understand the difference between the terms MUST and MAY.

      Once they understand that concept and see the poster, they need to understand they will be working through the steps one after the other on their own time (now that they are big kindergarteners LOL) because you will be busy teaching another group and won't be able to help them. I would provide a couple days at least of practice without guided reading groups so you can monitor their progress.

      Verbally reward/praise students who follow directions.

      Let them know that soon they will be working on MDMD on their own and YOU will be teaching some groups up at the table while they work quietly like big kids.

      I would also "hire" a MDMD "expert." This person is a student who gets it and would be helpful to others who need some support with what to do.

      In a couple weeks, you will receive an email from me with 54 MDMD practice question cards that you can use during a class meeting. You simply pull a card, read the question (eg: What do I do after my turn at the guided reading table?) Students turn and talk and then you discuss. This is a great way to review your procedures and expectations periodically throughout the year. Some cards may not be relevant to your group. Pull those out. There are also blank cards for your to print and write your own questions for your class.

      You will also receive other tips and resources along the way that should help you. Once you get started, you will find that you are automatically adjusting and tweeking things as needed.

      Just KEEP IT SIMPLE. 🙂

      I hope some of this has helped! I'm here if you need me.


  • JessInFirst January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi! So a totally off topic question (although I love what I am seeing here) where did you get your alphabet letter cards that are in the background of your main image? I have been looking ALL OVER for something just like that and have not had any luck!

  • Diana June 7, 2022 at 5:59 am

    Hi this post has been a while, fingers crossed you’ll still read this!

    I have been tossing the idea of changing to this format. The top kids always finish within 3 minutes, and the low/slow kids always never finish and it has been a waste of time. I have tried this format while I was a student teacher and i loved it.

    However, I have Kindergarten this year. I’m not sure whether you have ideas on what they should be doing and whether it works for Kindergarten? Most of them can’t read yet, and I’m worried because they can’t read what they’re supposed to be doing.

  • Susan September 29, 2022 at 2:15 am

    Do the students work their way through the “Must-Do” list during the week or do they do everything on the list every day?
    Thanks for your help with implementing this way of doing centers. I’m excited to get started?

    • joberg September 30, 2022 at 1:47 am

      Hello Susan,
      Every day students complete all their Must-Dos and then move on to the May-Dos. Since the Must-Dos are mostly the same (partner read, seatwork, vocabulary…), it becomes routine for them and they know just what to do, and they are able to complete the tasks each day. I kept the procedure routine but with different books, different seatwork, and different vocabulary. I hope that helps!

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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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