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How Can I Teach Literacy Skills in PreK? (Part 3: Literacy Centers)

I’ve recently discussed how you might align practice with research on teaching word recognition skills during whole group and small group lessons in PreK. This post will focus on what the rest of your students could be doing while you are working with a small group. I’ll lay out ideas for varied activities focusing on word recognition skills introduced and reinforced in whole and small group. These ideas came from my time teaching PreK, and just a few that were successful in promoting playful, engaging, distributed practice opportunities for students.

To set this process in motion, the first couple weeks I did not pull a small group. Instead, I used this time to teach students routines and procedures for figuring out which center to go to (I had a chart that assigned these on a rotation basis), teaching basic center procedures for getting materials out, finding a spot, and cleaning up, working together, resolving a conflict, asking a question, going to the bathroom or getting a drink, and leaving space to teach students to engage in centers independently and collaboratively.

In my classroom of about 14 students, I typically had 2-3 students in a center. The amount of students and time per center rotation will vary depending on the size of your classroom, the amount of students, and your context. I found using partners typically worked best, and I would pair students using the split-half method, though some teachers prefer pairing students of equal reading ability so you can call them to small group together. If there isn’t much variability in ability, I based pairings on student personality and other needs.

Split-half method: To pair students (flexibly) using this method, order students by highest to lowest reading ability as determined by your beginning of the year assessments. Split the list in half, then pair the student at the top of list one with the student at the top of list two. You’ll also want to take into consideration personalities and attentional or other special needs. This gives students the opportunity to teach and learn from one another.

Example of split-half method for assigning partners

The centers listed below are just starting ideas for providing meaningful, distributed practice, and should be adjusted regularly based on the concepts and sound-spellings that have been introduced. Research suggests meaningful, distributed practice helps students retain information and better be able to automatically retrieve it for future use. Use your instructional goals to plan some fun center ideas of your own with materials you have already–bonus points for integrating materials that correspond to your science and social studies concepts, too!

Nuts and Bolts

For this center, I purchased some nuts and bolts from Home Depot and used a black sharpie to write capital (bolts) and lower case (nuts) letters. I chose ones that were bigger; however, plastic ones look to also be available and may be more child-friendly depending on your context. If you use various colors, be sure to not put capitals and lowercase matches on the same color–otherwise students may just sort by color without attending to the letters. I stored away most of them at the beginning of the year and put out the ones we had covered in a small container labeled with the center number. All the nuts and bolts were unattached and the students were to match them and screw them together. When the center was over, their task was to show me (I would check them briefly before and offer praise and feedback), unscrew all the nuts and bolts and place them back in the container on the shelf.

As you’ll notice, I try to incorporate tasks that require fine motor practice throughout centers–this is a major area of development during the preschool years to get their pincer grasp stronger for writing!

As the year went on and students became more proficient at counting phonemes in words and matching them with graphemes, I used various resources and had them attach the grapheme to the phoneme card or sort by number of phonemes by screwing them together with a nut and bolt. I made my own resources many times (the school I was at did not have a published PreK literacy curricula available to me), and other times used the freely available resources online, such as FCRR’s student center activities. For example, I used this FCRR phoneme closed sort–I punched holes in the printed cards that students used to screw together “matches”.

As an example of the same skill practice using different materials, when my students began collecting acorns and acorn “hats” during recess, I swapped out the nuts and bolts for acorns and acorn hats (with capitals and lowercase carefully sharpied on). So many possibilities!


One of the centers worked with stamps and ink pads. I used these stamp sets, but any would work! This may start with matching upper/lowercase, stamping their name, stamping the first sound in a given picture (initial sound isolation), or sounding and stamping VC and CVC words to match given pictures as the year went on. When the center was over, they learned how to ensure the stamps were placed in the appropriate slots, clean their fingers and table with a baby wipe, and turn in their papers to their box. It gave them a permanent product for me to check afterward, and something for them to bring home to show their parents.

Newspaper Search and Find

Another popular center was the newspaper center. Our school participated in a program in which each teacher received a daily newspaper (if requested). I used this opportunity for various classroom activities, one of which was during literacy centers.

At the beginning of the year, students in this center received a section of the newspaper and searched for the letter(s) we were learning–for example, I may have an index cards with “M” in green and “m” printed in blue in the center basket along with dot markers. Students used the green dot marker to find and dot all the capital “M”s and the blue dot marker to find and dot all of the lowercase “m”s.

