What Is High Quality Literacy Instruction in Preschool?

Your preschooler doesn't have to be illiterate.

Posted Jan 23, 2014

Everybody is talking about high quality preschools but few folks know what high quality preschool looks like—especially for literacy development. The following checklist can be used to evaluate quality literacy engagement in any preschool classroom.

Seven strategies backed by theory and research are earmarks of high-quality preschool literacy programs. How does the preschool in your community stack up? Rank the literacy instruction in your community’s preschool on a seven point scale. If you are a preschool teacher, do a self-assessment. If you are a parent of a preschooler, which of these everyday literacy-teaching strategies can you use at home?

7 Everyday Literacy-Teaching Strategies for Preschool

There is a lot of talk today about the need for high-quality preschool education: President Obama, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City have spoken out on high quality programs to name a few. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York wants to standardize quality prekindergarten and offer “more than babysitting.” The following checklist can be used to evaluate quality literacy engagement in preschool classrooms.

The 7-Point Assessment: Ask the preschool teacher if she/he uses the following strategies or observe the classroom for a full day and give the preschool or teacher a check for each activity observed. These are also beneficial daily activities for parenting and homeschooling.

Preschool teachers may use this informal instrument as a self-evaluation. A score of 7 checks or close to 7 indicates high quality literacy instruction; a score close to 0 supports illiteracy:

1)    Read Aloud Every Day—Talk a Lot 

Teachers (and parents) often do not know how best to read aloud to infants and toddlers, 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s. Strategic reading aloud involves careful selection of appropriate books, mixed genres, and a specific technique called dialogue reading—having a natural conversation about the book being read in order to explain, engage, draw attention, or enhance the experience. Reading aloud builds vocabulary, concepts, and intelligence. Strategic reading aloud should be in every preschool caregiver’s toolbox.

2)   Jumpstart Word Reading (Label and Read Around the Room)

Repeated exposure to labels in daily “30-second reading lessons” are fun for 2- to 4-year-olds allowing them to recognize sight words on which to build a foundation for reading. This strategy enables beginners to learn the concept of what a word is, discover directionality of print through hand sweeps for eye tracking, and even master the fundamentals of sounding out a word through the use of engaging hands-on action and multisensory techniques for reading labels.

Fun and engaging flash card games also jumpstart word reading. Of course no one should put preschoolers through drill and kill flash-card drudgery. But babies and toddlers love flash card engagement as a game. It fits their natural preference for novelty and natural capacity for pattern recognition. Amazingly, twelve-month olds can learn to read words—sometimes before they can speak them.

Labeling and flash card reading are supported by theory and research which call for balance between “whole word” and “phonics” instruction. Likewise, neurocognitive science supports dual mechanisms for reading and spelling: 1) engaging lexical memory (whole word) and 2) learning sublexical phonological rules (letter-to-sound correspondence).

Brain areas for both processes—lexical memory and sublexical phonological awareness—work in concert and can be easily activated in preschoolers. Labeling and flash card games jumpstart the lexical circuitry for automatic sight word reading. Sounding out words (see # 5 below) jumpstarts the sublexical circuitry for decoding and spelling. These tightly linked dual processes for reading, spelling, and writing—all reciprocally related—enable healthy literacy beginnings for preschoolers.

3)    Make Literacy Multisensory

Multisensory literacy strategies include singing, marching, arts and crafts, physical movement, and even tasting; all mix well with literacy learning to make it fun and age appropriate. Everyday literacy in preschool should include fun with the alphabet. (Teach the sounds of the letters before teaching the letter names.) You should see finger-point reading with lots of repetitions of favorite songs, poems, raps, and rhymes in a preschool classroom. Kids love literacy activities such as eating letters in alphabet soups and cereals which create opportunities to talk about sounds and letters or to spell out a word.

4)    Have Fun with Names

First names are the jumping off place for preschoolers for learning sounds and letters. After all, what word is more meaningful than the child’s own name? One can’t read or write without sounds and letters, yet sounds  and letters are very complex and hard to learn especially if high expectations are thrown in the child’s face on the first day of kindergarten—but not so hard if the learning starts in preschool and is spread over time. With intentional literary instruction embedded in play and everyday activity guided by knowledgeable caregivers, preschoolers can master sounds and letters easily and informally.

5)    Have Fun with Sounds and Jumpstart Decoding

Fun with sounds can start with rhyming and clapping syllables and eventually lead to learning about phonemes, the sounds that make up words. Quality preschools use Vygotskian techniques such as “hand spelling” and “finger spelling” that make abstract concepts such as associating sounds with letters, age-appropriate and concrete for preschool thinkers. Vygotskian techniques use physical action along with a concrete object such as the hand or arm to convey abstract concepts such as “phonemes.” It you see a preschool teacher help a child sound out /c/, /ă/, /t/, “cat” with a chop, chop, chop, swish (e.g., three right hand karate chops from left shoulder, to left elbow, to the left hand followed by a “swish” to show how the three sounds blend together to make “cat”) you are seeing good preschool reading instruction.

6)    Draw, Write, and Read It Back—Every Day

Pencil and paper activity help activate reading circuitry and should advance from scribbling, to art and drawing, to pretend writing, to real writing and reading by the beginning of kindergarten. Drawing and writing help beginners synthesize, coordinate, and apply all aspects of beginning reading.

A technique called “adult underwriting” (not to be confused with banking or insurance terminology) provides a conventional model of a preschooler’s early attempts at writing one-word “stories,” phrase “stories,” or very simple stories in sentences that often accompany a child’s drawing. The adult’s conventional version of the child’s “story” can be written and read back from memory in the same line order and word order that the child wrote them down. Kid-writing can include opinions or informational pieces. Kids love “reading” back the adult model of something they wrote themselves. The fact that they thought it up makes it easier to read it back. They should do this over and over to get the flow of reading fluency. Memory reading makes them feel grown up. It’s a great jump start to proficient reading.

7)    Monitor Literacy Progress and Set Appropriate Goals

Preschool practitioners can follow a 5-phase assessment model of developmental literacy growth (an outgrowth of Piagetian theory) by observing how very young kids’ productions change qualitatively as they move through five developmental phases or reading, writing, and spelling in concert. The assessment involves keeping samples of the child’s writing in a folder and observing the child’s day to day responses in a reading-writing environment.

The five phases spiral upward from no literacy eventually leading to proficient reading and writing between kindergarten and the end of first grade. If your preschooler is subjected to high stakes testing, subtract 5 points from the total number of checkmarks above. Assessments in preschool should be child friendly, formative, kind and gentle; the child need not even be aware that assessment is taking place. High stakes testing likely has negative impact for a preschooler’s literacy development in terms of both score accuracy and emotional sensitivity.

Gentry’s jumpstarts to literacy—the seven strategies listed above—are engaging, flexible, individualized, presented in increments to match the child’s attention, and used with consistent repetition over time. They are intentional literacy instruction embedded in play and every-day activity. The jumpstarts encompass embracing the literacy needs of each individual where he or she is currently functioning and guiding them forward. All seven should be part of the daily fun in any quality preschool.

Here are links providing additional information on jumpstarts to literacy:

For more on the five-phase developmental model, go to: “Find Your Child's Reading Level in 60 Seconds!” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers-expert-guide-parents/201008/find-your-childs-reading-level

For more on why kids need to read in preschool, go to: “The Top 10 Reasons to Teach Your Baby or Toddler to Read,” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201107/the-top-10-reasons-teach-your-baby-or-toddler-read

For a good synopsis of what baby to age 4 readers can do—including phonics and decoding, go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201010/can-babies-really-read-what-parents-should-know

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.