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Misconceptions About Appropriate Literacy Instruction for Young Children

By Katharine Pace Miles
 | Nov 05, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-78403805_x600I strongly support the claim that children learn best through play. However, as a reading scientist who studies how beginners learn to read, I feel compelled to clarify a few misconceptions about the forms of literacy instruction appropriate during the early childhood years (birth to age 8). The supposition that teachers should not provide literacy instruction to young children is troubling and dangerous, and suggesting that all children will acquire sufficient literacy skills through play alone is misguided.

These claims stem from a misunderstanding of literacy instruction as didactic, teacher-centered instruction. However, literacy instruction and didactic instruction are not synonymous. Although both involve teacher lesson planning, literacy instruction can assume several forms ranging on a continuum from a play-based approach to a direct, teacher-led approach, whereas didactic instruction is more narrowly defined as teacher-centered with students as passive learners. There is a tremendous amount of nuance along the continuum from play-based to teacher-led literacy learning that should be acknowledged, and it should be obvious that didactic instruction is to be avoided.

Teachers may choose to use a more direct, teacher-led approach to teach literacy skills. In the literacy research field, we call this providing explicit and systematic instruction in research-based approaches, and at a certain age this is exactly what some children need to crack the code, that is, to learn how letters represent sounds and how to use this knowledge to read and spell words. This form of instruction involves active student participation and a variety of highly engaging materials (think kindergartner with a wipey board and magnetic letters or shaving cream!). This is a far cry from the conventional view of didactic instruction where a teacher stands at a blackboard with a pointer, or students are mindlessly drilled with worksheets.

Effective literacy instruction for beginners is necessarily teacher centered because the teacher needs to facilitate and scaffold learning on the basis of her knowledge of the skills students need to acquire. This instruction is anything but passive on the student’s end. This form of instruction can be done in small groups or one-on-one. In fact, for children who haven’t developed specific literacy skills by a certain age, it is malpractice not to teach concepts to them directly and give them repeated practice, in a developmentally appropriate and engaging way. Student-centered, discovery learning has its place, but so does direct and explicit instruction, when done properly.

Teachers may choose to teach literacy skills through a play-based, child-centered/teacher-facilitated, exploration mode. This is obviously the most developmentally appropriate way to teach literacy skills to young children. The misconception here is that students are “just” playing. Instead, it should be clear that they are playing in a language- and print-rich environment with teachers interacting with the students and facilitating in-the-moment learning opportunities. Highly skilled teachers who have a strong understanding of the development of literacy skill acquisition intentionally manipulate the environment and scaffold activities and materials to systematically expose children to early literacy concepts. Skills are strategically embedded into play-based activities, which facilitate learning.
High-quality teachers are smart and savvy facilitators of the environment, and they use their creativity to embed early literacy learning and skills into daily activities. This makes effective play-based literacy instruction difficult to do well, but when done so, it results in powerful learning experiences for children. Simply sending kids off to play will not, on its own, culminate in students’ acquiring literacy skills necessary for future success in reading.

Both forms of instruction on the ends of the continuum, explicit and play-based, require highly skilled teachers who have a strong understanding of the development of literacy skills informed by scientific discoveries, which allows them to systematically scaffold instruction. Both forms of instruction also require the use of highly engaging materials. Furthermore, good teachers know when and how to use both forms of instruction depending on the student and the concept. They assess student learning and adjust their instructional approaches on the basis of who is successfully acquiring the skills through a play-based, student-centered model, and who needs to learn the concept in a more direct and explicit manner.

Reading science research has demonstrated that certain skills are imperative for young children to learn in the very early years of life. Specifically, students with stronger letter knowledge and phonemic awareness at school entry have been shown to make greater progress in learning how to read, and experimental studies have demonstrated that when young children are taught these skills they make more progress in learning to read than children who do not receive systematic and explicit instruction in these skills.

In the early years, these skills can be systematically embedded into play-based, child-centered activities. However, early childhood teachers need to be vigilant for children who haven’t acquired these skills at specific developmental time points. These children then need the instruction provided in an explicit way to ensure that they do not fall behind benchmarks in their literacy skill development.

The danger of equating the concepts of direct and explicit instruction with didactic instruction, and thus assuming that didactic instruction should be avoided, has damning implications for students from lower socioeconomic status communities and English learners who are often deficient in these skills. In essence, by adopting a play-only viewpoint, any form of direct and explicit literacy instruction is avoided, and subsequently, the code is held hostage for our most needy children at critical times in their development.

Katharine Pace Miles is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Brooklyn College in New York.

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