Engaging and Enriching: The Key to Developmentally Appropriate Academic Rigor
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In a time of accountability, push down, and high-stakes assessments (even in some kindergarten classrooms!), many early childhood educators feel pressured to focus on academic rigor—often with instructional practices that are not developmentally appropriate. A misconception among some educators, administrators, parents, and policy makers is that a narrow definition of academic rigor—one that emphasizes worksheets and other highly teacher-directed activities—is especially necessary for children growing up in under-resourced communities. Research shows that a more beneficial approach is to offer an even richer, more well-rounded education in which children have meaningful, frequent opportunities to be self-directed scholars. With the right supports, young children flourish when provided opportunities to be engaged in investigations that integrate content. In addition, it is important to immerse children in an educational environment that maximizes use of academic English to build knowledge about the world (Snow 2017). Developing academic vocabulary is critical. In later grades, decoding problems are relatively rare, but comprehension problems—driven by lack of vocabulary and background knowledge—are rampant (Snow & Matthews 2016).
While we understand the urgency and good intentions that propel some educators toward overemphasizing teacher-directed learning, we also grasp the importance of student-directed activities to maximize development. Rigor and developmentally appropriate practice are both essential to early childhood education; done well, they are mutually reinforcing (Brown, Feger, & Mowry 2015).
Some may see this as a bold claim, but we make it from the perspectives of both research and practice. In this article, we describe the transformation of 17 kindergarten classrooms from didactic experiences for children to rigorous and developmentally appropriate student-centered learning environments. We closely examine the changes through the eyes of one partner teacher, and we present formal and informal classroom observation data to document these changes. Throughout, we focus on practices that support children’s language and knowledge growth, using vignettes and reflections to provide meaningful examples of how to build on children’s activities and interests.
A partnership based in professionalism
Developmentally appropriate academic rigor for all students was the goal of our work with kindergarten teachers in one urban district in New Jersey. The city that the district serves is 72 percent Hispanic, with 81 percent of families reporting Spanish as their home language. A total of 40 percent of children under age 18 in the city are living in poverty, and 100 percent of students in the school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (ACNJ 2016). Census data from 2015 show that less than 33 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the city attend college or complete an associate’s degree.
The school district currently receives state preschool aid dollars as part of legislation in New Jersey that mandates that all 3- and 4-year-olds living in the state’s lowest income districts have access to full-day, high-quality preschool programs. Although thorough evaluations (Barnett et al. 2013) have demonstrated that these preschool programs are effective, the district’s state-mandated standardized reading and math test results remain worrisome. In 2016, just 20 percent of third graders met expectations in English language arts (ELA) and 25 percent met expectations for math. These results are far below the state third-grade averages for meeting expectations—41 percent in ELA and 39 percent in math (NJ ED 2017). The takeaway is clear: while attendance in high-quality preschool shows great value, there is a need to focus on teaching and learning quality in subsequent grades to build on gains made in preschool (Stipek et al. 2017).
In later grades, comprehension problems—driven by lack of vocabulary and background knowledge—are rampant.
As active participants in this work, we engaged directly with practitioners throughout the school system to shift the mindset and practices to blend the required academic rigor with a more developmentally appropriate approach. As former early childhood teachers, we were able to draw on our experiences and expertise to guide both administrators and teachers through a transformation that demonstrated research results of increased teaching quality.
To catalyze changes in kindergarten teaching practices, the coaches (the second author and another qualified former practitioner) needed to gain the teachers’ trust and secure their commitment; they had to believe that transformation in their classrooms was critical to the students they served—and possible to accomplish. Like many teachers, these teachers were suffering from initiative fatigue (Reeves 2010). Understandably, as initiatives come and go, teachers often become ambivalent about investing effort into each new educational shift.
To combat this fatigue, we aimed to support teachers and empower them to use their professional decision making in the classroom. To accomplish this, both authors partnered with administrative staff (building and central office) to boost administrators’ understanding of the best teaching practices and to initiate policy revisions, including providing teachers the professional discretion to change their practices.
The teachers, full of desire to succeed, at first wanted a script or a step-by-step recipe. One teacher explained, “We’ve piloted programs before where we were told exactly what to do and say. I think that’s why our mindset is just ‘tell us what to do and how to do it.’” We had no intention of providing a script. The core of our approach is guiding and facilitating change through a process of self-reflection. Our intervention would support the teachers’ pedagogical approaches and understanding of teaching and learning.
Teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in preschool and kindergarten is related to fourth-grade reading comprehension.
Research has found that teachers’ use of two instructional strategies—using sophisticated vocabulary and giving sustained attention while talking with students during free play—in preschool and kindergarten is related to fourth-grade reading comprehension and decoding skills (Dickinson & Porche 2011). These findings are critically important, as reading is the foundation for most learning in education and in life. Equally important is the educational setting: neither of these instructional strategies can be practiced if there is not sufficient time to spend with children in student-selected and student-directed centers. Driven by this research, our work with the teachers focused on helping them to broaden children’s background knowledge with language and to follow children’s leads in creating learning activities that were rigorous and developmentally appropriate.
Broadening background knowledge with language
During center time, Paola (a dual language learner) approaches Ms. Hall, the teacher, with a playdough pie and proudly says, “Look! I made a cake! It’s blueberry.” Ms. Hall responds, “Oh, I think you made a pie!” Paola exclaims, “Yes!”
This appears to be the end of the exchange, so Ms. Figueras-Daniel, the coach, interjects, “I love this design you put on the top! It reminds me of warm blueberry pie. My mom used to make this for me in the summer, when I was a little girl like you.” Paola smiles.
Ms. Figueras-Daniel continues, “Have you ever had a piece of pie?” Paola shakes her head to signal that she has not.
Ms. Figueras-Daniel asks, “Do you know what this design is called on top of your pie?”
Paola answers, with a smile, “Lines.”
Ms. Figueras-Daniel responds, “Yes, and those lines make a lattice. See how each line overlaps the other?” Paola nods, and Ms. Figueras-Daniel continues, “This is the crust of the pie. The crust is made of sweet dough that keeps the fruit filling inside. When you bake it, it gets crunchy or crusty.”
Paola says, “I make more pie.”
Ms. Figueras-Daniel and Ms. Hall follow Paola back to the playdough table and work alongside her, rolling playdough flat and cutting it into strips. Ms. Figueras-Daniel uses Paola’s interest to continue teaching vocabulary, building background knowledge, and modeling language: “When you use the dough as a lattice top, like you did, it makes a pretty cover. Sometimes, pie crusts cover the whole pie, but then you can’t see the filling. That’s what’s on the inside.”
The vignette illustrates the importance of extended conversations to build on what children already know, and it shows that meaningful interactions can support students’ oral language development. Most significantly, the vignette demonstrates that a teacher must tailor her instruction to address the needs of each child in the classroom. For Paola, a dual language learner, the coach asked more close-ended questions. This showed that she understood Paola’s language abilities in English. She then scaffolded Paola’s learning by modeling language and intentionally describing unfamiliar words with concrete, descriptive meanings. As the classroom teacher and coach continued to interact with Paola, other students joined in the discussion about baking.
On a subsequent day, Ms. Hall planned small group time to include reading The Apple Pie Tree, by Zoe Hall. She brought in the ingredients and tools necessary to make pie dough and used the recipe at the end of the book to make a pie with the children. The teacher and coach worked with the children to intentionally integrate domains (here, math) by measuring ingredients and naming utensils, such as rolling pins, measuring spoons, and measuring cups. Ms. Hall mapped her actions to words: “See, I am using the smallest measuring spoon to add a tiny bit of baking powder,” and “Now I need to roll the dough out to make it flat. I’ll need to use the utensil that rolls—the rolling pin.” As the group created the lattice work on their own in small groups, Ms. Hall talked about other objects that have a lattice design on them, such as fences. The children enjoyed describing the types of fences they see on their walks to school.
Ms. Hall effectively built on students’ interest in a topic and further engaged them to introduce novel vocabulary and to learn about the nuanced uses of words such as lattice. This type of interaction increases students’ background knowledge, an important contributor not only to word learning but also to reading fluency (Priebe, Keenan, & Miller 2012) and reading comprehension in later grades, when texts are more complex (Neuman, Kaefer, & Pinkham 2014). Although pie baking was not represented in the district curriculum, it was evident in these interactions and lessons that learning standards related to oral language development and mathematics (including measurement) were being targeted.
