For Stronger Readers in Third Grade, Start Building Knowledge in Preschool

Analysis: Early-learning experiences can shape lifelong learning habits and accelerate literacy, particularly for English-language learners.

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In joyful preschool classrooms, three- and four-year-olds play and pretend together. They sing and dance, listen eagerly at story time, and ask endless questions. Nearly everything is new, which fuels an intense enthusiasm for learning. High-quality preschool supports social skills, fosters friendships, and builds a sturdy foundation for kindergarten and beyond.

As researchers specializing in linguistics and early literacy development, we celebrate the growing movement to connect preschool instruction with the science of reading. Between 2019 and 2022, 45 states passed new laws requiring schools adopt a scientific approach to reading curriculum and instruction. In 31 states, the laws apply to preschool students as well. 

These mandates are a golden opportunity to capitalize on the unique energy, curiosity, and explosive growth in oral language that children experience during the preschool years. 

Early-learning experiences have exponential power: they can shape lifelong learning habits and accelerate literacy, particularly for English-language learners. To unlock that potential, educators and providers must ensure that students acquire a critical mass of vocabulary and related content knowledge from engaging social studies and science texts and activities.Knowledge-rich preschool curriculum is the key. To assist states and preschool providers as they revisit their literacy lessons, the Knowledge Matter Campaign recently updated its K–8 English Language Arts curriculum review tool to include “Early Childhood Essentials.”

Big Ideas for Little Learners

When students learn to read in elementary school, they draw on their vocabulary and what they already know about the subject to make sense of the words on the page. For decades, research has shown that a preschool student’s vocabulary size is a powerful predictor of their later academic success, and that background knowledge is a powerful factor in reading comprehension. Preschool curriculums that intentionally build student knowledge through activities that engage young children with complex oral language are designed with these insights in mind.

The Knowledge Matters Campaign has identified four major attributes of a high-quality, evidence-based, knowledge-building preschool curriculum:

  • They are grounded in read-alouds on science and social studies topics that include target vocabulary and are compelling to young children, like space travel or weather.
  • They include texts from multiple genres, such as stories and informational texts, that are presented in sequence and use the target vocabulary words.
  • They teach related words, phrases, and ideas, including academic vocabulary.
  • They extend learning through individual and small-group activities that prompt students to draw on their knowledge and use complex, content-rich language, such as discussions or sensory learning.

Knowledge-Building in Action

What does a knowledge-building preschool curriculum look like? Such classrooms follow multi-week units focused on a single, high-interest topic. Their walls feature art and photographs about the topic, and teachers actively engage students in read-alouds and discussions that are focused on the topic. A set of vocabulary words are gradually introduced and reinforced in texts, discussions, and activities.

For example, in the World of Words curriculum used in New York City public preschools1, a three-week Wild Animals unit is focused on an interrelated set of 10 vocabulary words and what information students should know by the end of the unit. Teachers and students discuss these key concepts, such as that wild animals live outdoors and away from humans, and are not kept as pets, and use target vocabulary words like bear, lion, and giraffe. All the while, they connect this learning to “big ideas” such as where wild animals live and how wild animals either protect themselves or need protection from others.

Discussions are grounded in five books: a nonfiction information book, two storybooks, and two “predictable” books, which use repetitive phrases and sentence structure. Varying text types expose students to several types of academic language, in addition to the colloquial language preschoolers pick up from their peers. When teachers read and re-read these books aloud throughout the unit, students are welcomed to chime in and participate in the read-aloud.

Consider the opening lines in If I Were a Lion, an illustrated predictable book about wild animals written in verse:

If I were a lion / I’d growl and roar / and knock the dishes / on the floor.
If I were a bear / I’d have big claws / I’d rip up pillows with my paws.

Students can explore the vocabulary and ideas, learn the cadence of the passage, and build important connections about different animals, habitats, and behaviors—all while they practice early-literacy basics like print awareness and letter knowledge. Repetitive texts and related topic knowledge are especially helpful to English-language learners, since they connect new vocabulary with tangible information about the world.

study of the curriculum found positive impacts on student vocabulary and understanding of science concepts. And in the dynamic preschool classroom, extension activities about everyday social studies and science topics are at the ready, from a visit to a school garden to a walk around the neighborhood—activities that engage and excite young children.

Plus, learning about lions and bears is a lot more fun than learning about “L” and “B.”

Schemas Make Skillful Readers

Knowledge-building curriculums also prepare students to read and understand texts about unfamiliar topics. Preschoolers don’t just learn about wild animals; rather, they experience how information can be related and organized within a theme or topic. Content-rich texts and lessons prompt students to build knowledge networks and conceptual frameworks, or schemas, that help them identify patterns and take in more sophisticated ideas. When students experience this type of understanding, they develop inferencing skills that they apply to other information.

Strong readers are not born—they are built over time, and those efforts start in preschool. As states take a closer look at preschool education, curriculums designed to build oral language and student knowledge can point the way forward. Today’s joyful chatter can be tomorrow’s persuasive essay, so long as we start early and give these curious, fast-developing students the tools and opportunities they need to thrive.

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