To Play or Not to Play (in K or PreK), That is the Question

  • 31 March, 2014

Blast from the past: This blog was first posted on March 31, 2014; and was reposted on November 15, 2017. The reason for revisiting is that over the past couple of weeks these unproven claims against teaching reading to young children have emerged yet again--this time in a posting by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post. As usual, the press likes a good educational controversy rather than helping a community figure out the best way to address educational problems. Teaching young children to read is not harmful despite the claims.  

During both my childhood and the early years of my teaching career “reading readiness” dominated. The idea was that if you taught kids reading too early, you would do damage. My kindergarten teacher warned Mom not to try to teach me anything, and we were still stalling when I taught first grade.

  Recently, a study at the University of Virginia found that we now live in a different world. Most kindergarten teachers believe that they should teach reading and that is pretty common in preschools, too. The headline in Education Week says it all: “Study Find Reading Lessons Edging Out Kindergarten Play.”

  I’ve been a big cheerleader for early reading instruction, and why not? The research is overwhelming. Despite theories that teaching reading early would damage kids, there is no empirical evidence supporting those claims. As Head Start kids have ramped up their literacy knowledge over the past several years, their emotional health has improved along with it. Hundreds of studies now show benefits to teaching kids early.

  However, that doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be playing or that the preschool and kindergarten environments shouldn’t be encouraging and supportive. Too often I see kindergarten reading instruction that doesn’t match well with the research findings.

  I would strongly encourage the kinds of play/literacy lessons that Susan Neumann has long championed. Have restaurants, newspaper publishers, post offices, and libraries set up in these classrooms and engage children in literacy play.

  Of course, phonological awareness and phonics should be taught explicitly, but the research is very clear that this should be small group work—engaging and interactive. (None of the studies that found decoding instruction to be effective for young kids presented the lessons to whole classes). Kids can respond in a variety of ways as well. If you are quizzing kids on whether they hear the same sounds at the beginnings of two words, they can jump or clap or rub their tummies to respond. Movement fits into such lessons really well, and various songs and language games can be used, too.

  Encourage pretend reading and pretend writing and use techniques like language experience approach to introduce kids to text (and to encourage them to do their own writing). Label everything in classrooms, but involve kids in doing that.

  My point is simply this: We should teach literacy in preschool and kindergarten. But play can be the basis of effective literacy lessons. Play more literacy in the early grades and avoid seeming like a fourth-grade class for young’uns. It is not an either or (despite the Ed Week headline); kids can play more and get more literacy instruction.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 07:38 PM


I am a full-day kindergarten teacher. We use Jolly Phonics (which was one of the stars of the NRP); the kids love it and become amazing readers using its instruction. The program is taught whole-group, and is both playful and effective.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 07:39 PM


YES!!! I taught GA Lottery-Funded Pre-K for two years and their training is superb as it relates to incorporating literacy in play and other age-appropriate ways like name games and environmental print. They are also huge on incorporating phonological awareness activities into every days plans. This approach prepared my kiddoes so well for Kinder.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 07:39 PM


I love this post. It makes me so sad whenever I think about the Pre-K and Kindergarten students losing valuable playtime to regimented literacy instruction. Too often, these little learners are expected to sit still on a carpet area and respond like robots to flashcards and literacy programs. I love that this article points out the importance of incorporating play into literacy interactions. Children in Pre-K and Kindergarten need to learn how to interact socially with their peers, using literacy as a foundation. It is becoming more prevalent for older students to not know how to appropriately engage in conversations with their peers because they were never taught how. Additionally, it is important for these little learners to relate the new knowledge with experiences they enjoy and relate to. When young children use literacy while playing, they are more likely to retain the information. I thought the suggestions you offered were awesome ideas and feel that they would be easy to set up within a classroom. Like you, I agree that children should not wait to be taught literacy instruction until after Kindergarten. The earlier a child begins the better knowledge base they have. However, I do feel that incorporating plat is not an "if we have time", it's a must do!

A. Whitley Jun 19, 2017 07:40 PM


It saddens me to see the amount of time kindergarten students in my district are expected to sit on the carpet and listen to instruction. As a first grade teacher, I am now teaching many of the same standards that I taught to second graders ten years ago. First grade students are coming in the door with the expectations of decoding CVC words and with all letter sounds and names memorized. This is a difficult expectation to meet in a state that does not have mandatory kindergarten attendance. When I began my education in an early childhood education program, I was taught strategies to facilitate phonics and phonemic awareness through play. However, today’s administration wants to see students sitting in rows reading silently. This is not developmentally appropriate. In a class of 19 students, I have 5 who are being retained in first grade next year. These students are not reading fluently. They cannot consistently recall all letter sounds or decode independently. Of these 5 students, 2 did not complete kindergarten. All five of these students also lack social skills and cannot maintain focus for more than 5 minutes. Wouldn’t it have been better to teach these struggling readers a love for learning, instead of creating 6 year old repeaters? The standards we are teaching do not favor learning through play, and this is a detriment to our students.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 07:40 PM



I have long opposed retaining students in this fashion--since research is overwhelmingly against it. I have written about that before on this site. There is some newer research that suggests that it is possible to make retention work in kids interests (though in that study there was substantial curriculum and materials reform and substantial amounts of professional development for teachers). I don't believe it is sufficient to make kids happy, but to make sure that the kids learn to read effectively (I trust that they'll figure out how to be happy when they have power over their lives--power that reading can afford them). I hope that if these students are to be retained that the schools do more than retaining... if they don't the research is very negative for these kids (they will be no more likely to read well and their chances of dropping high school eventually are much higher).

