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Why We Should Embrace Explicit Instruction in Preschool

Updated: Mar 14

Preschool children learning in circle time.

It's time to stop cringing when we hear the word "teach in preschool. America is facing a pressing literacy crisis, with a staggering 68% of fourth graders not reading proficiently, (The Nation's Report Card, 2022). The struggle with reading proficiency isn't limited to low-income or minority students; it affects all children. The fact that families invest substantial sums in private schools and tutors highlights the systemic issue at hand. While strides are being made to address this issue through initiatives like phonics instruction, there is still a long road ahead.

Amidst this shift, there's a group left out of the loop: preschool teachers and parents, often uninformed about how they can contribute to resolving this challenge. Our children possess remarkable capabilities, yet many parents and educators remain unaware of the potential within them. The science of reading has proven that children need explicit, systematic instruction to learn to read. We also know that research shows that preschool children learn through play. It is my mission to challenge preschool educators and parents to think about these two proven facts and can we merge the two? How can we provide clear, systematic, and intentional instruction alongside of play-based activities in preschool? By doing so, we can establish foundational skills that best prepare children to embark on their journey to reading! It's all too common for the term "teach" to carry negative connotations in preschool settings. People argue that little ones should be encouraged to enjoy their time in preschool, focusing on social and emotional development through play. While the significance of both play and interpersonal skills cannot be overstated, it's time to acknowledge that TEACHING can and should be FUN! We can embrace SOME explicit instruction in preschool. We can foster the love of learning through both instruction and play. By merging both, we are both providing children with a strong foundation and preparing children for the future.

Child frustrated with reading

Let's take a closer look at preschool education. If children solely engage in play during their preschool years, they may enter kindergarten lacking the essential foundational skills required for proficient reading. This can lead to frustrated children, stressed parents, and increased pressure on teachers. This gap in necessary reading foundational skills continues the current cycle facing many children today...the need for reading intervention. However, many schools lack the necessary tools and time to provide these interventions, and parents often lack the knowledge and resources to properly advocate for their children.

There are certain skills that children cannot learn through play alone. Instead, we must first teach these skills and then encourage play-based learning. Consider the example of syllables. Learning syllables is a highly beneficial skill that not only enhances phonological awareness, but also proves valuable later in life when decoding and encoding words. However, children do not naturally grasp the concept of syllables. We must introduce them to the blending and segmenting of syllables through short lessons and modeling. Once introduced and taught, we can engage them in enjoyable activities like clapping out syllables in their names, playfully aiming stuffed animals into buckets based on their syllabic structure, jumping syllables of the names of their snacks, and so much more. These activities merge both instruction and play.

Imagine handing a Capri Sun juice box to a preschool child. If we simply hand it over, what's likely to happen? They might poke, pry, push the straw through the back, and most certainly feel a sense of frustration. However, if we provide clear instructions, model the steps, and encourage independent practice, children quickly discover that they can open the Capri Sun on their own! This process of TEACHING fosters a sense of independence and builds a system that benefits both the teacher and the child.


Teaching preschoolers academic skills should be no different. We teach our children kindness and sharing with others, how to get dressed and use the restroom. We teach them how to use food utensils, clean up toys, and brush their teeth. However, when it comes to teaching key foundational skills for reading, we resist.

NAEYC quote about explicit teaching children

The National Association for Young Children states in their most recent book that, “There are many moments in early literacy education in which explicitly teaching children what you want them to learn is the most effective and efficient move for an educator,” Wright, T. S., Cabell, S. Q., Duke, N. K., & Souto-Manning, M. (2022). Children are capable of so many amazing things. We can and should expose children to key foundational skills through both instruction and play.

Preschool is a pivotal time for skill-building. By integrating intentional teaching methods alongside play, we can empower children with the tools they need to become confident and capable learners. It's time to reframe our perception of teaching in preschool and embrace the opportunity to set our children on a path to lifelong success in literacy.

Tips for Merging Explicit Instruction and Play!

  • Set Clear Learning Objectives: Define what you want children to learn. Choose specific goals and plan to teach those goals through engaging lessons. Also plan how you will extend learning through games and centers time. Creating a plan that teaches skills across all areas of the classroom is KEY!

  • Model: Provide guidance by modeling different learning techniques and games both whole group and during center time. Offer support and guidance when needed, but also allow children to explore and learn independently. Watch and observe during both instruction and play, and adjust your teaching accordingly.

  • Use Child-Focused Learning: Recognize that each child is unique. Tailor your teaching approach to meet individual needs and learning styles. Learn children's specific interests. Embrace those interests! If the children love blocks, plan for ways that you can bring learning objectives into the block center. Be intentional!

Let's support our preschool teachers, parents, and most importantly, our children, as they embark on this crucial journey of learning. Together, we change the future of America by being intentional with instruction and purposeful with play!


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Moving Little Minds is dedicated to helping schools and parents improve literacy instruction for young children using engaging, research-based practices, trainings, preschool classes, and materials.


The nation's report card. The Nation's Report Card. (2022). Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Wright, T. S., Cabell, S. Q., Duke, N. K., & Souto-Manning, M. (2022). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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