How to Pull Small Groups and Do Learning Centers in Kindergarten

People often ask me about how I do small group guided reading and learning centers in my kindergarten classroom.  In order for me to do either of these things, I do a group rotation with my whole class.  I have attempted to explain how my rotation works below.  Hopefully, it will be clear enough to be some help to you!

I do a group rotation every day with all of my students.  This is how I manage it:  There are four groups, and all of the children are in one of the four groups. We rotate through all of four of the groups every single day, and I meet with all of the children every single day.

My Four Groups

1.  Language Arts

2.  Math

3.  Art - (We usually do book making types of activities that you can find here.)

4.  Independent Learning Centers

When we begin, one group goes to my language arts table, one goes to math, one goes to the art table, and one is for either an independent activity with a manipulative or some type of reading or math game or activity with a volunteer.  If the volunteer doesn't come unexpectedly, then I give the children a manipulative to play with, such as pattern blocks, Unifix cubes, or puzzles.

The Independent Learning Center Table

This last independent table could also be done as little mini centers.  I have done it this way in the past.   So what happens at this table is that when the children arrive here, they find themselves divided again into even smaller subgroups with different activities.  So let's say the Red Group arrives at the independent table.  When they get there, two of the children will find their names next to the Sight Word Wands; two of them will find their names next to some letter beads and they will string the beads to make sight words; and the remaining one or two more in the group will find their names next to some CVC Puzzles.  Last year, I had a small group set of six iPads, and I was able to give the children educational apps to play with at this table instead, and that was delightfully EASY- and the children LOVE it!  Here is a list of my favorite apps.

This is our fourth center, which is our independent center.

If I do have an extra volunteer, then here are some things I do at that independent table:  Any kind of follow up activity is a good idea, such as a reading or math game that they can play.  If a volunteer doesn't come, I give them puzzles or some other type of manipulative to play with independently.  It's much harder when a volunteer doesn't come, but it can work if you need it to work.  The teacher of the RSP class at my school also likes to send her kids over (just one at a time as a reward)  to help the Kindergartners for the purpose of increasing the self-esteem of the older student, so sometimes I get one of those kids.  They love it!  And usually, they really can be of use and are quite helpful to me!

The activity that they do depends a lot on the skills of the volunteer I get on each day.  Some of them love to just play games with the kids, and I have developed quite a lot of different games that follow my curriculum closely.  One of my volunteers is a teacher that is staying home with her kids for a while.  She always does a Sing and Spell the Sight Words worksheet when she comes.  These are worksheets that follow my Sing and Spell the Sight Words CD's.  All they are is just the words to the songs, with the "target" word left out, as in a cloze activity.  So the kids sing the song with her, and then try to track the words to the song written on chart paper.  They find all of the target words that they can find on the chart, and underline them with Wikki Stix.  Then they each have a Sing and Spell booklet with those worksheets in them.  They find the correct page, and fill in the missing word over and over.  So if the song is about the word "go," then they would be writing the word several times within the context of the song, and then try to read the song back to that volunteer.  If there is extra time, they use white boards and review some of the words from previous weeks by singing the songs together and writing the words.

The Language Arts Table

This is a guided reading group at my language arts table.

During this rotation, I do the language arts table activity myself, (like guided reading or writing, or a phonemic awareness, a worksheet etc.).  When we are done with my activity, I check to see how close the others are to finishing before I ring the bell to rotate everyone from one table to another.  When it looks like most children are finished, I will ring the bell.

The Math Table

This is our math table, which was being run by an intern from a local university.

For math, my aide usually does a follow-up activity with my kids.  And yes, I do run both math and language arts concurrently!  I introduce the concept and also practice it whole group either before we begin our small groups, or on the previous day.  Then my aide or a helper does the follow up with manipulatives in a small group during our rotation.  So, I suppose it is unusual that my math is running at the same time as my language arts, but that works out well for me and my Kindergarten team at my school.  It has been the accepted practice there for many years.

The Art Table

This is our Art Table.  The children are doing one of my Singable Books, "Dinner's Ready."

The art table is always run by a volunteer, although of course there are times when there is no one there to run it, and that's just the way it is!  What can you do but just deal with it?  If I were in the situation in which I knew that I would NEVER have a volunteer there, then my projects would be much simpler, probably.  I always leave something there at the independent centers and art centers for the children to do or play with when they are finished, such as a manipulative like pattern blocks or unifix cubes.  They are not allowed to pick out another toy instead, and they cannot leave the area to go somewhere else if they finish early.  They MUST stay there until the bell rings.  This is very important to the management of any independent center; children must stay there until you tell them it is time to switch.  If you provide something else for them to do that is more fun or more appealing than the real assignment that you want them to do, then they will likely rush through that assignment to get to that more appealing activity.

One of my teammates seems to usually run short of volunteers each year, and she has become very good at teaching her kindergartners to be independent at the art table!  She makes a big deal at the beginning of the year about cleaning up your work area when you are done, and then setting up the spot again for the next person, and the children usually rise to the occasion.  I believe that this means that in between groups, she stops to check to see who has followed her directions on this and gushes over who did well, praising them for it a LOT.  Likewise, if anyone forgot to do it, she has them fix it right then and there.  After a while, they get really good at it.  Basically, you have to pick your battles and stick with them!  If that is your battle, then go for it and win it!