In the Common Core standards, and in standards adapted from the Common Core, the increase in practices geared to teaching knowledge rather than teaching individual skills is not accidental (Cervetti & Hiebert 2015). Pairing teacher–child interactions (like Ms. Figueras-Daniel’s engagement with Paola around her playdough pie) with reading-related nonfiction and fiction texts (like Ms. Hall’s selection of The Apple Pie Tree) is necessary for building children’s content knowledge—and it is especially important for dual language learners and others who have fewer opportunities to engage with academic English at home. This approach to literacy development allows children to become interested and engaged and to experience vocabulary and concepts from differing perspectives through character voices and varied settings (Camp 2000). Just as important, using student interest to guide interactions and learning allows students to feel valued as members of the classroom community.
Paola’s experience exemplifies our premise that giving children the freedom to pursue their interests and then building on their ideas is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten, and can lead to academically rigorous learning. Using children’s interests and creations to introduce new vocabulary and complex language enables teachers to provide students with a more meaningful and engaging learning experience. In early childhood, complex oral language skills, such as proper grammar, an extensive definitional vocabulary, and good listening comprehension, have strong relationships with later reading ability, including decoding and reading comprehension (NELP 2008).
While Paola did not yet have the vocabulary in English to elaborate on her pie creation, the adults recognized this and quickly engaged in an interaction that provided a rich array of vocabulary. Doing this is particularly important for dual language learners; structured talk about academically relevant content (rather than rote memorization of word lists) is crucial (Gillanders, Castro, & Franco 2014). This discussion-based learning around a topic of interest to children allows them to build knowledge and vocabulary across subject areas, rather than in isolation. To be highly effective, it is necessary for teachers to model and intentionally teach words’ meanings while providing students with multiple opportunities to use the words in context (Takanishi & Le Menestrel 2017). This simply cannot be done in rote exercises such as flashcards or worksheets.
Giving children the freedom to pursue their interests and then building on their ideas can lead to academically rigorous learning.
Developmentally appropriate academic rigor
Ms. Hall plans to study buildings and structures. To gauge students’ interests, she begins with an idea web. The students share many ideas, and Juan, a usually reserved dual language learner, suggests igloos. He expresses interest in constructing a model igloo in the classroom, one large enough to use as a hideout for reading books with his classmates. Ms. Hall seems uncertain about this—her aim was for the students to learn about skyscrapers. Their urban school is housed in an old six-story art deco bank building with a rooftop playground that offers interesting views of other buildings in the city and a blurry but definite view of the Manhattan skyline. But the students agree that they want to learn about igloos, so Ms. Hall moves in that direction.
After a few read-alouds on igloos, Ms. Hall uses writer’s workshop time for the students to draw and write plans for the igloo they will build. She circulates, commenting on their work and engaging in conversation about the drawings. “Can you tell me about your drawing?” she asks Yousef, who has drawn a spiral-shaped design. Yousef explains that his drawing is what the igloo looks like “on top.” Ms. Hall responds, “I see! This is the igloo from above, like how the birds would see it!” Yousef nods excitedly. Ms. Hall says, “We call this a bird’s-eye view because of that. When you see things from above, we say it’s a bird’s-eye view. It definitely looks different from what Juan drew, which is the igloo as we would see it if we were standing in front of it.”
The children begin building the igloo with empty gallon jugs. Ms. Hall infuses academic rigor with math and science concepts, such as using a compass to make the initial circle and discussing the number of jugs that might be needed. However, while gluing jugs to form the second and third rows, the children notice that the structure looks like a cylinder—not a dome. In a whole group discussion, Ms. Hall engages the children in solving this problem.
Damian begins almost inaudibly, saying “big to small” while motioning with his hands. Ms. Hall says encouragingly, “Tell us what you mean by ‘biggest to smallest.’” Damian motions the dome shape with his hands. “How can we make our igloo get smaller at the top?” asks Ms. Hall, looking at a student holding a small whiteboard. “Maybe if we draw it, we can figure out how to do this.” Mateo yells, “It’s a circle!” Camila exclaims, “It’s a rainbow!” Smiling, Ms. Hall says, “Yes, it’s shaped like a rainbow on the outside. Does anyone remember what that shape is called?” After pausing to give the children time to think, she says, “We read a book that had an arc.”
Ms. Hall describes the book and the reference to an arc. She uses her hands to show flat versus round to give children a concrete understanding of the new vocabulary. The children exclaim, “It’s round!” Ms. Hall says, “Yes! It is round. It is half of a sphere—like if we cut a ball in half. We will have to keep thinking to figure out how to make our igloo take this shape. Do you think we can continue to plan our igloo in the centers?” Damian says that he is going to read a book about it in the library center.
