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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. 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 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 (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 of horizontal relevance. They found that preschool children not previously subjected to formal reading instruction are capable of grasping many aspects of reading, such as the names and sounds of letters, left-to-right / top-to-bottom arrangement of writing, use of punctuation marks, phonetic 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 (1964) found that children begin to understand letters and numbers between ages 4 and 5.

Children acquire horizontally relevant literacy concepts through firsthand 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 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 of eighteen 5- to 6-year-old children, Strommen and Mates (1997) found that only two children understood the concept that readers reconstruct text by using multiple strategies to interpret the language encoded by print.

Concern over the practice of pushing formal reading instruction downward into kindergarten led several organizations, including the International Reading Association (Strickland et al., 1977) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC & IRA, 1998), to issue a position statement challenging pre-1st grade reading instruction. According to 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 (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 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, 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. 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 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 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 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, with soft pillows, stuffed animals, 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 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 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 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 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 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. 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" (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.


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Elizabeth M. Nel is a preschool teacher and a mother of two young children, Nederland, Colorado.
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Author:Nel, Elizabeth M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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