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 07:41 PM


I completely agree with the author of this article. Working with Kindergarten and First grade students, I see first hand what is going on in the classrooms as far as literacy instruction. Students are being held to such extreme standards now because of the emergence and push of Common Core Standards. So many students are being held back simply because they are not “meeting” all of the kindergarten or first grade standards at the end of each year. Shouldn’t this be an eye opener that some standards may be set too high for some of these students? Just because the majority of the students are able to meet most of the standards, does not mean that every student will be able to do so. Some concepts being introduced, I feel, are being introduced before the students are developmentally able to grasp the concept being taught. Is it appropriate to say that students have to be reading on a level D book by the time they leave Kindergarten? What if they were the student who came in not even knowing letter sounds and made tremendous growth, but only reads on a level B? Is it fair to start them out in first grade already set up for failure on their reading level? I see so many good things with the push in teaching literacy concepts sooner, but I have also seen it greatly affect many students as well.

Susan Esra Jun 19, 2017 07:42 PM


I teach pre-k and kindergarten students with special needs, and it has been disheartening to see the changes that have occurred in kindergarten over the past few years. Georgia Pre-K has modified its standards and curriculum in response to CCSS, but the emphasis remains on play, time for student-directed learning, and activities that are appropriate for young children. There is so little time left for play in kindergarten anymore, and this is to the detriment of all students, especially those who have not had previous school experience and those with special needs. I teach in a school that is focused on remaining developmentally appropriate, but the kindergarten ELA standards make it hard to incorporate much play or discovery learning. The rigor of ELA standards at higher grade levels may be good, but I feel that they are too difficult for kindergarten students. Our students who did not attend pre-k are typically only able to write their first names (if that) when they begin school. By the end of the year, they are expected to be drawing and writing to compose narrative, informational, and opinion pieces. It’s too much, too fast. To cover all of these standards pretty much forces teachers to have longer large group instruction, less outside play, and more time sitting at a table- none of which are appropriate for five- and six-year-olds! I agree that the ideal situation involves incorporating play-based learning and developmentally appropriate activities to the greatest extent possible, but it is idealistic to think that a teacher of a classroom of 25 kindergarten students can teach and assess all standards in this way. The truth is, there are too many ELA standards for kindergarten, and some are too difficult.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 07:42 PM


I respectfully disagree that there are too many standards for Kindergarten or that they are too hard for kindergarten (I work in a lot of high poverty schools and these requirements are not out of reach for most of those children). However, I agree with you about how pressured teachers feel by much of this and about the bad choices that they make accordingly. That teachers feel that they need to teach these skills in a whole class setting for time sake is a false economy (I agree with your assessment about what teachers are doing, but suggesting that the teachers are making bad choices). Studies show that teaching these skills is beneficial were all delivered in small group configurations (or even individually). Teachers are hurrying to be effective and they are undermining their effectiveness in doing it that way.

Cierra Barksdale Jun 19, 2017 07:43 PM


In previous years, it was widely believed that irreparable harm could be caused to the learning development of a child if taught to read too early. However, this article outlines a strategy that not only debunks this notion, but convincingly advocates the advantages of helping children to become literate by kindergarten . One of the most poignant points of insight expressed that reading has taken greater importance over play time. This is understandable because for young children, play and literacy are intricately linked. Computers, cell phones and tablets are the new forms of recreation that are favored by young learners. Access to play and information shifts into gear by the drive of a literate mind. Additionally, this article suggested that delayed reading causes problems for children especially if they are not caught early. Children who do not grasp the concept of reading often have greater ground to make up with other students and in their own curriculum. One method employed can be multiple ways of utilizing literacy such as phonics and word association games. Above all, this article helps all readers to understand that it is impermissible to withhold the fountain of knowledge through reading from children. The transition of time warrants young children to read for success, safety and survival.\

Sc02050 Jun 19, 2017 07:43 PM


I teach kindergarten inclusion, and I definitely see the importance of partnering reading instruction with play, especially considering the students who have learning difficulties. Through working with those students who are developmentally delayed, it is clear they are not mature enough to complete an entire reading decoding lesson without squirming in their seat and constant reminders to focus, participate, and be still. When the lessons are interactive, and the students are able to move around, they are much more engaged and will participate with a few reminders to settle down. The kids enjoy the lessons more, and the pick up the skills faster when they are interested in what they are learning.
It is amazing to see a kindergartner who didn’t recognize all 26 letters at the beginning of the year, reading small simple books by the end of the year. It is also encouraging to see how proud they are that they can read. I feel that reading instruction is important at early ages, I just feel that this instruction needs to be tailored to the developmental stages of the students.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 07:44 PM