Ms. Hall provided children with opportunities to engage in contextually rich, meaningful conversations that were sustained over several exchanges. Important to note are the multiple opportunities for students to think critically by directing their own inquiry, with guidance by the teacher. The classroom environment played a role as it allowed the students the autonomy to seek materials, tools, paper, pencils, books, and collaboration with peers to carry out their work. The igloo construction was clearly not a “station” with contrived activity sheets for students to follow; rather, it encouraged talking, writing, exploration, and problem solving directed by the students. After construction, the presence of the igloo also provided plenty of natural opportunities for Ms. Hall and the children to use the vocabulary (like arc).
The intentional interactions Ms. Hall had with the children contributed to the rigor of the study of igloos without disrupting the children’s self-directed learning and exploration. The use of effective questioning techniques enables students to consider various answers and outcomes. Infusing questions that have more than one right answer and encouraging investigation develops in learners the capacity to problem solve and persist. The language and skills Ms. Hall intentionally modeled and the peer collaboration she fostered enhanced the academic learning experience; the children’s growing content knowledge, problem solving, persistence, initiative, and creativity were all mutually reinforcing.
The integration of content areas (math, science, language arts, visual arts, etc.) into the igloo project provided opportunities to engage in meaningful, academically rigorous, student-directed work. This was a shift in practice from the typical lessons these kindergartners had experienced in the past. As in classrooms across the country, the teachers in this school had previously taught subjects according to the schedule and only during those times. In contrast, the igloo project demanded an intersection of content areas and skills that could not be matched by a worksheet or a narrow lesson on one skill or in one subject area.
It is crucial to note that while these types of interactions are at times spontaneous and follow the students’ lead, all are intentional. Ms. Hall planned activities linked to students’ interests and provided opportunities for deeper exploration during center time. At all times, the teacher remains the engineer, infusing key skills, enhancing vocabulary, and linking to learning standards; yet students are afforded the opportunity to independently guide their learning—very often through play. Ms. Hall’s ability to shift from her plan to study skyscrapers to using igloos as the means of learning exemplified the role of teacher moving fluidly from leader to guide yet remaining an intentional instructor with specific learning goals.
After the igloo project concluded, Ms. Hall reflected with the coach. Ms. Hall emphasized the students’ interest in asking questions and exploring concepts and the resulting increase in their vocabulary: “The students have more vocabulary, more questioning. Now if I say a word, at least five or six will ask, ‘What does that mean?’ They want to know more.” She considered the students’ roles as active contributors to their learning and her role in providing meaningful, rigorous, appropriate opportunities for them:
The classroom has a better atmosphere because students are more involved in deciding the learning paths in the classroom, and I ask them their opinions more often. I engage in meaningful conversations with the children about content. Before, I was asking questions with one right answer to test them; but now I am asking more why and what do you think questions, which has increased the talk in the class exponentially!
Many kindergarten teachers (often unwillingly and sometimes unknowingly) succumb to a counterproductive, unrealistic vision of kindergarten that includes test-focused skill development, inappropriate expectations, and misguided teaching practices. It’s time for teachers, administrators, parents, and policy makers to reject that vison—especially for our learners from under-resourced communities and our dual language learners. Effective kindergarten classrooms have balanced—developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous—programs in place. Departing from a didactic, controlling kindergarten curriculum is crucial for supporting all children and for offering the enriched learning experiences that are most likely to close the achievement gap. A well-rounded curriculum that puts students at the center focuses on academic language and content and on approaches to learning (e.g., persistence, collaboration, problem solving). As a field, we must swing the pendulum back toward teachers having the professional discretion to pursue academic rigor in a developmentally appropriate manner.
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Authors’ note: The work reported here was funded by the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation. Views expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.
Photographs: 1,2, 5 © Bob Ebbesen; 3, 4 © Getty Images
Shannon Riley-Ayers, PhD, is a senior program officer at the Nicholson Foundation and was formerly an associate research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. Shannon’s work focuses on improving outcomes for young children. firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Developing Language and Literacy Lab at Teachers College of Columbia University, in New York City. Alex formerly worked at the National Institute for Early Education Research as an assistant research professor. Her work has included numerous studies on improving outcomes for young children, with a specific focus on dual language learners. Alexandra.Daniel@tc.columbia.edu