Teachers across Virginia have spent a lot of time in August and September conducting assessments to get a “read” on where their students need more literacy support (pun intended!). In PreK classrooms that usually means PALS – or the Phonological Awareness Screening- PreK.
How much do you know about what the PALS-Pre-K assesses? For that matter, how much do you know about very early literacy skills? Many of the administrators we talk to say they didn’t get a lot of training in what early literacy development looks like – or how teachers can best support those skills.
So let’s talk a bit about Early Literacy.
As you get your PALS-PreK results, your inclination may be to look for the gaps in literacy skills measured by PALS-PreK and have teachers respond by doing more rhymes, more flashcards, letter of the day, or any number of activities…
But what does the latest research say about early literacy? Read each statement below and take a moment to say whether you think its FACT or FICTION. Then play the video and you’ll get the answer from national experts in early literacy.
#1 Preschoolers should be taught to read.
FACT or FICTION?
#2 Language and literacy skills, like vocabulary and print knowledge, lay a foundation for later reading.
FACT or FICTION?
#3 It’s not developmentally appropriate to explicitly teach early literacy skills to preschoolers.
FACT OR FICTION?
Dr. Sonia Cabell talks about how interested young children are in books, words, and letters. They see text around them every day and get really excited about starting to “unlock” the code. But she also points out that literacy instruction for young children needs to remain playful. We shouldn’t be using worksheets or flashcards in the preschool classroom. Below are some great ways to be both explicit and playful in teaching early literacy:
Daily interactive book reading in which the teacher explicitly draws children’s attention to: print, letters, sounds (beginning sounds, syllables, rhyming), or the meaning of text. (Caution: mixing all these skills at once isn’t recommended– intentionally focus on 1 literacy goal at a time!)
This video (4:34) is an example of a PreK book reading that focuses primarily on the meaning of text, with an opening activity that incorporates sounds (rhyming, syllables):
Children engaged with teachers and peers in print-rich learning centers (think: menus in a restaurant center, content-rich books in science center, calendar in home center, varied writing materials in a writing center). What’s key here is that teachers facilitate literacy learning in a playful and explicit manner with children by using the materials, having discussions about print, etc.! Just having the materials available isn’t enough – teachers need to take an active role.
Remember: Meaningful activities (as described above and expanded in the PALS resources below) are much preferred to rote or de-contextualized activities like worksheets, flashcards, or letter-of-the-day.
So, what can I do?
As our experts highlighted, PreK is not about “teaching children to read” but instead intentionally fostering children’s engagement in literacy through a variety of book reading, early writing, and language experiences, to help them develop skills that pave the way for later reading success.
When you review PALS-PreK data with teachers, consider what we learned about the instructional practices that help 4-year-olds learn best.
Consider recommending activities that are explicit, playful, and meaningful, across the day (during book reading, learning centers, and routines) and avoid more rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards, or letter-of-the-day).
The PALS office has great resources for administrators and teachers seeking effective literacy activities for PreK, including these two:
As the new school year begins, you are probably consumed with so many tasks as an administrator—planning PD, meetings (so many!), and getting to know your new teachers, children, and families! Here are a few practical suggestions for making the most of the time you have in your PreK classrooms this fall.
What should you expect to see in your PreK classrooms at the beginning of the year?
Let’s not forget that for many preschoolers, this is their very first time in a structured classroom setting. So don’t expect to walk in and see all the children focused and sitting quietly from day one. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, young children learn best when actively engaged. And for this to happen, teachers need to work hard at building a foundation of relationships and expectations that enable children to make the most of learning opportunities.
So what does this look like? Here are 3 things you should look for in your PreK classrooms this month.
#1 Teachers building positive relationships with children and families.
How do children who are separating from family (for the first time) feel safe, trust a new teacher, and ultimately take learning risks in a new, challenging environment? It all starts with relationships.
Building relationships sounds simple, but what does that look like for teachers of young children?
Make individual connections through conversations with each child and their family. Learn what’s unique about each child. What are their interests? Who lives with them? In what ways do they seek and need support? Using this information to individualize learning activities ensures that all children feel valued and experience success from the start.
Build on strengthsthrough encouragement and specific affirmation. This brings children a sense of acceptance when they may be questioning, “Does this teacher like me?” and “am I good enough?” Always remember: Every child has strengths. It is easy to focus on what a child cannot do (yet), but we must begin with finding and building upon what they can do already do to help the child move forward in a positive way. This is never more important than the first 2 weeks of school when children have so much to learn. Focus on reinforcing efforts and the process of learning.