I work in a high poverty school with 35 kindergartners. Maybe 10 of my students went to preschool, maybe 15 of my students have the support at home to complete homework and read books I send home, and about 5 of my students are chronically absent 1-2 days a week. You better believe this isn't going to stop me from teaching my heart out. I already have 17 students reading at an independent D or above - and it is only April. You better believe the other 18 students at independent B and C will be reading independent D by the end of the year. Why? Because it is my job. I won't be using flashcards and whole group instruction to get there. No. I meet with those kids in small groups and we set goals together. They are excited to learn. They want to read. They have a goal card in their independent reading box to remind them to sound out words or cross check the picture and the beginning sound or use chunks, etc. My students sit in quiet rows (7 rows of 5 because I need that order with 35 kids) while I read them a story. But you better believe they play during the day. They work at centers while I pull small groups, they play at recess, and play time at the end of the day. The CCSS have high expectations, but our kids can get there if teachers have high expectations. I am not a wonder teacher. I have been teaching for 5 years in a high poverty school that is overcrowded, underfunded, understaffed, and at times chaotic. My kids come in not knowing how to hold a pencil, not knowing what their name even looks like, not knowing how to hold a book, and knowing the letter "a" and no sounds. These kids can make it because it is my job to get them there. No excuses.

JoAnn H. Thomas Jun 19, 2017 07:45 PM


It is said that third grade is a pivotal time in a child’s life and sadly to say, the percentage of inmates have reading/illiteracy problems can be tracked back to end of third grade. Studies found warning signs as early as 3rdrd or 4th grade— chronic absences, poor behavior, failing math or language arts, which when put together lead to a 90 percent risk that a student will not graduate on time. So the earlier you start the better. Reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. If a child does have the necessary literacy skills, they more likely end up behind prison walls, unless an intervention is set into place. I believe that if a child play some of the time then parents spend quality quiet time reading with them, they will learn to become an good reader.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 07:45 PM


The actual connection between reading levels and criminal activity is much lower than you suggest (and that popular mythology claims). There is no question that a very large percentage of convicted criminals are low in literacy achievement, but the percentage of individuals who are low in literacy who commit crimes is much lower. Also, reading to children is a great idea and such activity has been found to exert a small but positive impact on children's oral language ability, but we still have no studies showing that such reading transfers directly to improvements in learning to read.

JoAnn H. Thomas Jun 19, 2017 07:45 PM


I completely agree with the author of this article. I a mother of three beautiful kids and enjoyed raising them. students, I see first hand what is going on in the classrooms, because I have a love for children and literacy. Some students are being held to such extreme standards and others are not. So many students are being held back simply because they are not “meeting” all of the kindergarten or first grade standards at the end of each year. This should be an eye opener that some standards may be set too high for some of these students? Just because the majority of the students are able to meet most of the standards, does not mean that every student will be able to do so.

JoAnn H. Thomas Jun 19, 2017 07:46 PM


I am in agreement with you that literacy is much lower than statistics show, but how can I find accurate data to include in my research paper. Most of the information I find states that prisoner who can't read and write are the ones that are mostly locked up. There are a few exceptions of the educated criminals, that have given a lot of thought to crime ( or premeditated).

tonyajstephenson Jun 19, 2017 07:47 PM


JoAnn, You should read that again very carefully.

JS Nov 19, 2017 04:50 PM

I agree with the information in this article. I work in a high poverty, high ESL school. Most of our students do not go to pre-school. For many years we had a play based Kindergarten, focused on teaching kids social skills. Small group teaching was usually learning to cut, or coloring. There was no direct instruction in small groups to teach letters or Phonemic awareness. The alphabet and Phonemic awareness were taught in an un-organized and sporadic fashion, if taught at all. I am a first grade teacher, and when kids came to first grade from this play based Kindergarten, they could not access the adopted first grade curriculum because they were expected to know letter names and sounds and have a particular set of Phonemic awareness skills. (The Kinder teachers had this curriculum too, but chose not to use it and no one held them accountable). Our first grade team had to take a lot of time to teach most kids the early literacy skills they did not learn in Kinder. They made growth, but it was very difficult to catch them up to where they needed to be by the end of first grade. They had missed an entire year of skills based instruction. As a result our student population was behind in reading at all grade levels. I believe the statistic from research is that .88% of students who leave first grade behind in reading will continue to be behind in later grades. Since Common Core and the emphasis on foundational skills for beginning readers, this situation has improved at our school. This experience really illustrates for me the importance of Kindergarten foundational skills and teaching those skills in an organized and well thought out way. They cannot be an after thought. Teaching our kids to read has to be the focus of our work as teachers, no matter the grade level. So much research is avaliable to guide us in this and we need to teach from this evidence, especially in these early grades where the foundation is set. Of course kids need to play and literacy can be intelligently incorporated into fun and engaging activities, as mentioned in this piece. It is also important to note that early instruction can help us determine which students struggle and we can intervene early to help them.

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To Play or Not to Play (in K or PreK), That is the Question


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.