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“But when will you teach them to read?”


This is my 35th year with preschool children, so I often find myself reflecting on my teaching, trying to align my experience with my formal education. My time in the classroom combined with my education has completely converted me to play-based instruction in early childhood education. May I explain why by sharing with you just one day out of my 35 years?


It’s center time at Orem Elementary preschool—a time when 4-year-olds are given nearly a full hour to choose from a variety of well-planned, developmentally appropriate activities based on goals and objectives from the national core curriculum for preschoolers. Though the untrained eye might have looked around on this day (or any other) and watched children playing, I couldn’t help but observe the well-facilitated play with pride.

Although each center focused on a different academic discipline (such as math, science, motor development, or writing), I noticed how each center contributed to a reading foundation that was completely spontaneous, yet intentional. It caused me to reflect on the most-asked question of my career thus far: “But when will you teach my child to read?” On this day, the answer to that question became clearer than ever before. When do I teach reading? Almost every moment, of every day, all year long! Here’s how.



Writing center
On this day, (Dec. 13th) Ms. Lynzie waited at the writing center for children to join her. Most were intrigued by other activities throughout the room, but she patiently waited, interacting purposefully with children as they came near. They saw her with brightly colored pictures next to holiday words, printed colorfully and large on word strips. The words themselves were not so inviting, but the pictures were irresistible!

Children immediately joined her in conversation about the illustrations, which she carefully participated in, but without directing focus to the written words. The conversation led from “This could be Santa’s house” to a child saying, “Look, here’s an /S/ word. Is it Santa?” “I think it is!” Ms. Lynzie enthusiastically replied. And the fire was lit!

Children quickly began looking for words that matched pictures. They then asked to draw their own pictures, which led to writing their own words, which led to phonetic sound spelling and other pre-reading skills.

I thought of how easily the children’s interest could have been diluted, if not completely lost, had Ms. Lynzie turned her activity into skill-and-drill or flashcard instruction. Because she carefully waited for children to initiate their own learning, several 4-year-olds were gathered around her for nearly 30 minutes, participating in literacy goals and objectives in their most natural mode of learning—their play.


Sensory/science center
My attention was also drawn that day to the sensory tub that had been filled with snow. The children had made snow blocks with cups and were pouring hot water on them. Seeing the formations dissolve away, they discovered how quickly hot water became cold again as it mixed with the snow. The intent was to enjoy science concepts, but a child quickly said, “Snow starts with /S/—you know, kind of like Santa.” (This child had just left Ms. Lynzie’s center, and was obviously applying new-found knowledge to the sensory/science center.)

“Yes,” I replied. “Exactly like Santa!”

“And like Susan,” another child chimed.

For the next seven minutes, a game of /S/ words continued as we played in the snow, building, watering, and melting our formations. Though many of the words became nonsense words, the phonemic recognition the children were displaying could not be ignored. Some even initiated rhyming words. When will I teach reading? How about when we’re playing in the snow!


Library center
Of course the library center is available every day for children, but without an adult available to read and interact in the library, the children often overlook it. Ms. Lilly welcomed children onto her lap, reading books by request one-on-one, or to small groups throughout the hour.

I overheard conversations about authors and illustrators, watched children enthusiastically point out the details in Jan Brett illustrations, proudly announcing, “I found a detail” over and over again. More important, Ms. Lilly patiently read the same book over and over to one child who by the end of centers proudly announced that he could now read the book on his own. It was amazing how accurately he recalled the story by paying close attention to the visual prompts on each page, an important skill in reading acquisition.

I recalled Jim Trelease’s words from his best seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook. Recognized as a leading expert in teaching literacy, Trelease said, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading, is reading aloud to children.” Yes, more important, says Trelease, than worksheets, assessments, flash cards, homework, or book reports. Simply reading to children every day—every day—is the most powerful tool of reading instruction we have.


Motor/creative activity
Less obvious than the library center, but still just as powerful in reading instruction, was the experience Ms. Ari gave children with The Nutcracker. Extending beyond the book with a motor activity combined with creative arts, she gave a shortened version of Clara’s experience with the nutcracker.

Ms. Ari exposed the children to new vocabulary and the world of ballet by trying on real pointe shoes and sharing a short clip of dancers, pointing out the dramatic changes in music and discussing and acting out the role of the orchestra and the conductor. The children were entranced. They were part of the literature.

The children began taking on roles, using the new words Ms. Ari had introduced, recalling the story line, and best of all, begging to “Do it again, please!” A story that some may view to be above preschool level was suddenly part of their world.

When do I teach a love of reading? When Ms. Ari is lifting children off the ground, twirling them in ballet position, establishing a reading foundation that could never be replaced by repeating “Ah Ah apple, Ba Ba ball….. Z Z zebra” every day, an activity that not only confuses preschoolers with abstracts but also takes away valuable time that could be used instead to inspire a love of literacy.


Other centers
Similar reading foundations were everywhere in the room on this day, including the dramatic play center and the art table. Not even the blocks were exempt as children made plans together for their bridge, discussing how to stabilize it—a carefully selected word used by a teacher in the block center earlier in the week. Yes, even in blocks, literacy skills abounded, evident in new vocabulary, printed labels for block creations that became instant sight words, and story dictations about what the children were building.


Play integrates all academic disciplines
Some accuse those of us who promote play-based learning as neglectors of academics. For me, a commitment to play-based learning is my commitment to academics. In the above scenarios I have reflected reading skills, simply because year after year it is a question I can count on.

But, as I evaluate at the end of each day with my co-teachers, I can draw the same conclusions about other academic areas as well. Integrating academic disciplines into well-facilitated play centers makes each and every play center a place to learn not only pre-reading skills, but also math, writing, language, science, social, emotional, and physical skills as well.

While the center may be designed around a single focus (such as the snow activity in the sensory/science center), a professional teacher, through play-based instruction, can integrate all learning disciplines into a center. This type of instruction is based on how children learn, rather than what they learn. And once we master the how (play-based instruction), the what’s are endless.


About the author
Anita Spainhower, M.A., has been active in early care and education for more than 35 years. She is an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and lead teacher in the University Laboratory Preschool at Orem Elementary. She has worked in private child care programs, Head Start, and corporate child care and has been a frequent contributor to Texas Child Care Quarterly.