Become aware of children’s unique emotional needs. A young child’s first days in school often involve confusion, worry, and insecurity. When we closely observe children’s signals, we can notice and assist the child who is anxious about separation, the child who is voraciously hungry or overtired, the child who is running from the cafeteria because the sounds are overstimulating to him. We cannot jump in and begin teaching until that child has received an empathic response from us.
#2 Teachers creating a classroom community of learners.
Teachers shouldn’t be the only support person for a child—peers are important (yet often untapped) resources. Teachers have the wonderful opportunity to build a classroom community of learners who support each other’s learning and development. Teachers who take the time to teach and reinforce these skills from the start will likely save time responding to conflicts and challenging behaviors in the classroom.
What might this look like?
Establish routines, songs, and activities that help children get to know one another in whole group (morning meeting) times.
When children ask for help, get peers involved.For instance, “Maria needs help with her shoes. Does anyone else know how to tie shoes that can help Maria?” or “Justin needs to find the scissors—who can help him?” Tip: organize your materials on low shelves with pictures to allow children to help each other (and themselves) independently.
Explicitly teach children social skills, like how to make polite requests (“May I borrow that, please?”), how to join play (“Can I play with you?”), and how to give compliments (“I like how you shared with me”). Teachers should make a habit of reinforcing these and other friendly behaviors (e.g., sharing a toy, solving a social problem, helping a friend who is sad).
#3 Teachers teaching children expectations.
Entering a new classroom involves so many new transitions, routines, activities – each with different behavior expectations (and often different expectations from home)! It’s understandable that children need lots of guidance to learn what to expect and what’s expected of them across the daily schedule.
What might this look like?
Teach children expected behaviors by creating, posting, and practicing 3-5 positively stated classroom rules. Then, teachers reinforce children with specific praise when they follow rules. This positive guidance works a lot better than correcting behaviors with “no, stop, don’t”!
Teach children how to use materials appropriately. Gradually show children all the materials in the classroom that they will be able to use in learning centers. This takes time and patience on the part of the teacher.
Show and tell children what to expect before it happens using a daily visual schedule. Visual schedules that are displayed and referenced throughout the day serve as important reminders to all learners (and are an absolute necessity for children with special needs and dual language learners!)
What can I do?
Keep in mind that the new PreK students in your building are looking to teachers for comfort, a sense of belonging, and positive direction in this critical first month of school. Teachers who implement the 3 practices above can meet young children’s needs and start the year on a positive note!
Communicate the importance of these practices through check-in conversations with teachers during the first month of school.
For teachers who want to know more about these practices, share some helpful resources below.
In this month’s blog, we’re learning more about Instructionally Supportive Interactions, which we introduced in our first blog on Rigor in PreK. We think this topic deserves its own blog given how critically important these interactions are—and how much room we have to grow.
Let’s first review 3 take-aways from research about the importance of improving Instructionally Supportive Interactions
#1 Children learn more in classrooms when teachers provide more instructionally supportive interactions. And these same interactions are important regardless of content being taught (math, language, literacy or social-emotional). In essence, the quality of interactions denotes how well curricula are delivered by teachers in a way that supports children’s thinking and learning.
#2 Learners of all ages benefit from Instructionally Supportive Interactions. Hence the “beyond” in this month’s title! Whether PreK, K-5, or secondary, teachers engaging in instructionally supportive interactions have students that learn more.
#3 You may recall from an earlier post that most PreK-5 settings researched have relatively low levels of Instructionally Supportive Interactions (see pic below). And very few children have access to effective instruction for multiple years.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re boiling down a complex ‘recipe’ for Instructionally Supportive Interactions into 3 key ‘ingredients.’
3 Key Ingredients for Instructionally Supportive Interactions—for PreK and beyond
#1 Get children thinking deeply, by:
Asking thought provoking questions:open-ended versus closed-ended questions (which can be answered “yes” or “no” or by a single word) and “how,” “why” or “what makes you think…” types of questions as opposed to recall-type questions with one right answer (e.g., What color is this?, What is that thing called?).
Helping children make connections between new information and things they already know and understand. Teachers need to make efforts to understand what children already know about a topic before they just give lots of information. And for preschoolers it is so important to make connections to their real lives – most 4-year-olds are interested in things they can see, touch, and interact with.