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  1. dear Heidi,
    hi, i'm trying to get my kids to work in groups ( kindergarten) and was looking at your post. two questions if kids are sent to work with material on tables which is specified in the way you have said then where is the choice which is so necessary to keep children's interest alive? and secondly since children have short attention spans and varied abilities when i try to group them like this some child finishes the activity first and wants to go and take material from another area if i try to discourage this he gets bored and starts to fidget. what do you do in getting all kids occupied so that they move together from group to group. initially i send them to the area but if they finish first they can go and take material from another area as long as there is room in that area ( which they know if there is an empty peg there) am i on the right track. i would love for all my kids to move together from group to group but it does not happen in my class. can you help?


    afshan from Pakistan.

  2. Hi, Afshan! Sorry, it has been too long since I have looked at these comments. As far as choices are concerned, I give my kids free choice time in the afternoons. They can all choose to play with any of the materials that I designate at that time.
    As far as your other question is concerned, when I first started teaching, I did as you did- I let them go to the next center when they are done. I do not do this anymore, since it resulted in chaos for me! No matter what center they are at, they must stay there when they are finished. I always designate some kind of manipulative to play with when they are finished with that particular activity. That manipulative must be played with at that table, or on the floor very close by. This is how I keep my groups together, and also how I keep certain children apart! I do have lots of interesting things to explore and play with in my room, so I don't have a lot of trouble finding something for them to do at each center when they are finished. I try to pick something for them to do that is not super entertaining though (such as a favorite toy) so that they do not rush through their assignment just to get to that other thing. I usually choose puzzles, books, or interactive gadgets such as Hot Dot sets. I also give them pattern blocks or unifix cubes, or Gelboards with letter magnets. They also enjoy just drawing on individual white boards, too. But no matter what, they can NEVER just go to the next center and start playing with that stuff. This puzzles my volunteers at first. But, I explain that when the kids get to that other center, they will say that they already did that, and want something else. It seems a little "hard lined" to some people; they think I am being tough on the kids because of it, I think. But once the kids get used to it, they are just fine with it, and they do understand that they WILL get their turn with that object, no matter what.

    I always try to give them only enough work to be able to get it finished in LESS than the 20 minutes that they have, also. That way, they will get to play with that manipulative. Otherwise, when I ring the bell, they might not be finished, which creates a problem. They also would not have gotten to play with that manipulative either, and that creates a problem as well.

    I think if you can demonstrate for your class how this works, and show them the rules for the centers using child volunteers to show them, they will get it and will cooperate with you. But you will have to be very consistent with them. Make NO exceptions. When you are done with your work at center #1, the ONLY thing you can do is THIS manipulative, and that's it. Once you start making exceptions, you will have lost the whole battle! They will always push it, I think- at least my kids would!
    I hope that helps,

  3. Great details on how to pull small groups in kindergarten. Extremely detailed and pretty good advices. Kudos

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  5. Hi Heidi!

    I was wondering if you have a specific blog post about how you introduce centers to the kids at the beginning of the school year? How many centers do you introduce each day? How do you teach the rules and routines for centers? Thanks SO much for everything you do, you are a great inspiration!

    Fun in PreK-1

  6. To Jessica,
    Well thank you!
    These are the posts that I have written that cover small group rotations. None of them were written specifically to answer your questions, but you may find some answers in there!
    Good luck!

  7. Hi,
    I noticed that you used the SIPPS program. Our district just adopted it. I would love your feedback on whether it was effective for your students. Thanks.


  8. To Heather,
    Yes, it is effective, especially in teaching kids to sound out words. The biggest problem is that it is just plain dull to use. Both the kids and teachers get tired of it, and my administrator really didn't want us to do anything that wasn't in the script, (as far as "spicing it up" was concerned), so that made it doubly boring. I'm a very creative person, so that was like a death sentence to me!

    I totally recognize the value of the program in that it combines phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words, writing and reading into the lessons all at once. That is a good thing, but the average attention span of a kindergartner doesn't match the length of the lesson, unfortunately. If you try to do all of the elements of the lessons altogether as they are intended, you may very well lose your students, especially as you get past the first ten lessons. Once the children know more, there is more to drill them on, and the lessons get longer and longer. We needed to meet with all of our reading groups every day, so each group couldn't last more than 20 minutes. But if I did the entire lesson in the manual, I could easily spend 30-40 minutes per lesson- especially if the groups were LOW. These kids don't respond or process their thoughts quickly, and they don't write quickly. So I wound up splitting the lessons in to sections, and really practicing each section thoroughly each day. On Monday I did the guided reading portion. On Tuesday I did the phonemic awareness and phonics and sight words part. On Thursdays I did the writing part,and then we also had them try to write some sight words and work on printing, etc. And yes, that means I just did one lesson per week. But my low kids got the lesson reviewed several times during after school tutoring three times a week.

    (On Wednesdays, we did Step Up to Writing, which was a different required program in my district.)

    The other teachers on my team always did two lessons a week, but went much faster. At the end of each year, we always compared notes. The other kids never went any further than mine because they always wound up needing to go back and re-do the lessons, probably due to having rushed through them. So I don't think that going so fast really helps much!

    Good luck with it. Personally, I appreciate its strengths, but I just wish I could have used it in my own way, supplementing as I saw fit. However, during the last year I used it, this was not allowed.


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