Great Ideas for Content Area Literacy Centers for Your Primary Classroom K-2


Written by Anna Gratz Cockerille

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”  – Maria Montessori, in The Absorbent Mind

Observe a young child at play, and you’ll know immediately that children learn with their hands. They touch, grab, turn over, scratch, crumple, rub, throw, stack, and knock down. Hands-on learning in a curriculum for young children should not be seen as an add-on if time allows, it should be seen as the vehicle for the curriculum. As Kristi Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler write in Purposeful Play, "If play is the work of children, then to build on kids’ strengths, we need to ask, 'How can we infuse an abundance of play and the principles of play across the curriculum?’" This is what leaning centers do: encourage learning using the principles of play. 

Of course, one of the realties of todays’ curriculum, even for our youngest students, is high expectations for content knowledge and the nonfiction reading and writing that accompany content area learning. Fortunately, there are ways to introduce children to high-level content, and to bolster nonfiction reading and writing, while maintaining the principles of play that are so important at this age. 

Enter content area literacy centers. Imagine, during a first grade study of animals, students doing the following at centers: 

  • Putting together parts of an animal and matching each part with a label 
  • Matching animals to their habitats
  • Studying models or pictures of animals with characteristics such as claws, feathers, fur, scales, and sharp teeth and talking with a partner about how these animals protect themselves
  • Sorting animals into categories and talking about the characteristics that animals in each category share
  • Reading or studying pictures of animal books that support the centers’ concepts (animal protection, animal habitats, animal bodies, etc.)
  • Drawing or writing based on observations from centers using a word bank of domain-specific terms for support

And this is only the beginning of what students can explore in centers. Tomorrow night, join staff developers and content area literacy experts Rebecca Cronin and Celena Larkey for a conversation about how to make the most of content area centers in primary classrooms. We’d love to hear your questions and your experiences with content area centers. Pictures are always welcome! 

Each Wednesday night at 7:30pm eastern, The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. Join @RebeccaCronin2 & @Celenula tomorrow evening to chat about content area literacy centers for primary classrooms.   

Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.

Cockerille_Anna_GratzAnna Gratz Cockerille, Coauthor of Bringing History to Life (Grade 4) in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing Series.

Anna was a teacher and a literacy coach in New York City and in Sydney, Australia, and later became a Staff Developer and Writer at TCRWP. She served as an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and taught at several TCRWP institutes, including the content literacy institute, where she helped participants bring strong literacy instruction into social studies classrooms. Anna also has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann 2012), and Navigating Nonfiction in the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades 3–5 series (Heinemann 2010). Most recently, Anna served as an editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, K–5 series.



One thought on “Great Ideas for Content Area Literacy Centers for Your Primary Classroom K-2

  1. Rachel Brisker

    Our K-2 team will be doing a book study on Purposeful Play this fall. I am trying to get a head start on what purposeful play will look like. I have heard many have centers separate from their literacy centers. However, based on what I am reading you are suggesting implementing the play into literacy centers? I would love to get any feedback on how teachers set up their centers, how often they change their centers, how many you have and how many rotations you get in for a day. I am a Kindergarten teacher with about 26 kids. I am super excited to be implementing purposeful play. According to  Gilbert, Heart, & Patrick (2011), "Play is the fundamental means by which children gather and process information, learn new skills, and practice old ones, (p. 30). Would you agree with this definition of purposeful play? 

    Thank you 



     Gilbert, J., Heart, H., & Patrick, C. (2011). Purposeful Play Leads to school readiness. Retrieved May 24, 2017 , from


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