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October 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 2

Content-Rich Instruction in Preschool

Universal preschool has the potential to close the knowledge gap—but only if we consider how to best teach preschoolers.
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Stakes were low but passions were high as 4-year-olds discovered whale blubber and learned about marine mammals in a preschool classroom I recently visited.
"That's gooey," Tony cried, placing his hands in blubber-lined mittens.
"This is what the animal uses to keep warm and survive the cold water temperatures," Tony's teacher explained. Whipping out detailed pictures, she added, "Blubber acts as an insulator. It holds in the warm-blooded mammals' body heat, even when they are swimming in water as cold as 40 degrees."
Stakes may have been low in this marine mammal exploration, but they're high in terms of the public's expectations of preschools. Political leaders are gambling that early education will close the achievement gap between children of wealthy and poor families. Some are promising universal prekindergarten. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama renewed his pitch to boost annual prekindergarten spending by $7.5 billion. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo each revealed a plan to extend preschool to all young children in their jurisdiction. With Cuomo's support, de Blasio is currently on track to increase the number of full-day preK programs in New York City from 20,000 to 53,000 by fall 2014. Leaders in Michigan, California, Florida, and other states have unveiled plans to subsidize preschool.
But unbridled enthusiasm for universal preschool must be balanced with thoughtful consideration of what goes on in these classrooms—and what activities will most support children's learning. I've observed an extraordinary amount of time devoted to mindless instruction in prekindergarten settings.
In 2010, my colleagues and I observed morning meeting time in 55 preschool classrooms to examine the kinds of activities that took place and the opportunities afforded for content-rich instruction (Neuman, Kaefer, & Pinkham, 2010). We recorded an average of 20 minutes or more each day devoted to morning meeting. Here's how the time was used in too many classrooms: Children memorized lines of print, said the alphabet and the numbers 1–10 five times, spelled their names, spelled names of children who weren't there, and read along with the teacher in a highly predictable format. We saw no effort in these meeting times to engage children's minds through stimulating content learning while teaching literacy (Neuman & Pinkham, 2014). Further, we saw strikingly few opportunities for cognitively engaging talk. Such approaches are unlikely to make progress in closing gaps.

What Content-Rich Looks Like

Content-centered classrooms, in contrast, involve preschool children in learning about print through literacy practice (Neuman & Wright, 2013). Preschoolers enhance their content learning while developing the skills and functions of literacy. Their new abilities become meaningful because they help these children understand their world.
This approach builds on five research-based principles about how young children develop the schemas necessary to construct basic knowledge networks.

1. Learning benefits from integrated instruction.

Whether they assign multidisciplinary projects or teach through themes, effective teachers use integrated learning to organize large amounts of content into meaningful concepts. Both projects and themes help children build knowledge networks and provide time for repeated practice of familiar concepts like grouping items into sets. When children apply skills in multiple contexts, their learning will likely transfer to new areas.
Thematic instruction must have coherence and depth if it is to help kids understand a topic well. Cafeteria-style approaches that involve teaching a little of this and a little of that give only spotty attention to content and make limited connections between subjects.

2. Learning requires guidance.

Effective teachers actively engage young children in mastering content, helping them connect new learning to what they already know and can do. Consequently, in instructional planning, they strike a balance between structure and choice.
Sometimes, teachers present a concept in a planned and directed way to ensure that kids understand the new knowledge thoroughly. Other times, they let kids explore, manipulate, and use ideas in centers of their choosing. Both ways of learning are necessary for young children's cognitive development.

3. Teacher interaction enhances learning.

Teachers hold great influence over whether preschoolers reach their potential. Working on the edge of students' current competence, they involve kids in experiences that are slightly more difficult than those they could master on their own. Teachers carefully scaffold students' learning, gradually decreasing the amount of assistance they proffer as students become able to perform tasks independently. They encourage students to express their ideas through language and to raise questions that enable them to develop more complex ideas and understandings.
For example, after reading aloud an informational text about animals and their life cycles, a teacher says, "Let's think about the need for food. How is a baby animal's need for food different from a parent animal's need for food?"
A range of teaching strategies can be the platform for great teacher-student interaction. Demonstrating skills shows young children the standards of good practice; explicit instruction, questioning, and ongoing feedback help them expand their own ideas and skills.

4. Play supports learning.

Free exploration and manipulating objects, make-believe play, and creative games make important contributions to preschoolers' literacy development (Neuman, Roskos, Wright, & Lenhart, 2007). In play, children express and represent their ideas, learn to interact with others, and practice newly acquired abilities and knowledge. Teachers who build background knowledge and who make key concepts "stick" with children realize this. They provide conditions and materials that positively affect what activities children choose during playtime and how they play. They construct play environments that involve literacy in practice.
For example, after a class reads about insects, the teacher might place an ant farm in the discovery play center, along with a magnifying glass, lab coat, and notebook for recording activities related to the ants' adventures. Children will delight in acting like scientists, describing the foods the ants eat and the patterns their movements take.
Gap-closing teachers seek to enhance language and play while leaving children in some control of their activities. At times, teachers actively engage children in role-playing related to background content, like the activities characteristic of certain jobs or life roles. A teacher might model a role like grocery store manager or chef. As children imitate these roles and expand on them in free play, related concepts and vocabulary will be integrated into their developing language repertoire.

