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The Science of Reading in Preschool: What Is Helpful in Pre-reading?

Mother and daughter reading

In this podcast episode, we speak with Dr. Susan Zoll. We’re talking about the science of reading in preschool and developing pre-reading skills.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Susan Zoll is associate professor in elementary education at Rhode Island College and author of the book Powerful Literacy in the Montessori Classroom: Aligning Reading Research and Practice, which is about how to incorporate the science of reading into preschool classrooms.



Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Natalie Danner: So welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today we’re talking about the science of reading in preschool, developing pre-reading skills, and we are joined here with Dr. Susan Zoll. Dr. Zoll currently serves the dual role of associate professor in elementary education, as well as the director at the Institute of Early Childhood Teaching and Learning at Rhode Island College, managing the development and implementation of two new bachelor degree programs offered to educators currently working in the field. One is the bachelor of science in early childhood learning, and the other one is the bachelor of science in first through five concentration. She’s also the author of the new book Powerful Literacy in the Montessori Classroom: Aligning, Reading, Research and Practice, with her colleagues Natasha Feinberg and Laura Sailor. And I heard from a little bird that the book just released on Amazon as the No. 1 new release in language experience approach to teaching, and that is so exciting.

Susan Zoll: That was pretty exciting to see. As I wrote on Twitter, you know, No. 1 in any category on Amazon, I’m pretty happy. That was great.

Natalie Danner: It’s exciting, and we thank you so much for being with us today.

Susan Zoll: And I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for the invitation, Natalie.

Natalie Danner: Great, so today we’re eager to hear from you as a teacher, educator, and researcher, because our listeners, who are early childhood educators, want to learn ways to incorporate research-based practices into preschool pre-reading activities. So, let’s begin with a really broad question: What is the science of reading?

Susan Zoll: You’re right, it’s a good place to begin. I think that there is a lot of confusion around that term. So I’m going to give you a formal definition, and then we’ll kind of do one that’s more informal to kind of understand it a little better. So, a formal definition of the science of reading it’s that it’s that it’s a compendium of research. Right? It’s a huge amount of research that provides evidence of what works in reading instruction. The research is not just from the field of education but also integrates research from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive studies, speech language pathology, special education, and specifically around dyslexia. It’s a very comprehensive review of reading research over the last 30 to 40 years.

So that’s a more formal way of defining it. And another way we could think about this definition is to think about a file cabinet as a metaphor for the term science of reading. Now, picture the drawers of that file cabinet, and each one is labeled with a single area of literacy development. Such as one drawer is labeled in large letters, “Vocabulary.” Another drawer is labeled “Phonological Awareness,” or “Sight Words,” or “Background Knowledge,” and each of these drawers contains research.

So that when I open the drawer, I can easily access the studies that have improved students’ literacy learning and really that’s what’s important, isn’t it? I don’t want to use a method of teaching that has been shown to not support student learning, right? I want to be sure that my instruction is effective and supports children’s learning and development. So, for example, this file cabinet has a drawer labeled “Phonological Awareness.” If I open it, then there are only those research studies that focused on letter sounds, whether it’s the initial sounds of words, or onset and rhymes of words, or other studies with positive outcomes related to students learning—rhyming skills. All of these studies that increase children’s literacy learning in this specific area of learning. This is the science of reading.

Natalie Danner: It’s a very comprehensive view of what the science of reading is, because I think a lot of teachers have questions about it. Is it something new? They know that it’s something that they need to know about, but they might not know what it is, so I’m glad that you gave us an overview of it. Now, when we’re talking about the preschool years, is the science of reading intended for the preschool years? And if so, how?

Susan Zoll: So, is the science of reading intended for the preschool years? Absolutely. I can’t say that emphatically enough. Absolutely. In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative for the sake of our preschool students and their ability to have successful academic careers that we must align what happens in our preschool classrooms with reading research. There may be educators who are listening to this conversation, who believe that reading research applies only to students as they enter elementary school.