Supporting children in developing their own ideas. Activities that prompt children to generate their own ideas and products develop their thinking skills (e.g., reasoning and executive function). Get them to brainstorm and predict what will happen!
As you watch this video (2:31), notice how the teacher asks thought-provoking questions, connects learning, and provides opportunities for children to predict.
This teacher got the children thinking deeply using thought-provoking questions (“What do you think the ‘thumbs up’ might mean?”), connecting a new idea to previous learning (“We’ve been talking about our 5 senses…”), and asking children to make predictions (“Can anybody guess what’s inside here?”).
#2 Teachers should promote extended serve-and-return interactions
Getting children to think deeply is just the first step. It’s the resulting back- and- forth exchanges between teachers and children that really matter. Such exchanges are sometimes called “serve and return interactions.” Think of classroom interactions like a tennis match. If you see a teacher “serve” a question, a child’s response is the “return.” Likewise, if a child “serves” a statement to the teacher, the teacher may “return” with a follow-up statement or question. Children’s “serves” may be obvious, like a question, but can also include more subtle cues, like a confused look. Note that even high-quality “serves” aren’t always returned — a teacher might ask a great question, but if the child doesn’t respond, there’s no return—and that’s a missed opportunity for interaction.
#3 Teachers should “return” children’s serves with timely and effective feedback
Learners need many opportunities to practice a skill or gain new knowledge with immediate teacher feedback. Effectivefeedback involves serve and return interactions that lead to children having deeper/clearer understanding of concepts. Teachers need keen observation skills, flexibility, and persistence to provide effective feedback. Children won’t necessarily ask for feedback – teachers have to “read” their cues in real time and provide just the right scaffolding to aid in learning (including hints, follow-up questions, asking children to explain their thought process, giving more information, and encouraging effort.)
Take a look at this brief video (1:16) and see if you notice two children’s “serves” and how the teacher “returns” them with effective feedback.
The children in this video made several “serves” (e.g., “What’s a shuttle?” and “What if you let goed of it and we blowed on it?”) and the teacher consistently “returned” these serves withfeedback by encouraging effort (“that’s a good question, should we try it?”) and giving information (“a shuttle is a spaceship,” “it still fell down because we have so much gravity …”). You also may have noticed aspects of Key Ingredient #1: Getting Children Thinking—asking thought-provoking questions and giving children opportunities to predict.
What can I do?
1. Observe for Instructionally Supportive Interactions in your next classroom visits (PreK and beyond). As you observe, remember that it’s more than just the frequency of teacher strategies (like questioning), but the quality of serve-and-return interactions that matter. For instance, how frequently is the teacher asking open-ended, higher-order questions that result in child talk? How does the teacher then give feedback that leads to back-and-forth discussions? Videotaping in classrooms can allow you (and the teacher) to reflect on the nature/quality of interactions.
2. Use PD resources to support quality Instructionally Supportive Interactions with teachers (PreK and beyond). Here are three 15-minute Inservice Suites with videos, presentations, and resources. You will find resources for administrators & teachers, including observation tools, under the heading “Supporting Materials.”
In the last post we introduced 3 features of rigorous PreK instruction: (1) children are actively engaged, (2) learning is contextualized, and (3) teachers have instructionally supportive interactions.
In this post, we’ll dive deeper into Feature #1: Active Engagement.
Take a look at this video clip (1:40) of children showing active engagement through movement in whole group:
Common Misconception: Young children should quietly rotate through pre-assigned centers at a brisk pace.
Reality: Children get the most out of centers when they are using materials and having rich interactions with teachers and peers. More complex active engagement can be demonstrated by children creatively using materials, coordinating play with peers, or persistently problem-solving. A classroom of young children engaged in learning centers may sound “loud,” but if the noise comes from on-task talk with teachers and peers, we’d say this is a good sign!
Take a look at this video clip (0:53) of children actively engaged with materials, the teacher, and each other in a math center:
Common Misconception: Transitions are most effective if children are silently walking in line, hands to themselves as directed by the teacher.
Reality: Learning time is maximized when transitions intentionally incorporate opportunities for children to engage in embedded activities. Actively engaged children will not just follow directions — they will be doing something related to learning objectives, like moving and/or talking on-topic as they transition.
Use resources to support improvement in 1 area of need. Below are 3 scenarios of child engagement challenges with suggested resources. Do any fit your observations and analyses of engagement patterns?
