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Academics, Literacy, and Young Children.

A Plea for a Middle Ground

The preschool of the '90s operates on the premise that early social and emotional experiences obtained through play are the seeds of human intelligence.

The case for early academics is probably one of the most controversial and sensitive topics in the field of early childhood education. Are young children ready for academic content, and can they benefit from it? Does early exposure to academics put children at risk for psychological damage? The notion of preschool academics generally conjures up images of developmentally inappropriate practices, such as formal instruction and rote learning rote learning
Learning or memorization by repetition, often without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in the material that is learned.
. As a result, the controversy often is couched in terms of free play vs. structured learning, giving the impression that unstructured play and academic learning are mutually exclusive Adj. 1. mutually exclusive - unable to be both true at the same time

incompatible - not compatible; "incompatible personalities"; "incompatible colors"
 experiences. Such an assumption neglects the scenario in which meaningful academic experiences are woven into a free-play setting. This article puts forth a plea for a middle ground, where opportunities for child-initiated literacy events are maximized in a free-play setting.

In the late 1980s, numerous articles and books warned about the dangers of including academics in preschool programs (Brophy, 1989; Elkind, 1986, 1987; Shepard & Smith, 1988). Given the lack of evidence that early academic instruction has lasting benefits, and the considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm (Elkind, 1987), many preschools and child care centers today do not incorporate academic concepts into their core curriculum. The preschool of the '90s operates on the premise that early social and emotional experiences obtained through play are the seeds of human intelligence (Hancock & Wingert, 1997).

The importance of play in the development of a healthy child has been well-documented (Bruce, 1996; Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1987; Rogers & Sawyer, 1988; Sutton-Smith, 1986; Zeece & Graul, 1990). Through play, children learn language, as well as social, physical, and problem-solving skills. Play acts as a means of reasserting children's sense of competence (Elkind, 1987), and thereby helps them to cope with complex emotions (Zeece & Graul, 1990). Through play, children learn initiative, autonomy, industry, and competence (Elkind, 1987), which are important prerequisites for later formal instruction. Research has shown that structured lessons are inappropriate for preschoolers (Elkind, 1986), and that young children learn best when they can choose their own activities (Miller, 1994).

Some experts (Greenberg, 1990; Schickedanz et al., 1990) believe that it is possible to allow children free play while also teaching them academic skills. Schickedanz et al. (1990) demonstrated that academic content need not be linked to formal instruction, and can indeed be conveyed in a flee-play setting. The association of the term "academics" with formal instruction can be found in both the popular and professional literature, where the majority of arguments against early academics equate it with high levels of teacher direction and an emphasis on isolated skill development. In his book on miseducation, David Elkind (1987) objects against early academics and links it directly with formal instruction:

Today it is not just the occasional preschool that is introducing academics to young children, it is the public school system as well (p. xi) ... Public education is increasingly guilty of putting children at risk for no purpose by exposing them to formal instruction before they are ready. (p. 9)

Similarly, Dancy danc·y also danc·ey  
adj. danc·i·er, danc·i·est Informal
Suitable for or inviting dancing; danceable: dancy music. 
 (1989) states that "the push toward early academics has been fueled by parents in their late thirties, who pushed their children toward early success with such programs as baby flash cards, classes and academic preschools" (p. 258).

Such discussions as these do not seem to make the very important distinction between academic content and academic teaching methods (Schickedanz et al., 1990). Schickedanz et al. (1990)believe that rather than keeping academic learning out of preschools, it should co-exist with informal teaching methods, whereby children have opportunities to initiate their own learning experiences.

Reasons for Academic Content in Preschools

Young Children Are Ready for Some Academic Concepts. Early literacy development falls largely under the learning goal of knowledge and skills acquisition, as opposed to social and emotional learning. It is important that the knowledge young children gain and the skills they acquire have more horizontal than vertical relevance (Katz & Chard, 1993). What children learn must be meaningful and applicable to the present (i.e., horizontally relevant), as opposed to preparation for situations that they may encounter in the future (i.e., vertically relevant).

Schickedanz et al. (1990) insist that young children are ready for academic concepts within the confines con·fine  
v. con·fined, con·fin·ing, con·fines
1. To keep within bounds; restrict: Please confine your remarks to the issues at hand. See Synonyms at limit.
 of horizontal relevance. They found that preschool children not previously subjected to formal reading instruction are capable of grasping grasping

a similar equine neurosis to windsucking; the horse grasps a fixed object with its teeth, but does not swallow air.
 many aspects of reading, such as the names and sounds of letters, left-to-right / top-to-bottom arrangement of writing, use of punctuation punctuation [Lat.,=point], the use of special signs in writing to clarify how words are used; the term also refers to the signs themselves. In every language, besides the sounds of the words that are strung together there are other features, such as tone, accent, and  marks, phonetic pho·net·ic
1. Of or relating to phonetics.