But let’s take a moment and think about a student’s academic timeline. If a child attends a preschool that has great social emotional support and incorporates lots of free play but does not incorporate developmentally appropriate early literacy activities into each day, we will have missed out on precious opportunities to build early literacy skills before they enter their first day of kindergarten. And look, research tells us what we will see for students who have had limited literacy opportunities before they into kindergarten. That as they enter kindergarten, they will most likely not be able to recognize letters in the alphabet or the letters in their name or be able to identify rhyming words or match some letter sounds with correct letter symbols, or possibly, and to be honest, Natalie, this is the toughest one for me to accept: That they will have a very narrow or limited vocabulary which will impact their reading comprehension and future vocabulary development.

So, if we go quickly, just back to that student’s academic timeline. If we want to have students who are successful readers by third grade, we must dedicate our efforts in building a strong foundation in early literacy during these preschool years. Early childhood educators, all of you who are listening, you are an essential component to third-grade reading outcomes that we are striving for, both in Illinois and across the country. Learning to read is essential. It is the human rights issue of our era.

Natalie Danner: Wow! That’s powerful. Thank you, Susan. I’m going to come back to a question that I had on my list from before, which was: Some teachers might think that the science of reading is just another curriculum for teaching literacy. Is that true?

Susan Zoll: Ah Natalie, ha ha! That’s a really important question. We’re going to go right back to this area of confusion around this terminology of science of reading. First, let me say what it’s not. Let’s begin there. Science of reading is not. It’s not a curriculum, and it’s not a literacy program. Another thing that it’s not. It’s also not focused solely on phonics. It’s so much more than just phonics. So, it’s not a curriculum. You can’t go out and buy science of reading.

So, here’s what it is. Here’s what it’s important for teachers and preschool directors, administrators to know about the science of reading. We should be using this research. Right? “Science of reading” to select which curriculum we purchase and use in our preschool classrooms. For preschool directors and teachers, like right now, just go to your curriculum box and go and find that teacher guide. And I want you to look at the table of contents.

Remember those labeled drawers in that file cabinet that we were just talking about? How many elements of evidence-based literacy practices are actually outlined in that table of contents? A comprehensive early childhood literacy curriculum should include a huge focus on concept development and vocabulary development. Literacy knowledge such as consciousness of print, can a child identify where to begin reading and which direction to read? Can they identify the title of the book, or the difference between words and images?

The curriculum should also include a focus on phonological awareness, the sounds or individual phonemes within words. Can they hear, and then in time produce rhymes? And can we offer young children’s opportunities for early phonics experiences by helping them make connections between letter symbols and sounds that those symbols make. To meet all of these foundational skills, to be honest, we’ll actually probably have to select several early childhood curricula. It’s very difficult to find one curriculum that is going to solve all of those areas of literacy, and Natalie, you and I know of one. We know of one curricula pedagogy, and honestly, the Montessori pedagogy, it covers a lot of these skills that are needed.

Natalie Danner: Thank you for that good discussion about the curriculum question. Now, when we’re talking about reading and preschool, some people can be really concerned that academic goals are pushed down to young children before they’re really developmentally ready. Is the goal of science of reading in preschool for the child to be reading by preschool, or even by kindergarten? And if not, what are some of those goals when we are focusing on the science of reading in preschool?

Susan Zoll: Hmm. And aren’t you so grateful for those advocates who stand up to defend play and ensure that children are not being asked to be complete worksheets, or to memorize sentences as a supposed pathway to reading? I know that every day I’m so grateful for their advocacy on behalf of young children on what are developmentally appropriate practices. I think you’ve raised a real concern in our field.

But here’s the good news. Not one of the foundational skills that we’ve already been talking about this morning needs to be learned through these outdated instructional methods. Instead, there are many effective play-based strategies, teachers in preschool classrooms, Head Start programs, home school or family childcare programs that they can integrate into their classrooms today. So, before we talked, I was looking at the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards online, which is, I got to be honest, which was a great resource, and it devotes an entire standard to preschool children’s development in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, right? Their ELA skills.