5. Competence enhances motivation.

Self-esteem grows when children begin to develop a history of achievement through reasonable effort. Effective teachers recognize that experiences and practices that help preschool students become skillful and learn many things are more effective than those designed to just be motivating. Students thrive with teachers who combine nurturance with high expectations.

A Day in a Classroom

What does a preschool classroom that enriches content knowledge as it builds literacy look like? Here's a typical day in a preschool class I observed that provides such enrichment to the 18 4-year-olds in the class. This preschool is part of Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program, a statewide initiative for at-risk preschoolers.
Students arrive between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. The teacher, Ms. Allen, greets them at the door. They hang their coats in individual cubbies labeled with their names and photos, then "check in" by finding their name on the attendance chart and making a mark by it. Some visit the library corner or dramatic play center as they wait for others to arrive.
Around 8:45, Ms. Allen sings a song to indicate that morning meeting will begin, and the children gather in a circle. After a greeting, she describes some of the new choices for the upcoming activity time and demonstrates how particular pieces of equipment can be used. Children show their activity choices by raising their hands before being dismissed. Because more students want to go to certain centers than can be accommodated, Ms. Allen shows how they might cooperate.
Ms. Allen has planned all activities in the centers to expose students to concepts and thinking related to sound. In one area, children make popcorn with adult supervision. They hear the sounds of popping, smacking corn and notice when these sounds taper off. Kids send marbles clattering down various chutes in the block area; and in the science area, they use resonating bells and voice recordings to hear different pitches. Other learners listen to a tape of natural sounds and draw pictures of what they hear. Ms. Allen plays a rhyming-word matching game with a group of children who she has detected need special attention with this phonological skill. The paraprofessional in her classroom moves from group to group, monitoring children's progress.
Once activity time is over, the children gather to share about the morning's activities. They review the sounds they've heard and talk about how sounds are made, writing the new vocabulary that comes up on a word chart that they'll add to throughout this sound unit.
Music helps strengthen the children's phonological awareness (Neuman, Roskos, Wright, & Lenhart, 2007). Ms. Allen introduces songs with distinctive rhythms and sounds, like "Oats and Beans and Barley Grow," and the children take turns clapping out a rhythm. She introduces a slightly more difficult rhythm and encourages them to follow her lead. The group sings "Willoughby Wallaby Woo" to sensitize them to similar sounds at the beginning and end of words.
Ms. Allen selects two children to help put out snacks, pronouncing their names slowly, emphasizing the beginning sounds. She holds up a menu—words along with pictures—of today's snack: five graham crackers and one cup of juice.
The class next goes outside for an environmental sound walk. Children learn to identify objects and actions—the wind, other kids on the playground, squirrels rustling—by their sounds. Upon returning to the classroom, they recall some of the sounds they heard and write words for them on their chart. At story time, the teacher reads from one of her favorite anthologies of poetry and a delightful story about tolerance and sound by Bruce Bottner, following each with a short discussion.
Ms. Allen will follow up on this learning the next day. On her plan is reviewing different sounds the class heard, categorizing them as loud or soft.

A Closer Look

The arrangement of learning experiences in this class was sensitive not only to what preschoolers should know and be able to do, but also to children's need to explore new ideas on their own. Activities were well paced to provide sufficient variation and challenge. The schedule allowed for both teacher-directed instruction, such as during group time and story time, and choice, such as children's considerable opportunity to select their work during activity time. Ms. Allen provided guidance and direction through the materials she had organized in centers and her interactions with students. Arrival and dismissal were relatively short to allow more time for learning.
Children were very active throughout the day, mentally and physically. Everything they did focused on sound. Group time and activities were designed to extend their understandings through exploratory group activities, stories, materials to manipulate, and social interactions. All activities emphasized language.
Sound was a good topic for this content-rich learning. It was broad and varied enough to address a number of science guidelines (content and process) and to lead children to sharpen their oral language, print awareness, and phonological awareness. As they progressed through this unit, children had opportunities to learn more about sound through listening, fine arts activities, and writing.
This example highlights essential features of a content-rich classroom. Students were exposed to
  • Time, materials, and resources to actively build linguistic and conceptual knowledge in a rich domain.
  • A wide variety of reading and writing materials.
  • Different grouping patterns (large, small, individual) and different levels of guidance to meet the needs of individual children.
  • Opportunities for sustained, in-depth learning.
Classrooms like this help children build knowledge networks that enhance their foundational knowledge in core subject areas—knowledge that acts as a catalyst for kids to acquire more knowledge. In content-rich settings, early literacy skills support children's developing thirst for learning. Such classrooms have the potential to close the knowledge gap.
References

Neuman, S. B., Kaefer, T., & Pinkham, A. (2010). Cognitively challenging child-directed language as a mechanism for literacy development. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences.

Neuman, S. B., & Pinkham, A. (2014). Morning meeting: A missed opportunity for language development. Manuscript in preparation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Neuman, S. B., Roskos, K., Wright, T., & Lenhart, L. (2007). Nurturing knowledge: Linking literacy to math, science, social studies, and much more. New York: Scholastic.

Neuman, S. B., & Wright, T. (2013). All about words: Increasing vocabulary in the age of Common Core classrooms, preK–grade 2. New York: Teachers College Press.

Susan B. Neuman is professor and chair of teaching and learning at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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