A recent article in a prestigious educational journal reports that shifts in policy and practice have resulted in an increasing emphasis on academic learning in the early grades.  Indeed, the authors argue that kindergarten is the new first grade: Students entering first grade are now expected to know what students leaving first grade were expected to know just a decade ago.

 Not surprisingly, this emphasis on academics has filtered down to preschool...

If kindergarten is the new first grade, then preschool is the new kindergarten. Preschool teachers feel a pressure to prepare their children for an academically-focused kindergarten, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds and lack the literacy skills that children from higher-income backgrounds generally possess. Lessons like this are becoming more common:

Ms. A is teaching vocabulary to her four-year-olds, all from low-income backgrounds. First she reads “Clifford Takes a Trip” (a book by Norman Bridwell about Clifford, the big red dog). She emphasizes the words “trip” and “vacation” whenever she gets to them. Then she prints the two words on a piece of newsprint paper and defines them. She has the children repeat the definitions. Ms. A points out that trip begins with a “t” and vacation begins with a “v,” and she has the children say the words, stressing those beginning sounds. Finally, they talk about any trips they’ve taken or would like to take during vacations.

This kind of teacher-centered vocabulary instruction might seem especially valuable for children who are going to attend academically focused kindergartens. But research has shown that it is actually less effective than a child-centered approach emphasizing hands-on, participatory activities. Particularly effective is a practice known as “scaffolded play,” in which the teacher guides and prompts children to learn skills and concepts more deeply. For example, children learning the words “trip” and “vacation” might be given pretend plane tickets, use clothes in the dramatic play area to dress up, and play-act going on a trip. The teacher would “play” alongside, encouraging children to use the two vocabulary words in conversation. 

Given the push for kindergarten readiness, it might seem as though such an activity is a waste of precious time. Yet this kind of developmentally appropriate play is likely to help children acquire the target vocabulary in a way that is both meaningful and lasting.  Supporters of Strong Start Tucson—and high-quality preschool—must understand the importance of child-centered pedagogy.        

Carol Weinstein
Emerita Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Education
Rutgers Graduate School of Education


Reference:  D’Agostino, J. V. & Rodgers, E. (2017). Literacy achievement trends at entry to first grade.  Educational Researcher, 46(2), 78-89.