Can Play And Reading Instruction Co-Exist? A Closer Look At This School Year.

Recently, I saw a conversation on Twitter. A kindergarten teacher was sharing her reading score data, and mentioned how a structured literacy approach was allowing all of her students to meet with success. A.trustee replied to this tweet and commended this teacher on prioritizing reading instruction. Then she added in a comment about “no more play based learning.” While the teacher replied to this tweet thanking the trustee for her support, and explaining how play and structured literacy can both occur in a kindergarten classroom, I would like to go even further with this idea and say that the two can co-exist.

As many of my blog readers know, my teaching partner, Paula, and I are strong proponents of play. In fact, our day is divided into long blocks of outdoor and indoor play — all free and child-led — but with provocations and the restricted access to open-ended materials that allow for deep learning to happen. By knowing the Kindergarten Program Document, we can also link the play with program expectations in order to extend the learning. As I mentioned in a blog post back in April, even following two years of a pandemic and school interruptions, this has been our most successful year yet. There are many factors that we think contributed to this. While we were noticing this success back in April, in June, I did a more formal reading assessment on all of our SK students. Here’s a look at the results.

  • All of the students are decoding text in some way, with 11/12 (92%) of the students decoding and comprehending text at or above grade level. Every child can sound out at least three sound words, and use these reading skills when presented with new text. (I should share here that we do not have any students this year with English as their second language, but we do have students with different learning needs (e.g., speech and language difficulties and autism).)
  • Of our 12 SK students, nine of them (75%) are reading text above grade level. Eight of these students are reading text significantly above grade level: reading and comprehending fluently at mid-to-late Grade 1 level, and even late Grade 2 level in one case.
  • Students are thinking about text as they read. They are connecting to other books that they’ve read before, reflecting on what the text is telling them, and even ensuring that what they are reading makes sense. This has never happened as frequently as it did this year. I wonder if our focus on comprehension — now that decoding has become more fluent — has allowed us to see this more frequently.
  • Students are re-reading more than they have before. We use this re-reading approach a lot in class to help build confidence and fluency, while also supporting comprehension. In the past, I rarely had students choose to re-read a sentence during a formal assessment. I had many students choose to do so this year. I have to wonder if this helped more with both the comprehension and fluency that I saw during this assessment.
  • Students are self-correcting errors more than they have in the past. Since Paula and I have taught kids explicitly about different sound combinations and chunking strategies, we find that they are looking to us less to figure out unknown words. While I occasionally gave students the word to help reduce the impact on fluency and comprehension, the decision to do this, rested more with me than with a request from the child of, “What does that say?”
  • Students are more confident readers. Standardized reading assessments might be “standardized,” but there’s still an element of professional judgment. Sometimes students read slower than we expect, but we wonder if they are feeling nervous, so we give them the level. Sometimes the same mistake is made multiple times, and we wonder if we should count this error more than once or not. I often found myself questioning decisions when doing a standardized assessment in the past, but this time, I did not. Kids really knew that they could read the texts in front of them, and I knew that if another educator did the same assessment, the students would do just as well. Maybe the multiple opportunities daily to read orally in the classroom, made a difference.

Yes, our small group and individual reading instruction might not look the same as it has in other years. Guided reading is embedded in play and with a variety of texts, but the instruction is still targeted. Not one of the SK students that we have this year was reading above grade level last year, and only one of the twelve students started JK recognizing all letter names and sounds. Home support, peer support, and planned instruction from both of us made a huge difference for kids … when each of them was truly ready to read. But play was not sacrificed, and for this we’re also grateful, as we wonder if play helps students see a purpose for reading and writing. We can then form connections with kids while targeting academic skills.

As someone who does not do a ton of formal assessment, I was deliberate when doing this reading assessment.

  • I brought the books outside to read with the kids.
  • I found a space on the hill for us to read together. We arranged to have this space slightly away from where the rest of the students were with Paula. This helped reduce the stress of other students listening in.
  • We sat outside in nature and we took a few moments to connect together before reading. Self-Reg was certainly a consideration here.
  • I made sure that none of the students could see the reading level, so it was never a case of comparing numbers.
  • I also gave them a few different books to choose from, and asked students to have a look and “choose the hardest book that they thought that they could read.” They loved having control over this choice, and they all chose the best fit book for them.

Data is very intriguing to me, and these numbers show me that play and targeted daily reading instruction can co-exist. With COVID restrictions, this year was different. We are already thinking about what next year might look like, and now I’m curious to also see how we can maintain and grow this reading instruction through an inquiry- and play-based approach. What do you do? Maybe we can share ideas that will help support all of our learners.


2 thoughts on “Can Play And Reading Instruction Co-Exist? A Closer Look At This School Year.

  1. Thank you for this! I love your approach to literacy that you share on IG. It is such an amazing example of differentiated instruction that is highly responsive to where your students are at. I’ve been doing A LOT of thinking about the implications of a “structured literacy” approach and how we can continue to champion play. Your post came at just the right time for me

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim, and sharing some of your own wonders. Paula and I strongly believe that we shouldn’t lose sight of the pedagogy in the Kindergarten Program Document, even when embracing a more structured literacy approach. We’d love to hear more about what you try, and hope that others will also share their approaches. Exploring the data as part of this process is so important!


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