Now the standards clearly state that it’s not the expectation for children to be reading and writing per se in preschool. Right? That’s not what the standard is saying. The language is actually taken from the Common Core standards, right? So, they’re trying to align preschool with where children are heading towards in kindergarten, and beyond. That’s where that language comes from. Instead, it’s how we scaffold these emergent skills through play. Another standard that you have about multilanguage learners, and how to support a child’s home language, their vocabulary, background knowledge, that will later influence their ability to learn English.

And another standard focused on the arts. Think about your dramatic play areas. How are they arranged? If it’s a restaurant theme this month, do we have menus and small notepads to take someone’s lunch order? If it’s the veterinarian’s office, do we have images of different animals on the wall that are labeled with their names? And here’s something that I’m really specific about. Let’s say that in this veterinarian’s office of your dramatic play, on the wall that I have images, and it’s not just a picture of a dog, but it’s a picture of a Dalmatian. That it’s not just a picture of a, oh, help me with another one, it’s not just a picture of a horse, but it’s actually of a foal. That we’re getting children correct terminology and defining that for them all through play, and not a single worksheet is seen anywhere around.

Let’s see. What else could there be? Are there books? Oh, my goodness, are we putting books in different areas of the classroom that are helping to support whatever your theme is? Really, we should be looking at nonfiction text to build that background knowledge and the vocabulary. I will say one thing that I have seen. There’s a researcher from Harvard University’s Project Zero. His name is Ben Mardell. I love his work. He has this great activity where he sits down with a child, and he asks them to tell him a story, and while the child is developing the characters, the scene, and the plot of her story, he’s writing down every word.

Then he reads her short little story back to her, asking if he missed anything. Once the child approves of her story, right? He reads it back, and she says, yep, that’s what I said. Together, they then identify children to help act out the story while Ben reads it aloud at circle time. Now that is a play-based, literacy-rich learning experience.

Natalie Danner: There’s so many things there to really focus on for early childhood educators. I loved how you talked about the books and the wealth of information that children can learn from just playing in maybe the dramatic play area and talking about vocabulary. So, modeling those words to children, and learning that rich vocabulary is so important. Thinking about things like it’s not just a building, it’s a skyscraper! And things like that are part of I think the literacy curriculum that are often forgotten versus talking about what are your ABCs and 123s?

Susan Zoll: Oh God forbid, letter of the week. Let’s stop that practice. You’re actually raising something for me, and I will send you the link to this if you would like to use it, or to provide it for the folks who are listening. It was an article for, and I don’t have the top half of it, it’s an article about play experiences in preschool and kindergarten that are aligned to the science of reading. And I’ll send you that PDF.

It came out in 2021, but what I liked is and I agree, so I think one other piece around play and children’s literacy learning, is that what’s the adult doing during this play time? Right? When we use that word scaffolding? What is that, and what does it look like? And this article actually talks about four different ways that adults interact in play. There are three teacher roles that support play. The onlooker, the player, and the leader.

The onlooker role occurs when the teacher serves as an audience for the play and acknowledges the children’s activities. Really, I’m just narrating what’s happening and what I see. The player role is when a teacher enters the play-frame to take on one of the roles. So maybe I’m joining in, and maybe it’s housekeeping in the dramatic play, and I ask, what am I going to be in this? And the child would say, oh, today you’re going to be the baby, right? And I would say, okay, and what kind of language? I’m asking the children to kind of tell me how I should be reacting in my role as I join their play. Right? But this is an opportunity for me to scaffold what that might look like and to really develop that language.

Finally, the leader role happens, and this I think we tend to do more often than not, is when the teacher structures the play. This includes setting up the props or suggesting play ideas, such as a makeshift booth to simulate voting is what the authors say in there. But I liked having this view. It’s almost like, okay, if you’re going to plan for a play activity, what’s your role? Are you going to be looking? Are you going to be engaged in the play? And in what way, or are you going to be simply a leader role in setting it up?

