Just as in kindergarten, preschool educators use a variety of programs and strategies to teach literacy skills. And the question of what is developmentally appropriate for young children is a key point of contention.

Many preschools use the Creative Curriculum, which emphasizes exposing students to language in its natural context but offers little in the way of explicit instruction, notes Terry Carter, a past principal of Barton Elementary who is now director of learning and organizational development for Academy for Urban School Leadership.

So when Carter came to Barton, he decided to strengthen the curriculum by adding some beginning phonics (plus math materials developed by the University of Chicago). But he still sought to maintain a delicate balance: keeping learning enjoyable and expectations appropriate. 
Adding literacy instruction “wasn’t about kill-and-drill or phonics,” Carter says. Instead, the goal is to help youngsters become familiar with literature.  “When you tell children a story, can they tell you what was going on? How do you hold a book? What is the spine of a book?”

The Ounce of Prevention Fund’s Educare early childhood center also aims to strike such a balance. In a classroom with 3- and 4-year-olds, two boys trace worksheets, learning to write their names.

“That’s something we start right when they come into the classroom,” says teacher Rena Johnson. “Even if they can’t, we provide hand-over-hand assistance.”

As students get older, they take part in activities that include writing sentences with sight words.

But even though parts of Educare’s reading instruction may be more structured than that of other preschools, the reading instruction that comes after preschool can be challenging to Educare children if it is “very rigid, very rote, very drill-like,” says Brenda Eiland-Williford, director of program and curriculum at Educare Center.

At Disney Magnet Elementary in Lakeview, Principal Kathleen Hagstrom is a proponent of direct instruction and says she believes that preschools should explicitly teach reading—a view that is controversial among her staff.

Disney provides direct instruction with preschoolers who are thought to be working at high levels, as well as with lower-performing kindergarteners who don’t read well enough to take part in the school’s basal program.

“You do it as a remedial approach, as a foundation to get the children’s language skills strong enough,” she says. “Are there some children that are 3 and 4 that are not ready? Absolutely, [but] there are more 4-year-olds you can teach to read, than not.”

Hagstrom would like to see a strong central mandate for more reading instruction in CPS preschools. “I think the preschools need to be more academic,” Hagstrom says. “We should be teaching reading in preschool. I don’t think we should just be doing early literacy.”

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