Instruction in preschool programs

“Instruction” is not a word that rises to the top in a preschool teacher’s vocabulary list. In fact, some teachers hear the word and envision “instruction” as equal to inappropriate practice.  It is a word that often connotes preschool becoming too “academic,” a “push-down curriculum from kindergarten,” or taking the fun out of young children’s curiosity about the world. And, if one mentions the term “direct instruction,” many preschool teachers will end the conversation, running out of the room.

But ask a preschool teacher if s/he has ever taught a child how to zip a zipper. The answer is, invariably, yes. That teaching strategy is direct instruction. The fact is preschool teachers are instructing all the time. They may think of “instruction” in terms of conversations at lunch, talking about a story,  or observing and answering children’s questions about an insect on the playground. These are all examples of instruction, and some of it is direct instruction whether it is labeled that way or not. The term that preschool teachers should be focused on is “intentional instruction.” How intentional are preschool teachers in their planning of rich content that is universally interesting and engaging to young children? In addition, what is the preschool teacher’s comfort level with the content of his/her intentional instruction?

Preschool teachers should build on the experiences of their students. Some children enter preschool with years of “instruction” from their families. This means they have parents or caregivers who have talked to and read to them since birth (or before), consistently answered  their questions about the world, and provided them with experiences from grocery shopping to visits to parks, beaches, museums, and zoos.  These children come from an instructional environment.  Their vocabulary is large and their content knowledge is wide.  Children with a large vocabulary make it easy for a teacher to expand on a topic and delve deeper.

Unfortunately, many of the children who attend public preschool in Maine have not had a lot of these experiences. They enter preschool with less than 50% of the vocabulary of those who come from the families described above.  Children from the highest income families have a vocabulary of over 1000 words by age 3; the vocabulary of children from the lowest income families was just over 500 (Hart & Risley, 1995).  By third grade, that vocabulary gap increased exponentially-12,000 words to 4,000 words for children from the highest to lowest family income groups (Klein & Knitzer, 2006). But vocabulary rarely stands alone.  It is learned in context and connected through every day experiences, exposure to new environments and through content learned from hearing books read and discussed. Without these early experiences, preschoolers need instruction more than ever.  When instruction is intentionally planned (as well as spontaneous), integrated across domains (Schickedanz, 2008), and includes rich vocabulary and discussions about the world, preschool teachers are providing a curriculum that has the potential to impact children long into their school careers.

Preschool educators can make their instruction more intentional and provide richer experiences that leader to richer language development. Here are some language strategies (adapted from Weitzman and Greenberg, 2002) and some specific curricular examples to positively impact instruction and integrate across domains and activities in the preschool classroom.

Preschool educators can

  • Provide experiences that allow children to experiment and then intentionally use increasingly sophisticated vocabulary, with definitional support.
  • Example: When planning a unit on “color,”consider concepts that go beyond just labelling the primary and secondary colors or asking children to label them. Provide green and white paint at the easel. Teacher: “I see you’ve used the green and white paint to change the tint of your picture. When you mix white with colors, it tints the paint and makes it lighter. We can also say it has a different hue.”
  • Use children’s questions or model inquiry to help them think by providing intentional science experiences that evoke wonder and curiosity.
  • Example: For the same unit on color, show children how fabrics fade when they are washed (bring in or compare children’s blue jeans) or how some materials fade when exposed to sunlight. Have children put small classroom objects on construction paper and keep it on a shelf in direct sunlight. Have them check them after a few days or week (depending on the weather!) to see what happens. Teacher: “I wonder what has happened with the construction paper when it is exposed to the sun. What is your hypothesis-what do you think you will see after we remove the Lego (block, paperclip, key) from the paper where it was blocking the sunlight, why?” Or, “I wonder what will happen if we leave the paper on the windowsill for another week?” Using “I wonder” statements with young children opens a door for rich language and back and forth conversations. Research shows that this type of modeling of inquiry at a very early age builds skills that children will use as they move through the elementary years and beyond.
  • As much as possible, extend the conversations with preschoolers and help them to make connections.
  • Example: Show children paint swatches from a hardware or home supply store (the ones that show color gradation from darker to lighter). Ask them what they notice. Do they see the gradations, or the changes in color as they look from top to bottom? Ask how they might decide what color to paint the classroom or a room in their home. Link it to the art project on tinting above. Ask if they think paint fades in the sunlight, just as the construction paper did. Continue to use the vocabulary from other domains to build learning.
  • Read narrative stories about color and connect the concepts for children.
  • Example: Max’s Dragon Shirt is a story about a rabbit who needs new jeans because they are faded. The Lion and the Little Red Bird tells the story of how a lion uses his tail to paint pictures by using colors made from plants.
  • Look for ways to connect these vocabulary words and concepts within the preschool routine. Example: During the spring, what do they notice about the leaves that may be on trees and plants on the playground? How does the color of a leaf change over the spring time? Why?
  • Add a strategy to your practice today to enhance the “intentional instruction” in your classroom.
  • These strategies provide a starting point to develop preschool programs with high quality instruction. When vocabulary and content are integrated across domains, this provides opportunities for teachers and children to use them with more frequency. We don’t learn a new word after only hearing it once. Young children need to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste words within context. When teachers intentionally plan activities in which children are naturally curious, understand the concepts inherent in the activities, and use rich vocabulary and simple explanations to build background knowledge, children will be more prepared as demands for reading and understanding rapidly increase in the elementary years and beyond.
  • Talk about why the yogurt at snack is pink instead of blue today (raspberry vs. blueberry).

For more information on preschool curriculum and instruction, contact Maine DOE Early Childhood Specialist Sue Reed at