Natalie Danner: That article sounds like a great one, and we will add that to the show notes so that our listeners can definitely link to that and read it as well. So, you’ve touched on this already. But let me see if you have anything additional to add to it, which is when teachers are fully implementing the science of reading in a preschool classroom, what might that look like, or what might occur in the classroom. You’ve talked already about some of the dramatic play areas and centers that might help in this and support pre- literacy skills. So what might a teacher do in read alouds or other things that are typical to a preschool classroom?

Susan Zoll: Natalie, I could go on for hours on this, so I think that you’ve said it in your lovely introduction, but having worked on three Early Reading First grants from 2004 to 2012 in an ECP randomized control trial, and all of it looked at children’s language and literacy and coaching and using data and collecting assessments of young children and using that data to inform what was happening in the classrooms. Yes, we could talk about lots of different ways of what this will look like in the classroom. So, just as you said, we have talked about dramatic play area.

So, let’s think about the block area. We could have large sheets of butcher paper for children to re-create their block creations on paper. They can use that emergent writing skills then, to describe what they built, right? As best as they can sound out the letters of what it is that they built. Or, another way, we might put images on the wall in the block area of key architecture around the world, like the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids, as well as books to support their understanding of where these structures are geographically, or what are some important vocabulary associated with them. And children can try to recreate these structures with the blocks from the block area. So that’s one thing that we could do in another area of the classroom.

You know, and I’m going to go back to the Illinois website. The Illinois standards also has a great spot on that website for specific literacy, quote unquote, tip sheets. There are so many easily accessible options for teachers to implement in their classrooms, but the one that I spend a lot of time with, even with my preservice teachers now is around read alouds. And so, there are evidence-based practices in using one type of read aloud technique, and it’s called dialogic reading. I use that one a lot. I’ve read a lot of it worked by David Dickinson. There are others that have written about dialogic reading.

So dialogic reading, this is when we select only certain books. You don’t do this with every book, only key books with rich vocabulary or that are going to help to support topics that you’re discussing in your class. You select certain books to read multiple times, and each reading has a specific purpose. For example, the first reading may solely be a picture walk, right? We’re going to turn the pages, we’re going to have the children look at the images, to explore the characters, and maybe predict what the story is going to be about.

The second reading, I kind of divert a little bit from what dialogic reading says, but in my experience, I think it’s really important for us to have a first reading where the children learn that we’re not going to be talking about the vocabulary words. You’re going to hold your questions until the end, and we’re going to listen to the words that the author has put on the page. We’re going to just listen to the story to appreciate it.

And then the third reading, children are beginning to retain the storyline, right? Now, I’ve heard it a couple of times, they’re beginning to know what happens next. And now I’m going to start highlighting some key vocabulary. I might put some sticky notes with a definition on the page, so it’ll remind me to point it out to the children. These tier-two words. Words that I wouldn’t necessarily use in my everyday language, but I want to make sure that the children expand their vocabulary.

And by the fourth reading, I begin to ask them questions. Some of these questions might be really explicitly linked to the text, such as hmm, what did she forget to bring with her on the trip? Right? That’s something specific from the text. But other questions might be something that children need to do to infer meaning. This is another piece of reading comprehension. They have to infer text meaning, and I might say, hmm, why do you think she was angry? There isn’t a place on the page that states that explicitly and children are going to have to explain why they think a character is upset.

And the fifth and final portion of dialogic reading. We want to move ownership of this storytelling to the children, right? We want it so that I might begin to read the page, but I might stop before I get to the end of the sentence, and have the children, because they already know it by heart, they’ll be able to tell you what the end of that, so how it ends. Or what it is that the character might repeat over and over on certain pages. Or another way to do this fifth part is to have children re-create the story, so it’s kind of like dress up, as I might be turning the pages, but they are acting out the storyline. Dialogic has been proven to be a very effective way to increase children, both their comprehension and the vocabulary development. I highly recommend it as a practice.

