Teaching Preschoolers to Read

Teaching Preschoolers to Read

This is a summary article. More information, including sources can be found at newcastleschool.com

Ask yourself, “Why were America’s children better readers in the mid 1900’s than they are in now that we have TV, computers and a rush to get kids to read younger and faster?”

The answer is that faster isn’t better!

Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words

Friedrich Froebel, Pedagogics of the Kindergarten, 1895

In that one sentence, Froebel, father of the kindergarten, expressed the essence of early-childhood education. Children are not born knowing the difference between red and green, sweet and sour, rough and smooth, cold and hot, or any number of physical sensations. The natural world is the infant’s and young child’s first curriculum, and it can only be learned by direct interaction with things. There is no way a young child can learn the difference between sweet and sour, rough and smooth, hot and cold without tasting, touching, or feeling something. Learning about the world of things, and their various properties, is a time-consuming and intense process that cannot be hurried.

The modern science of how preschoolers learn demonstrates that the logical structure of reading and math requires *syllogistic reasoning abilities on the part of the child (*Reasoning from the general to the specific or a deduction).  Most young children do not attain this form of reasoning until the age of five or six.  It makes little sense to concentrate instruction in reading and math at age three to four.  A balanced approach is more appropriate. The theory is borne out by longitudinal studies that show that children who have been enrolled in non-balanced programs eventually lose whatever gains they made vis-à-vis control groups by second or third grade.

The guiding principle of early-childhood education is, then, the matching of curriculum and instruction to the child’s developing abilities, needs, and interests. This principle is broadly accepted and advocated by most early-childhood educators. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has issued a policy statement entitled “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early-Childhood Programs.”

There is also an abundance of supporting evidence. Evidence attesting to the importance of developmentally appropriate education in the early years comes from cross-cultural studies. In French-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading instruction is begun at the preschool level, a large percentage of children have reading problems. In German-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading is not taught until age six or seven, there are few reading problems. In Denmark, where reading is taught late, there is almost no illiteracy. Likewise in Russia, where the literacy rate is quite high, reading is not taught until the age of six or seven.

There is also evidence that when teachers push children who may not be developmentally ready, it can backfire and a child can lose motivation.

Yet there is a continuing call for early-childhood educators to engage in the heavy handed academic training of young children, particularly memorization reading.

Why, when we know what is good for young children, do we persist in miseducating them, in putting them at risk for no purpose? The short answer is that the movement toward academic training of the young is not about education. It is about parents anxious to give their children an edge in what they regard as an increasingly competitive, technical and global economy.  That may be well intentioned but for most children it can be a big mistake.

The Newcastle School provides developmentally appropriate reading and literacy training to 3-5 year olds.  The curriculum was developed by Kathleen Jensen MA Ed.  That curriculum provides whole language and phonics instruction within a framework that generally follows the guidelines of the NAYEC.  The 4-5 pre-k literacy curriculum is considerably more complex than the 3-4 preschool curriculum but it is still is age-appropriate.

For three decades Newcastle School has received high marks from both pediatricians and elementary school teachers for this comprehensive approach to academics. Newcastle generally follows these portions of the NAEYC guidelines:

Reading during the preschool years


Young children need developmentally appropriate experiences and teaching to support literacy learning. These include but are not limited to

  • positive, nurturing relationships with adults who engage in responsive conversations with individual children, model reading and writing behavior, and foster children’s interest in and enjoyment of reading and writing;
  • print-rich environments that provide opportunities and tools for children to see and use written language for a variety of purposes, with teachers drawing children’s attention to specific letters and words;
  • adults’ daily reading of high-quality books to individual children or small groups;
  • opportunities for children to talk about what is read and to focus on the sounds and parts of language as well as the meaning;
  • teaching strategies and experiences that develop phonemic awareness, such as songs, fingerplays, games, poems, and stories in which phonemic patterns such as rhyme and alliteration are salient;
  • opportunities to engage in play that incorporates literacy tools, such as writing grocery lists in dramatic play, making signs in block building; and
  • first hand experiences that expand children’s vocabulary, such as exposure to various tools, objects, and materials.