2. Representing the sounds of speech with a set of distinct symbols, each designating a single sound.
 segmentation of words, and recognition of certain sight words. Research shows that by age 3 the majority of children are able to distinguish writing from other forms of print, and they begin to understand how print is used (Kontos, 1986). Around age 4, children can identify environmental print and become interested in letter shapes and sounds. By age 5, many children are able to read some words out of context and are familiar with basic reading conventions (Kontos, 1986). Similarly, Maria Montessori Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952) was an Italian physician, educator, philosopher, humanitarian and devout Catholic; she is best known for her philosophy and method of education of children from birth to adolescence.  (1964) found that children begin to understand letters and numbers between ages 4 and 5.

Children acquire horizontally relevant literacy concepts through firsthand first·hand  
Received from the original source: firsthand information.

 experiences (Katz & Chard, 1993) in meaningful contexts. Formal reading instruction, on the other hand, has more vertical than horizontal relevance and is a good example of inappropriate preschool academics. Proponents of formal reading instruction, such as Doman (1963) and Ledson (1983), insist that children have the intellectual ability to read at very young ages. The fact that the brain of a young child has so many more synapses than the average adult brain (Begley, 1997) is often used as an argument for early academic learning (Beck, 1986). Research has shown, however, that in the majority of cases where children began to read early, the motivation to read lay more in an attempt to please the parents than in an intrinsic desire to read (Elkind, 1987). A child's gradual association of academic success with parental approval or love can lead to lifelong emotional disabilities. While many young children are intellectually capable of reading, the majority simply are not interested in the mechanics of reading until after age 5 or 6 (Elkind, 1987). Moreover, in spite of phonetic knowledge and decoding de·code  
tr.v. de·cod·ed, de·cod·ing, de·codes
1. To convert from code into plain text.

2. To convert from a scrambled electronic signal into an interpretable one.

 skills, many 5- to 6-year-old children may not yet have reached a clear understanding of the relationship between such skills and reading. In a three-year longitudinal study longitudinal study

a chronological study in epidemiology which attempts to establish a relationship between an antecedent cause and a subsequent effect. See also cohort study.
 of eighteen 5- to 6-year-old children, Strommen and Mates (1997) found that only two children understood the concept that readers reconstruct re·con·struct  
tr.v. re·con·struct·ed, re·con·struct·ing, re·con·structs
1. To construct again; rebuild.

 text by using multiple strategies to interpret the language encoded by print.

Concern over the practice of pushing formal reading instruction downward into kindergarten kindergarten [Ger.,=garden of children], system of preschool education. Friedrich Froebel designed (1837) the kindergarten to provide an educational situation less formal than that of the elementary school but one in which children's creative play instincts would be  led several organizations, including the International Reading Association (Strickland et al., 1977) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is the largest nonprofit association in the United States representing early childhood education teachers, experts, and advocates in center-based and family day care.  (NAEYC NAEYC National Association for the Education of Young Children (Washington, DC)  & IRA Ira, in the Bible
Ira (ī`rə), in the Bible.

1 Chief officer of David.


3 Two of David's guard.
IRA, abbreviation
, 1998), to issue a position statement challenging pre-1st grade reading instruction. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Elkind (1987), academic learning fueled by motivation other than the child's innate interests constitutes miseducation. It puts a child at risk for psychological damage (Werner & Strother, 1987); what is worse, it is apparently for no good reason, since the benefits of early reading instruction are relatively insignificant. Four years after the start of a longitudinal study comparing reading and non-reading preschoolers, Burns, Collins, and Paulsell (1991) found significant differences only in the spelling of dictated words and in the use of phonetic analysis to identify nonsense words.

No significant differences were found on tests measuring word identification or comprehension (Bums et al., 1991).

Therefore, with respect to literacy, developmentally appropriate preschool academics do not involve formal reading instruction, but rather they promote print awareness Print awareness refers to a child's understanding of the nature and uses of print. A child's print awareness is closely associated with his or her word awareness or the ability to recognize words as distinct elements of oral and written communication.  (Kontos, 1986) by exposing young children to letters, words, and numbers in meaningful contexts (Lesiak, 1997).