If children have low active engagement in…
Whole or small group: consider helping the teacher plan shorter activities (under 15-20 minutes) and increase opportunities for children to move, talk, and manipulate materials. This Inservice suite on Giving Children Responsibilities provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources that may be useful.
Learning centers:consider helping the teacher assess changes to materials. This Inservice suite on Materials to Support Learning provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources to help teachers select and provide children access to interesting materials.
Transitions: consider helping the teacher plan how to embed learning opportunities. Many curricula offer specific strategies; for example, Creative Curriculum offers a 10-minute YouTube video on making the most of transitions. Also consider revising your school/center’s policies/schedules to minimize the number of transitions, especially ‘silent’ ones. For example, some VPI+ school administrators have reduced time children spend in hallways by making changes such as serving lunch and holding “specials” in the classrooms.
A deeper dive into Rigorous Instruction Part III: Contextualized learning.
Rigorous instruction, in PreK and beyond, supports children to reach learning targets and expands their cognitive capabilities. Rigorous PreK helps close achievement gaps—as we discussed in our first blog.
So, what does rigorous instruction in PreK look like?
Let’s Take a Look
First, let’s start by comparing two brief video clips of PreK instruction.
Both teachers are focused on math measurement, specifically estimating/measuring volume. This learning objective is aligned to the Virginia Learning Standards for Grade Three Measurement 3.9: “The student will estimate and use U.S. Customary and metric units to measure…liquid volume in cups, pints, quarts, gallons and liters”. But you’ll see that how they teach this content to 4-year-olds is quite different across the two clips.
As you watch, ask yourself, which clip shows more rigorous instruction?
Clip A (1:09) :
Clip B (1:30):
Now keep in mind what you saw in these two clips as we walk through some key features of rigorous PreK instruction.
3 Key Features of Rigorous PreK
#1 No matter how good a lesson looks on paper, children must be actively engaged to benefit!
Four-year-olds need frequent opportunities to move, interact with others, and touch interesting materials.
You may have noticed that in Clip A, materials were available, but not accessible – children weren’t having hands-on learning experiences. [Note: Maybe the teacher was about to do that, we just didn’t see it in the clip.]
In Clip B, children were manipulating the materials, freely talking to each other and the teacher. Engagement was consistently high during this play-based instruction.
Oops, we said PLAY! Is that a bad word?
The teacher in Clip B facilitated the play (that children were clearly enjoying) and turned it into a teachable moment. Why is that important?
We need to keep in mind that young children have limited capacity to stay still and listen passively. Have you ever observed a teacher begin a lesson on a high note, but then lose children’s engagement as the lesson goes on (past 10, 15, 20, minutes)? Maybe you see children getting restless, off-task, disruptive?
Children need to understand teachers’ learning targets in their own terms. Then they need active engagement with hands-on materials and real-life experiences to fully comprehend and remember the content.
As we saw in Clip B, the children are primed to understand volume as the teacher connected this learning objective to their play at the sand table. The teacher facilitated their learning by relating it to their actions (filling up the buckets and comparing which is “bigger”).
Whether teaching happens in large or small groups, learning centers, transitions, or routines, children should be learning in the context of real-life experiences.
Worksheets or flash cards won’t cut it.
How will you know when it’s working? Children will be talking and making connections to their lives. Again, there’s that active engagement.
#3 Instructionally supportive interactions are necessary to build children’s thinking, skills, and knowledge.
A smarter approach is to focus on effective instructional interactions, which provide children rich opportunities to think deeply, answer challenging questions, receive feedback on their learning, and develop their growing language skills.
We saw this happen through questioning and discussions facilitated by the teacher in Clip B. She asks children a series of thought-provoking questions, including “how do you know it’s bigger?” They respond and a back-and-forth dialogue ensues. We can see children using their math thinking and language skills.
The bad news: Most PreK classrooms—even K-5 classrooms— studied around the nation have low levels of quality instructional interactions.
The implications: We have some real work to do to improve instructionally supportive interactions.
So which clip above demonstrates more rigorous instruction?
Clip A looks good in some ways: the teacher clearly focuses children on learning objectives. The materials (water, buckets) are interesting and children are outdoors—not sitting inside doing worksheets. (This teacher clearly put effort into planning this activity!) The teacher even asks children prediction questions—like: “How many do you think will fit?” However, we see limited child engagement and lacking evidence that children are gaining a deeper understanding of what “volume” means.