As the weeks progressed, I added in the letters students were learning and review of previous letters as well. As they began to learn short words, like “the” or “and”, I had a card for them to search and find those as well. They felt very grown up “reading the newspaper” and took their “job” very seriously. When this center was over, they practiced folding it up and putting it in their box to turn in. This also created a permanent product I could check and they could take home.

Playdough Center

In this center, students used playdough, or a similar material, to build letter shapes they have been learning. I placed a few into the center container along with the “building material,” such as playdough. As the weeks went on, they used the cards to arrange them to build VC and CVC words to match given photos, then used the playdough to build the letters for the word. I created my own lowercase and uppercase mats, but here is an example of playdough mats you could purchase as well.

I would also change these out for this set of wiki sticks and alphabet cards I had available, as we all know new materials causes some excitement!

I would have them “teach” their partner the name and sound of the letter as they were building–if it included a picture, I asked them to think about and discuss how that picture might be related to the letter. When the center was over, their task was to place all the playdough or wikki stix back neatly into the respective containers and clean up the cards into the basket.

Letter Shape Building

Another similar resource I used were these letter building pieces with activity cards. These were a bit more tricky, but students loved trying to figure out the “puzzle.” The cards give directions for how many straight pieces, curved pieces, etc to use, then they have to figure out how to turn them and attach them together. I would only put the cards out for the capital or lowercase letters that I had explicitly introduced, and I would teach them to “teach” their partner the name and sound as they were building the shape.

This set seems like a similar idea to the ones above and seem less pricey, though I have not used them personally.

When this center was over, students were responsible for putting all the pieces back into the container and ensuring the corresponding cards made their way back as well. They loved showing me their creations, and I would briefly check before they started putting the pieces away.

Tweezers and Q-Tips

Another popular center was the tweezer center. In this center, I had dot marker letter templates, such as these free ones, printed for students to use, tweezers, and some fun manipulative, like beads, beans, cotton balls, fuzzies, or pasta. I taught them how to hold the tweezers (pincer grasp!), pick up one manipulative at a time, and place one in each “dot” on the letter. They said the name of the letter when they grabbed a manipulative and the sound it spelled as they placed the manipulative down.

When they finished a letter or when the center time was over, they placed all the manipulatives back in the container and all the materials on the shelf.

A related way I changed this out is to substitute the tweezers for Q-Tips and provide a tiny dish of liquid glue. Students dabbed the Q-Tip (pincer grasp!) into the glue, then on a dot, saying the letter name. Finally, they chose a manipulative (bean, bead, sequin, etc) and placed it on the dot of glue. Once they finished a letter or center time was over, they got to put it on the drying shelf to take home.

Letter-to-Sound Matching

There are many ways to accomplish this, but here are a few center ideas I used.

I had this set of plastic acorns and mini-objects (the capital was on the acorn, the lowercase on the acorn “hat,” and each had a corresponding object that began with the most common sound of the letter that fit inside. I would put out only a few of the letters I had taught, but as the year went on they could handle more and more mixed up together. At the end of this center, they’d show me (very briefly), then take everything apart and put it back in the container on the shelf.

Candy Land

For this center, I modified a game of Candy Land with the help of this teacher’s free download. Students would learn to take turns, draw a card, say the sound-spelling or word on the card, and move the spaces as normal. Their partner would be in charge of “checking” them and helping correct any errors in a respectful way (“Try again, I think this spells, /b/, not /d/”). At the end of center time, they picked up the materials and put them back in the container on the shelf.

I used single letters at the beginning of the year, working up to CVC words and higher for students who were ready. Super easy to differentiate and students loved to play.

The FCRR Student Center Activities webpage has a ton of free, printable center activities that I took advantage of by printing, cutting, and laminating as well. Feel free to check it out and please share other ideas you have or have used in the comments section!

As a note, I also included centers focused on the language comprehension aspect of the simple view, such as listening centers for students to hear narrative and expository texts read aloud on the science or social studies topic we are focused on–working toward drawing the beginning, middle, and end for narrative texts and drawing and labeling/describing 3 facts from expository texts. I’d also include a writing center, typically one aimed at storybook writing and one at content-focused writing. Both of these work on phonics and phonemic awareness through inventive spelling; however, since this specific blog series is focusing on teaching word recognition skills in PreK, the center ideas listed here also focused solely on word recognition 🙂

Moving Forward

Teachers are masters at figuring out fun, engaging, and playful activities. Finding ways to harness this time for distributed practice around letter names, shapes, and sounds that you have introduced in whole group can transform your students’ reading achievement and learning experience.

In the next (and final) blog in this series, I’ll discuss a few ways I integrated literacy skill practice throughout the day, including morning meeting routines, transitions, and recess.


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