The Need for Early Adult Models. In order for a child to initiate a literacy event, whether it is asking an adult to write a name or counting the number of ducks on the page of a picture book, the child must have an existing awareness of, and interest in, letters and numbers. Since preschool children are unable to analyze print sufficiently to discover the alphabetic system on their own (Ehri, 1985), some form of guidance and modeling by adults is necessary. By modeling literacy skills, adults play a very important role in kindling kindling (kinˑ·dling),
n change in brain function wherein repeated chemical or electrical stimuli induce seizures.


1. parturition in the doe rabbit.
 children's interest in reading and writing (Katz & Chard, 1993).

Research shows that children's literacy acquisition is heavily influenced by adult modeling (Greaney, 1986). Schickedanz and Sullivan (1984) suggest a relationship between the number of literacy events that youngsters initiate and the amount of reading and writing that is modeled by adults. In other words Adv. 1. in other words - otherwise stated; "in other words, we are broke"
put differently
, the more a child sees letters and numbers being used, the more he or she participates in and initiates literacy events. In the absence of any modeling, adults often get the false impression that children have no natural interest in letters and numbers (Schickedanz et al., 1990).

Since not all children have equal access to literacy-related knowledge and modeling at home, it is important that plenty of such experiences be provided in preschool (Bredekamp, 1987; Greenberg, 1998; Schickedanz et al., 1990). By modeling reading and writing, adults familiarize children with the function of print, as well as with the shapes and sounds of letters and numbers. Letter-name knowledge advances visual differentiation skills and introduces the basic concept of phonics phonics

Method of reading instruction that breaks language down into its simplest components. Children learn the sounds of individual letters first, then the sounds of letters in combination and in simple words.
. Children who enter school without knowledge of the form or function of print are likely to have problems with organized reading instruction (Badian, 1995; Mason, 1985), and they may even have to be placed in remedial programs. Children who have few literacy experiences during the preschool years can be severely limited in attaining successively higher reading and writing levels (National Association for the Education of Young Children & International Reading Association, 1998).

Advantages of Free-Play Preschool Settings Over Structured School Settings. In a study of preschoolers and academics, Schickedanz et al. (1990) found important differences in the psychological characteristics of home-based literacy events (all the households were at a high socioeconomic level) and school-based literacy events. These differences suggest that the structured, goal-oriented nature of school is a less favorable fa·vor·a·ble  
1. Advantageous; helpful: favorable winds.

2. Encouraging; propitious: a favorable diagnosis.

 environment for conveying early academic concepts than the free-play setting of a home or preschool. Those researchers found a partnership quality to the child-adult relationship in the home, and found literacy events to be meaningful, child-initiated, and child-directed. In school, however, where teachers had specific purposes and outcomes in mind, learning was by definition teacher-directed and often out of context. Since tasks typically were assigned to large groups of children, a schoolteacher could not take the time to give each child individual attention. For these reasons, Schickedanz et al. (1990) recommend that home-like methods be employed in preschools to foster age-appropriate academic learning. Barclay, Benelli, and Curtis (1995) similarly believe that preschools are capable of developing and promoting literacy in ways like those found in the homes of early readers.

Methods of Promoting Literacy in Preschool Settings

Since children learn best through direct encounters with their environment and through exploration with all their senses in a combined, permeable permeable /per·me·a·ble/ (per´me-ah-b'l) not impassable; pervious; permitting passage of a substance.

That can be permeated or penetrated, especially by liquids or gases.
 manner (Elkind, 1987), adults should create opportunities for young children to take literacy learning beyond the level of passive observation. In the sections below, the adult's role is described in two broad categories, in each of which practical suggestions are provided for maximizing literacy learning. It is important to remember that while interest in written language does not come from the child without environmental prompts, neither is such interest developed from literacy activities specifically contrived con·trived  
Obviously planned or calculated; not spontaneous or natural; labored: a novel with a contrived ending.

 to elicit it (Schickedanz et al., 1990).

Provision of Materials. Adults indirectly provide opportunities for play and literacy learning by making a wide variety of materials available. The reading corner should be well-stocked, with an enticing variety, but not an overwhelming number, of books. A large, separate library will allow books to be frequently rotated. Books should be displayed on low shelves, with the covers (not the spines) facing outward. The reading corner should be cozy See COSE. , with soft pillows, stuffed animals
For preserved dead animals, see taxidermy.

