George Lucas Educational Foundation

5 Ways to Create a Literacy-Rich Preschool Classroom

Consider these straightforward ideas for setting up a literacy-friendly environment for pre-K learners.

May 10, 2024
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Language and literacy skills in preschool and kindergarten are a strong predictor of children’s academic achievement in all subject areas through high school. In light of this, many preschool teachers feel compelled to provide rote, direct instruction to explicitly teach alphabet knowledge and phonics. Contrary to this inclination, theories of child development suggest that children are concrete learners and retain information best when it is grounded in their existing knowledge (e.g., constructivism). Teachers can support this by offering real and meaningful experiences that help children connect new learning to what they already know.

The good news for preschool teachers is that such experiences don’t necessarily require hours of planning and carefully crafted lessons. Preschool classrooms can be filled with literacy-rich materials and opportunities for teachers to facilitate meaningful, contextualized learning throughout children’s day.

Here are five ways that preschool teachers can create a literacy-rich environment that encourages children’s natural curiosity and meaningfully promotes emergent reading and writing skills.

An environment for literacy

1. Label children’s personal items and spaces with their photos and names: Preschoolers first begin to identify the letters in their own names, followed by their friends’ names. Add labels with children’s photos and their names to cubbies, coat hooks, seats, place mats, classroom jobs, or any other individual items you may have in your classroom.

When it is time to put things away, encourage children to find their own name. This not only encourages valuable self-help skills but also helps them begin to identify their names in print. Occasionally, you can also ask children to help a friend put away their items too. For example, “Sally left her water bottle on the table. Can you put it in her cubby?”

When children are ready, remove the photo support and continue with only written names. Ask questions like “How do you know that’s Sally’s cubby?” to guide them toward letter identification in the context of their friends’ names.

2. Label classroom materials with both pictures and words: Environmental print in the classroom serves multiple purposes. First, photos of materials with word labels on baskets, bins, and shelves help children easily find materials and know exactly where those materials belong when they’re cleaning up. They also allow children to see that print has a purpose and that groups of printed letters represent words.

Finally, with adult support, children can begin to associate beginning letters with sounds, using the pictures of familiar classroom materials as a reference. As children are cleaning up, try asking, “What goes in this basket?” and “How do you know?” Encourage them to “read” the label using the pictures and the words.

3. Add books to every learning center or interest area: Books don’t have to be limited only to your classroom library. Adding a basket of topic-related books to each interest area helps children develop an understanding between print and its purpose.

Educator Kristin Rydholm provides some great lists of picture books related to dramatic play, blocks, math, and makerspaces. Here are some relevant topics for books for interest center libraries. 

  • Community helpers, different types of families, and cookbooks in the dramatic play center
  • Buildings, construction, and maps or atlases in the block area
  • Books showcasing famous artists or featuring colors and shapes in the art center
  • Counting, numbers, sorting, and patterns in the math center
  • Critters, nature, and creating with loose parts in the science center
  • Mentor texts in the writing center (like A Squiggly Story, by Andrew Larsen)

4. Offer writing materials in every learning center or interest area: Preschool teachers often have a writing center available in their classroom, but why limit writing to just one space? Adults use writing all the time—from writing out birthday cards to jotting down grocery lists and sticky note reminders, writing is all around us. Young children, who learn best through meaningful and contextualized experiences, should also have opportunities to practice writing for a variety of purposes. Though a well-crafted writing center is important, offer writing materials in every area of the classroom.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children provides tips for strategically placing writing materials throughout the room and connecting emergent writing experiences to topics of interest. Other opportunities for emergent writing practice throughout the classroom may include the following:

  • Taking restaurant orders, making price tags, and more in the dramatic play center
  • Drafting architectural plans and labeling buildings in the block center
  • Recording observations of a science experiment in the science center

5. Create resource rings with relevant vocabulary words: With intentional and continued exposure, young children can build the rich and expansive vocabulary they need for later reading development. As your class explores new topics of interest throughout the year, be intentional about exposing children to new vocabulary words.

Create resource rings with topic-related vocabulary words and picture cues to add to a designated area of the classroom; some teachers may prefer to place these in the writing center. Add a hole punch to each card, and group topic-related word cards on a single binder ring. These school-related vocabulary cards by Karen Cox are a great example. As children are discussing topics of study with their friends, or writing/drawing about their learning, direct them to the resource rings as a tool for remembering and/or writing vocabulary words.

Preschool language and literacy skills are critical for children’s long-term school success, but teachers shouldn’t feel pressured to spend hours planning for direct instruction. Much of children’s early language and literacy learning will occur organically in a literacy-rich preschool classroom. By embedding language and literacy materials throughout the classroom with special attention to each interest area, teachers can encourage literacy development in ways that are engaging, contextualized, and driven by each child’s interest.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • Pre-K

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