Early Literacy: In the Classroom

[This is the fourth post in a five-part series on early literacy.]

The purpose of this post is to take a look at the (pre) literacy activities that take place in early childhood classrooms, in other words, how a child spends his/her time when it comes to language arts instruction. (The purpose is not to describe or critique how literacy is, or should be, taught.) 

To get an idea of what 3-5 year olds are doing in their classrooms, I talked to two teachers. Sarah teaches young children in a public school that aims to have children start reading in kindergarten, and Angela teaches young children in a school that begins literacy instruction in first grade. I asked them to tell me about what young children in their schools are doing. 

Sarah’s School

Teaching pre-literacy skills begins in pre-k, where children are expected to learn the letters and read and write their name. In kindergarten, children learn to read and write words and sentences. A reading test is administered at the end of kindergarten to ensure the rising first graders are capable of reading simple words and sentences. By third grade, reading instruction is complete and children are expected to read to learn. To meet these literacy goals, language arts is a main component of the pre-k and kindergarten curriculum. Here is a snapshot of what might take place in a pre-k and kindergarten classroom at Sarah’s school:

In a pre-k classroom…

Children are taught phonemic awareness and the alphabet. From what I understand from talking to parents with children in these classes, children learn that “bee” starts with a “b” sound, “cat” starts with a “k” sound, etc. Teachers may point out the sounds words start with and ask the children to identify the letter that makes that sound. This is done with pictures, objects, and stories during a dedicated circle time, through coloring in pictures that have the word-initial letter printed at the top, and during other activities throughout the day. For example, a teacher may point out a bird while on the playground and ask a child what sound “bird” starts with, and then ask another child what letter makes that sound. Children are also taught the alphabet song and to recognize and produce printed letters. 

In a kindergarten classroom…

Children have 90 minutes of uninterrupted language arts instruction. During this time, children may sing the alphabet song, listen to a story and answer comprehension questions, then sit at a desk and complete a worksheet. Early in the year children practice writing upper and lowercase letters and identifying “sight words,” such as matching the picture of the cat to the word “cat.” Further into the school year, a worksheet may have sentences such as, “I like to______, I like to eat_____, I like to play______.” The worksheets progress from drawing to writing, with an early worksheet requiring the child to draw a picture of what they like, then moving to selecting a word from the word bank at the bottom of the worksheet, to writing in the word, and finally writing the entire sentence. As they move through the school year, the children will read simple printed stories and answer simple questions, such as “Find the word ‘said’; What letter does ‘said’ start with?”

In addition to language arts instruction, pre-k and kindergarten children have math instruction, music, physical education, recess, time for classroom “centers” (sand table, housekeeping, blocks, drawing/painting, etc.), and imaginative play.

Angela’s school 

Children do not learn how to read or write until first grade. Children continue learning to read through fourth grade, at which point they begin reading to learn. 

In the pre-k and kindergarten classrooms…

In terms of pre-literacy activities, teachers work to develop phonemic awareness. Children learn songs, verses, and finger games that incorporate rhyme and specific consonant/vowel sounds. Often sound patterns correspond to finger, hand, and whole body gestures that the children act out together. Children also listen to stories that include rich language and infrequent words. In other words, the language used to tell the stories is not simplified. Stories may focus on certain sounds to develop awareness of those sounds, but the main purpose of story telling is to allow the child to imagine the world in which the story takes place.  Children do not learn to read or write letters or words, nor do they use worksheets. 

However, the majority of the school hours are spent on activities that require movement, balance, physical awareness, and imaginative play. Children spend at least half the day outside running, climbing trees/jungle gyms, swinging, walking on balance beams, jumping rope, digging in the sand box, etc. Indoor play centers around building blocks, rocker boards, play kitchens and houses, drawing and painting, baking, etc. 


The above descriptions are just snapshots. They are intended to give a feel for what children in these classrooms are doing, not provide a daily schedule or detailed account of all the activities children do throughout the year. 

The questions I’d like to consider now are: What are we losing with early literacy? What are 3-5 year olds not doing with their time because of the focus on early literacy? Developmentally, is reading the most appropriate skill to be focusing on? 

The children in the school that includes (pre) literacy instruction spend a lot less time exploring their world through play and physical activity. Two to three hours of each school day is spent sitting still working on a cognitive skill, often in the form of a constrained task with pre-determined responses. That adds up to 10 -15 hours a week of unimaginative desk time… for 3-5 year olds. 

I haven’t dug into the research on child development during these ages, but I would say there is enough physical and cognitive growth taking place naturally that adding instruction is not necessary. In other words, plain old exposure to language through stories and songs, and opportunity for imaginative play provides a very rich and stimulating environment. Furthermore, because the natural world offers so much to a young child, taking time away from it in order to provide (pre) literacy instruction may actually inhibit a child’s cognitive and physical growth. 

To summarize, the question isn’t whether 3-5 year olds are capable of learning to read (many are), but rather whether learning to read is the best use of their time. I think we need to consider the possibility that early literacy is disadvantageous. Before we become too entrenched in an early literacy curriculum, we owe it to our children to ask and answer these questions.

In next week’s post I’ll write about what literacy curriculums in other countries look like and conclude this series.