A stuffed animal is toy animal stuffed with straw, beans, cotton or other similar materials. Some stuffed animals are very old – home made cloth dolls stuffed with straw go back to at least the
, low couches to cuddle on, and good lighting.

The art corner should be equally engaging. Brightly colored paper and a great variety of pencils, crayons, and markers encourage children to draw. Magazine pages with colorful print can be torn out and taped onto the table. The Montessori sandpaper sandpaper, abrasive originally made by gluing grains of sand to heavy paper sheets. Today sandpaper is made primarily with quartz, aluminum oxide, or silicon carbide grains, and is graded according to the size of the grains.  letter concept might interest some older children: On select days, certain letters of the alphabet are cut out of sandpaper, mounted on cardboard, and adhered to the table. Children who choose to trace over the letters will get a tactile tactile /tac·tile/ (tak´til) pertaining to touch.

1. Perceptible to the sense of touch; tangible.

2. Used for feeling.

 as well as a visual sense of the letter shape. A large photo illustrating the correct pencil grip may catch children's attention. Since youngsters love to mail objects, a cardboard mailbox A simulated mailbox in the computer that holds e-mail messages. Mailboxes are stored on disk as a file of messages, a database of messages or as an individual file for each message. The standard mailboxes are usually In, Out, Trash and Junk (Spam).  in close proximity to writing pads, envelopes, glue, and sticker stamps can encourage pretend letter writing.

Print awareness and writing behaviors can be further promoted through the availability of portable chalkboards, easels, dry-erase boards, magnetic boards, alphabet blocks, letter tiles, alphabet puzzles, and alphabet pocket charts (Barclay et al., 1995). A few colorful alphabet posters and numbers charts should adorn the walls. Important areas of the preschool environment can be labeled in bold, bright print and pointed out to children in passing. Such labels help children realize that print conveys information (Barclay et al., 1995). If a piano is available, the keys can be labeled with masking mask·ing
1. The concealment or the screening of one sensory process or sensation by another.

2. An opaque covering used to camouflage the metal parts of a prosthesis.
 tape. A tray with felt nametags can be placed at the preschool entrance so that children can search for their names and place them on a nearby felt board. Similarly, colorful nametags (of a safe, pinless variety) can be made.

Small STOP and GO signs can be placed in the sandpit and added to train sets and toy car collections. The playdough area often serves as a place where children engage in pretend cooking and baking. To complement such play, a simple recipe book with large numbers, words, and pictures can be made out of a spiral notebook with laminated laminated /lam·i·nat·ed/ (-nat?ed) having, composed of, or arranged in layers or laminae.


made up of laminae or thin layers.
 pages. A dial moving across large numbers printed on the face of a kitchen scale vividly illustrates the use of numbers. Bright numbers also can be printed on the dials of play stoves and ovens. Like the recipe book, a pretend telephone book placed next to an old, non-working phone in the home or dress-up corner can provide additional opportunities for sociodramatic play, for those times when children "dial" the numbers for the fire department, zoo, or ice cream store.

By incorporating print and numbers into as many aspects of routine daily activities as possible, children have ample time and opportunity to explore, in the setting of their choice, literacy concepts in personally meaningful ways. Materials that extend literacy learning beyond the traditional confines of the reading corner also should target those children more inclined towards other types of activities, such as outside play or sociodramatic play. Such preparations present children with literacy learning opportunities during the course of their own play, as opposed to participation in mandatory, adult-directed activities specifically contrived to teach literacy.

Modeling and Interaction With the Children. In addition to providing the materials, adults often need to make children aware of the availability of new toys, or to invite them to play. By joining in children's play, adults can subtly demonstrate the full potential of a particular toy. Modeling extends beyond simply demonstrating the use of literacy materials, however, to actually modeling literacy skills throughout the day.

Reading to children is one of the best ways to model literacy skills (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995). Reading should not be limited to a set storytime, but rather should be shared with children throughout the day. In addition to engendering a love of books, reading to children gives them a sense of what the reading process is all about, introduces them to the concept of written language, and familiarizes them with literacy conventions (Kontos, 1986). Before children can learn to read, they must learn why people read and what people do when they read (Kontos, 1986). While reading a story to a child, adults should run a finger along the words. This practice helps children differentiate the roles of print and pictures, and it also conveys the left-to-right and top-to-bottom convention of written English language English language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations. . It is beneficial to occasionally point out specific words of interest.