Natalie Danner: We will link some resources to dialogic reading, and read alouds, too, at the end of this podcast, so that our listeners can have those resources as well. I think it’s a great practice to try in the classroom, and repeated readings have been shown to really help children understand those books that are being read to them. So, I think that’s important for preschool teachers to know about.

Susan Zoll: That’s great. Thank you, Natalie, for doing that.

Natalie Danner: Sure. So, we come to our last question here. What are some small steps that preschool teachers can take to incorporate the science of reading into their daily routines and activities with young children?

Susan Zoll: Okay, small steps. I’ll name four. First, it’s simple. Read. Read all the time. Read to whole groups of children. Small groups of children. Read to them one on one as well. Host professional development opportunities for parents to support reading at home. Go to the library, pick up lots of nonfiction text or informational text. These books will automatically provide you with rich vocabulary to add to your curriculum. So that was one.

So that’s the first step. Focus on vocabulary and background knowledge. I’ll also add that phonological awareness can be supported through great rhyming stories or through music. Gosh! I used to bring my guitar into my classroom all the time and sing Raffi songs, you know, like “Down by the Bay.” Great rhyming opportunities. Oh, and I see you bobbing your heads. They can’t see you, right? Oh, it’s just perfect for helping children with their rhyming, and that’s such an important skill and something that I will say, I’m not a special educator.

But I do know, through my experience of working with young children, when children, 4 and 5, sometimes even 3, when they struggle to hear rhymes. I’m not asking them to make rhymes. I don’t say to a child, here’s the word cat. Can you make a word that rhymes with it? They don’t know what you’re asking. But can I say cat, hat? Do those words rhyme? Can children hear how they’re the same? Cat, dog? Do those words rhyme? Or cat, bed? Do those words rhyme? No, they don’t sound like cat, mat, cat, hat. We want children to hear that sense of rhyming. When there’s an issue, a long-standing issue. Not the first time you’re presenting this. This could be a red flag, something to be looking for. That means that children might have a hard time holding on to the sounds of letters, so that it’s going to make it difficult for them to begin with those C-V-C words in time when they’re ready.

So, to go back to the steps, another small step, add paper throughout your classroom, right? Different sizes. Different colors. Add them to all the centers in your classroom. Create authentic writing opportunities. Have you added a new material to your classroom, and you know everyone wants to use it at the same time, right? A perfect time for an authentic writing opportunity. Get a small clipboard, put some lines on the paper, and tell the children to write your name down, and you’ll be next in line to use this new activity you’ve brought into the classroom.

Authentic writing, it’s purposeful. And they serve also, you now would have some evidence that you could show children’s name writing over time. Here was a sample of a name writing activity that we did in September, and I could compare it again in November. Do I see growth? Are children able to write all the letters in their name? Are there areas that I need to go and work on with specific children.

And one request, and I said it earlier, I’m going to repeat it again, that’s how strongly I feel about it. If you’re teaching a letter of the week in your preschool classrooms, please consider providing a more individualized instructional routine. Teach children either working with individual children, or at most small groups, to recognize two to three letter sounds with letter symbols, right? Because once they know, they don’t have to know all the letter sounds. They just have to know some.

If I only know the letters, C-A-T, that’s all I know. But if I know the sounds that go with those letters. C-A-T, yeah. I can begin to read. And I don’t need to know all the sounds, just 10 to 12 sounds, and I can move towards these encoding or making these three- or four-letter phonetic words. Mmm-at M-A-T. So, we could really in preschool, we could be moving children in this direction, and it was all play-based. We did not use a single worksheet. And we didn’t make children sit there for extended periods of time. It was play. Children are often ready and eager to learn more, especially if the learning is engaged through play.

Natalie Danner: Thank you so much, Dr. Zoll, for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. And until next time thank you and keep early learning at the forefront.

Susan Zoll: Thank you, Dr. Danner.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.


Rand, M. K., & Morrow, L. M. (2021). The contribution of play experiences in early literacy: Expanding the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56, S239-S248.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2023