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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.


to get your FREE guide for setting up MDMD in your classroom!

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:

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1st Grade Pandamania

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8 Comments

  • 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?

  • Unknown January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

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

  • Patrice January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi!
    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 🙂

  • 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

  • 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. ��

  • 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 ..it 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.

  • Unknown January 10, 2022 at 5:57 pm

    Hi! Any advice of adapting this method for Kindergarten?

  • 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!

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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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