Early Literacy: Fact or Fiction??

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.


Dr. David Dickinson tells us that preschoolers shouldn’t be expected to do “traditional reading,” but they should engage in “emergent reading”– including: engaging with books/poems/songs in an enjoyable way, understanding how print works, and writing words (like their names) and even simple sentences to convey language.

#2 Language and literacy skills, like vocabulary and print knowledge, lay a foundation for later reading.


Dr. Laura Justice talks about how young children (as young as 1 or 2) produce increasingly complex language and come to recognize that print has meaning. Preschool language and literacy skills serve as building blocks to reading and writing achievements– K-5 and beyond.

#3  It’s not developmentally appropriate to explicitly teach early literacy skills to preschoolers.


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):

Teaching Channel: Interactive Read Aloud
*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Teaching Channel

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:

  1.  1-page “teacher checklist”: reviews different types of activities to embed across the day
  2. PALS Activities: searchable directory of activities organized by literacy skill (PALS subtest) and level (PreK, K, 1-3, and All)

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