Fostering student-initiated learning with literacy work stations

Imagine a classroom where the teacher works closely with five students at the guided reading table. Meanwhile, 20 of their peers are on task at a variety of literacy work stations: Two students are manning the overhead projector; they’re reading a poem that is being projected on the whiteboard and compiling a list of words that rhyme with those in the poem. Over in the corner, three more students are in the classroom library; one student is reading and the other two are repairing books at the work bench.literacy work stations

We could paint a more vivid picture, but you get it. How does this happen? If you were to ask author, educator, and national educational consultant Debbie Diller, she’d give much of the credit to literacy work stations. But what are they and how do they differ from literacy centers?

Literacy work stations place an emphasis on work.  They take advantage of existing spaces in the classroom and give students the opportunity to work independently on the things the teacher has already modeled: read-alouds, shared reading, modeled writings, literacy games, shared writing and small-group instruction.

Unlike literacy centers, literacy work stations do not contain “busy” work; they’re not a place where students go to kill time while they wait for the rest of the class to finish an exercise or assignment. Literacy work stations place an emphasis on independence not only to help students take charge of their learning experience, but to keep the teacher from working harder than the students.

Too often, we exhaust ourselves, we burn out by trying to take care of everything when there’s no reason to. Our students are savvy in a variety of ways, so stop printing out materials, cutting them out, laminating, and cleaning up. They are perfectly capable of this. Instead, collaborate with your students; have them help you “decide when the materials at the work station need to change…and negotiate ideas for what they’d like to practice at each station.”

How do I set up a literacy work station?
The idea behind work stations is that often a simple change of location can engage our students. That space can be anywhere in the classroom regardless of how cramped it feels. Pick up a few carpet squares at a remnant warehouse and utilize the floor. Do you have an overhead projector? Good, there’s your screening station. Do you have a CD or Mp3 player? Have your students grab that, a splitter, and two pairs of headphones out of the closet. Voila, there’s their portable listening work station.

What should the work stations look like? And what kind of teaching materials should they have?

  • Miller suggests that they should be filled with materials that have already been used for instruction first. Then they are placed in the station to be used independently.
  • The materials in each station do not change arbitrarily or adhere to a calendar. Instead, they grow with students’ abilities and reflect the strategies and topics being taught.

This sounds great, you say, but how do you keep everyone on task?

One way to nurture independence is through modeling what Frey and Fisher have described as the “gradual release of responsibility model.”

First, the teacher models the activity (“I do it”). If, for example, you want to set up an overhead station where students read poems and come up with related rhymes, you’ll want to walk them through the entire process. Find the file folder containing the transparencies, turn on the overhead, read the poem aloud, circle the words that rhyme and begin writing your own rhymes on the board. When you are done, turn off the projector and return the transparency to its proper home.

Second, offer guided instruction by prompting, posing questions, facilitating and collaborating with students (“We do it”).  Third, place your students in groups (“You do it together”). You’ll guide and help them when they get stuck, but mostly you observe from the sidelines. Once your students have mastered the activity, you turn it over to them (“You do it alone”). 

Keep in mind that this is not a linear approach, so as your students master certain activities, expect them to move back and forth between steps.

If you are considering implementing literacy work stations into your classroom, we suggest that you check out Diller’s book, Literacy Work Stations: Making Centers Work. In addition to this, keep in mind that less is more. Introduce materials into each station gradually; having fewer materials will give students focused freedom and help them stay organized. Also, don’t abandon materials that still have a currency with your students. Move on when they are bored with it or when they have mastered it.



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Tags: comprehension, literacy, reading, stations, work

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