What Counts as Preschool Literacy Teaching?

  • 22 February, 2010

Becky Schaller recently sent the following note to this blog:

I am struck by how different literacy instruction for preschoolers is by your description here than it was ten years ago. Back then, we also included teaching literacy by encouraging pretend writing in the different areas of the room. In the dramatic play area, children might pretend to write out a grocery list. In the block area, they might make a sign. Does literacy during play time count any more? Or is the focus more teacher directed now?

  Her question as to "what counts as literacy instruction?" is a fair one. It is easy enough to block out time for activities like writing, but what can be in that space and what can't?

  Teaching includes teacher telling and teacher explanation. Indeed, when a teacher stands before a group and shows the children a letter and tells them the letter name is an "R" that is obviously teaching. However, it is also teaching when a teacher leads students in some kind of guided doing (such as when the teacher and students do choral reading with a chart while the teacher points at the words). And so are more independent practice activities, such as the idea of students trying to write grocery lists in the dramatic play area.

  However, practice requires that something taught is being explored. Ten years ago a preschool teacher may have had writing opportunities arranged across the classroom, but there would be little direct teaching (the kids would practice writing based on what they learned elsewhere). Now the teacher introduces letters, sounds, words, and shows students how to write. The knowledge from such lessons is secured as children try to use that input within their play.

  Practice is part of teaching. Practice needs to be articulated in ways that it leads to more learning, including providing kids with guidance from a more knowledgeable person (some of the time), collaborative practice opportunities, and eventually independent practice). It should include opportunities for feedback and review, too.

  Many activities themselves don't differentiate teaching now from teaching 10 years ago: pretend reading, pretend writing, dramatic play, teacher book sharing were all part of the landscape then and they can be now. How connected these practice opportunities are to intended learning outcomes has changed, however.

  Ten years ago, many preschool and kindergarten teachers were afraid to tell students stuff or to show them how to do things. Now, perhaps, the fear has shifted, and teachers may be afraid to have kids play with what has been presented. Good teaching includes both didactic lessons and opportunities to practice and play.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Cathy Puett Miller AKA The Literacy Ambassador <noreply-comment@blogger.com> Jul 02, 2017 12:43 AM


Dr. Shanahan,

I have been a fan of yours ever since I began reading your research. I can't agree more with your comments on preschool literacy. I'd add - think integration. We learn literacy during storytimes (whole and small group and individual sharing of books with children). Literacy grows when we are talking with children about their world and what they are experiencing at that moment. Literacy doesn't expand when we try to force little ones to respond to flashcards and do worksheets. Literacy is everywhere in preschool if we only look.

As a consultant who trains preschool teachers, I emphasize teaching concepts over teaching isolated skills. And preschool has got to be the BEST place to teach comprehension (when 100% of those little brains can concentrate on squeezing the meaning out).

I'd be honored if you would like to explore my new book for teachers, Before They Read, from Maupin House. I also have written a partner title, Anytime Reading Readiness, for parents of 3-6 year olds. They both focus on these BIG picture ideas for promoting literacy with young children.

literacycoach Jul 02, 2017 12:44 AM


I am wondering why so many preschools have adopted the "play only" model where direct instruction is seen negatively. I have been looking at a number of various programs for my son and it seems that most of the day is spent in free play. While there is instruction that takes place during these times, the goals of learning are very unclear (to parents and teachers). I coach using the OWL curriculum which allows a nice balance between play and direct instruction. Once again, I think a balanced approach to instruction allows for children with different learning styles to have access to content.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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What Counts as Preschool Literacy Teaching?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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