Clip Bhits all 3 features of rigor:#1 Active Engagement, #2 Connection to real life, and #3 Instructionally supportive interactions. Because of this, we’d predict that students in Clip B would remember more and have a deeper understanding about volume (with regular teacher-student interactions like this across the day.) Think about how powerful these moments are for children’s school readiness!
What can I (as an administrator) do to support rigorous instruction?
Action Step #1: Challenge assumptions
Like ‘learning happens best in large group’ or ‘play isn’t REAL learning.’
Maybe this is a philosophy in your schools for older children in later grades, but encourage your team to look at what’s working for your 4- to 8-year-olds.
Action Step #3: Create shared PD experiences so everyone works to improve academic rigor together
Talk with your preschool team — better yet, your PreK-5 vertical teams—to explore options for shared PD that gets at ‘academic rigor’ in developmentally appropriate ways (as explored above).
Know that there are great free resources available, like the Head Start 15-minute In-service Suites, which break apart effective teacher-child interactions and environments into practical, actionable steps that teachers and programs can use for improvement. You can find this resource and others in the searchable VPI+ Resources directory (tip: select “Teacher-child interactions (CLASS)” on the left side of the page).
Remember that although content-specific PD is useful, foundational aspects of instructional rigor cut across content areas.
Like we saw in the clips, effective instruction is more than just exposing children to content—it boils down to how it’s delivered through teacher-child interactions that support engagement, build knowledge and expand thinking skills.
Look out for our upcoming blog posts diving into the 3 features of rigor: active engagement, connection to the real world, and instructionally supportive interactions!
What can I do now?
Share your experience
What is an example of rigorous instruction in PreK that you’ve recently observed in your school or center?
How do you plan to support rigor in your classrooms next year by challenging assumptions, cueing in on observations on supportive instructional interactions, or creating shared PD?
Obviously state tests take significant attention as an administrator. Stakes are high. Student achievement and growth are important metrics of your school’s performance. A lot depends on students’ scores in 3rd -5th grade.
It’s easy to pass by your preschool classrooms – children learning number concepts and how to share — and focus instead on the seemingly more pressing need to get third graders’ using algorithms!
But research clearly tells us that paying attention to children’s experiences in PreK can have major consequences for them in 3rd grade and beyond. Lets look at 4 reasons why investing in PreK can help ensure better state testing outcomes — and a host of other long-term benefits #1 Skills beget skills Brain research shows that the first 5 years is the period of maximum cognitive growth—90% in fact!
Neuronal connections build from simple to complex. Early learning makes later learning more efficient.
If we want children learning more, more efficiently in later grades, we should pay attention to the critical period before age 5! #2 Achievement gaps start early—but so can prevention
A recent study found that 1 in 3 children in Virginia isn’t ready for Kindergarten. The rate of Kindergarten readiness is even lower for children who experience poverty (almost 40% “not ready” in 1 or more learning domains).
If we can reach children at (or before) age 3-4, why wait until they reach age 5 (Kindergarten) or 8 (3rd grade), when intervention is less effective and more expensive?
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
#3 Effective preschool experience predicts 3rd and 8th grade achievement
A 2007 Virginia Joint Legislative report found that students who attended public PreK (VPI) had higher 3rd grade achievement than similar peers without PreK. A 2015 Virginia study found that children who attended VPI were more likely to have higher literacy achievement on state tests (SOLs) and less likely to be held back in 8th grade.
#4 Early Childhood investment pays off even in the long(er) run
Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman found such impressive returns for quality early childhood–including higher IQ, better health, lower crime, higher earnings — that this article referred to his research with this memorable title: “How Investing In Preschool Beats the Stock Market, Hands Down.”
Here is Dr. Heckman describing his work on the value of Early Childhood:
I’m ready to invest in early education. Are you?
As we’ll demonstrate in future posts, the quality of Pre-K matters. Future posts will detail what quality looks like – but if you want a sneak peek check out our searchable video library – with great examples of effective math, literacy, science and social skills teaching in preschool. To reap the impressive benefits demonstrated above, children need cognitively stimulating, emotionally supportive experiences throughout the day.
Let us know your thoughts below and look out for next month’s post: What makes “rigorous” PreK—and what can I do to support it? Subscribe,and we’ll make sure you don’t miss it.
What can I do now?
Call to Action: Observe one of your preschool classrooms. Write down 3 things you saw that connected to your third grade learning standards. Make this a point of conversation in your next school-wide meeting/training.
Share your strategies: What is 1 way that you support quality PreK in your school/program? We’ll use your comments to help share positive examples from across the state (and nation).