Writing behavior should be modeled as well. Young children occasionally need to see adults or older children handling pens or pencils in order to learn the appropriate grip. During discussions with children at circle time, adults can write words of interest on a white board, or they may ask for volunteers to help them "write" words. Similarly, adults can involve children in the process of writing their names on paintings, other artwork, or large sign-in sheets. Children's involvement should range from, at the very least, witnessing the writing and hearing the spelling and sounds of the letters, to writing their own names, or, if they are interested, being physically guided by the teacher. Assistance when the child is included--although not able to do very much has been called "scaffolding" (Ninio & Bruner, 1978) or the "zone of proximal development Lev Vygotsky's notion of zone of proximal development (зона ближайшего развития), often abbreviated ZPD " (Vygotsky, 1978). In this upper range of learning, children need adult assistance, but instead of completing the task in silence and isolation, the adult places the child in a position to participate at select points along the way.


Research demonstrates that academic learning need not be linked to formal instruction but can, instead, take place in a free-play setting. Within the confines of horizontal relevance, young children are both emotionally and intellectually ready for certain fundamental literacy concepts. Literacy learning can be integrated into a preschool curriculum in such a way that every child, regardless of interest or inclination, has an opportunity to initiate his or her own literacy experiences in both the absence and presence of adults. Literacy should be promoted with the understanding that while young children are capable of great intellectual feats, the adult's role should not be one of instruction, but rather one of modeling behavior, optimizing children's play, and enriching the environment so that young children can learn simply because they want to.


Badian, N. (1995). Predicting reading ability over the long term: The changing roles of letter naming, phonological awareness Phonological awareness is the conscious sensitivity to the sound structure of language. It includes the ability to auditorily distinguish parts of speech, such as syllables and phonemes.  and orthographic or·tho·graph·ic   also or·tho·graph·i·cal
1. Of or relating to orthography.

2. Spelled correctly.

3. Mathematics Having perpendicular lines.
 processing. Annals an·nals  
1. A chronological record of the events of successive years.

2. A descriptive account or record; a history: "the short and simple annals of the poor" 
 of Dyslexia dyslexia (dĭslĕk`sēə), in psychology, a developmental disability in reading or spelling, generally becoming evident in early schooling. To a dyslexic, letters and words may appear reversed, e.g. , 45, 79-96.

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New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
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Child naturally endowed with a high degree of general mental ability or extraordinary ability in a specific domain. Although the designation of giftedness is largely a matter of administrative convenience, the best indications of giftedness are often those
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Being or occurring between generations: "These social-insurance programs are intergenerational and all
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Dancy, R. B. (1989). You are your child's first teacher. Berkeley, CA: Celestial ce·les·tial  
1. Of or relating to the sky or the heavens: Planets are celestial bodies.

2. Of or relating to heaven; divine: celestial beings.


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1. coming out from a cavity or other part.

2. pertaining to an emergency.


1. coming out from a cavity or other part.

2. coming on suddenly.
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Act or process of knowing. Cognition includes every mental process that may be described as an experience of knowing (including perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning), as distinguished from an experience of feeling or of willing.
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A method of educating young children that stresses development of a child's own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play.

[After Maria Montessori.]
 (2nd ed.). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Stokes , William 1804-1878.

British physician. Known especially for his studies of diseases of the chest and heart, he expanded on the observations of John Cheyne in describing the breathing irregularity now known as Cheyne-Stokes respiration.

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The subjects, including reading, spelling, and composition, aimed at developing reading and writing skills, usually taught in elementary and secondary school.
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(Chinese; “sage” or “saint”)

In Chinese belief, a mortal who attains extraordinary or supernatural powers by self-cultivation and serves as a model for others. Confucius used the term to refer to exemplary rulers of the past.
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Tending to hinder rather than serve one's purpose: "Violation of the court order would be counterproductive" Philip H. Lee.
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Elizabeth M. Nel is a preschool teacher A Preschool Teacher is a type of early childhood educator who instructs children from infancy to age 5, which stands as the youngest stretch of early childhood education. Early Childhood Education teachers need to span the continum of children from birth to age 8.  and a mother of two young children, Nederland, Colorado | latitude = 39°57'43" N | longitude = 105°30'38 W Nederland is a scenic mountain town in Boulder County, Colorado, United States. According to 2006 Census Bureau estimates, the population of the city is 1,337. .
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Author:Nel, Elizabeth M.
Publication:Childhood Education
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Date:Mar 22, 2000
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Future early childhood teachers as EFL learners.
Portraits of Picture Power: American and Chinese children explore literacy through the visual arts.

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