Content Matters

Content matters in early childhood education. As was detailed in American Educator's last issue, poor children reach age 3 having heard 30 million fewer words than their affluent counterparts. Since words represent knowledge, these young children are likely to enter kindergarten with not only a language deficit, but without the basic knowledge and concepts that underlie school learning. Many have had little practice with certain preacademic skills, few opportunities for creative play, and little socialization in the ways of school. Early education must systematically and creatively, and with due attention to children's developmental needs and abilities, introduce children to the knowledge they need. We offer here snippets from three sources that have outlined and sequenced the knowledge preschool children should be exposed to.

The first is a list of prereading skills identified in the National Academy of Science's Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success. The second is taken from one of the month-by-month guides in the Core Knowledge Foundation's preschool sequence. The third is a portion of the "Discovering the World" goals taken from the French national curriculum for the école maternelle, France's world-reknowned, publicly-funded preschool program that enrolls (on a voluntary basis) virtually all of the nation's 3- and 4-year-olds. In each case, the content to be conveyed is clear; so is the need to convey it in ways that are appropriate to the energetic, creative minds of 3- and 4-year-olds.


National Academy of Science

Recommended Prereading Accomplishments for 3- to 4-Year-Olds.

  • Knows that alphabet letters are a special category of visual graphics that can be individually named.
  • Recognizes print in the local environment.
  • Knows that it is the print that is read in stories.
  • Understands that different text forms are used for different functions of print (e.g., a list for groceries is different than the list on a menu).
  • Pays attention to separable and repeating sounds in language (e.g., in Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater: Peter Eater).
  • Uses new vocabulary and grammatical constructions in own speech.
  • Understands and follows oral directions.
  • Is sensitive to some sequences of events in stories.
  • Shows an interest in books and reading.
  • When being read a story, connects information and events to real-life experiences.
  • Questions and comments demonstrate understanding of literal meaning of story being told.
  • Displays reading and writing attempts, calling attention to self: "Look at my story."
  • Can identify about 10 alphabet letters, especially those from own name.
  • Writes (scribbles) message as part of playful activity.
  • May begin to attend to beginning or rhyming sounds in salient words.

Core Knowledge Foundation

Samples of the Suggested January Goals for 4-Year-Olds

Mathematical Reasoning

  • Continue a complex, 2-color pattern of objects as represented by a pattern card.
  • Create and verbally describe a pattern of concrete objects.
  • Divide an object into approximately equal pieces for 2 people.
  • Name and match the numerals 1-6 with the corresponding quantities.

Orientation in Time and Space

  • Time: Use a yearlong timeline to mark events. [Engaged in all year.]
  • Time: Sequence and describe photos and/or drawings that represent a timeline of one's life and experiences.
  • Time: Sequence photos and/or drawings of a baby, school-age child, young adult, elderly adult, and describe in terms of the progression of the stages of development in the life of one person.
  • Space: Match halves of symmetrical objects to make wholes.
  • Space: Mark the location of specific objects, places on a simple map of a familiar location.
  • Space: Jungle [other months include forest, mountain, island, etc.].

École Maternelle

Samples of the Preschool Curriculum

Discovering the world of objects

  • Using various technical objects in functional situations (life at school, nutrition and cooking, internal and/or external communication, games, building workshops, etc.).
  • Playing construction games.
  • Assembling objects and taking them apart.
  • Building objects: project involving the creation of an object, choices of appropriate tools and materials for the task, specific technical acts (folding, cutting, gluing, etc.).

Discovering the world of matter

  • Discovering some of the properties of natural materials (wood, earth, stone, etc.).
  • Introducing the notion of air (wind, etc.).
  • Introducing the notion of water (liquid, rain, snow, ice).
  • Observing the effects of light (shadows).

Discovering live matter

  • Discovering one's own body, both the entire body and body parts.
  • Observing some characteristics of life (birth, growth, development, aging, and death).
  • Introducing some of the important functions of life (growth, locomotion, nutrition, reproduction) by observing life in various environments (in the classroom or during outings close-by: visit to a pond, animal farm, etc.) or through audiovisual material.

Discovering natural and human-made spaces; sensitization to environmental issues

  • Visually appraising shapes and dimensions.
  • Discovering, observing, and describing nature (plants, animals), the immediate environment and less familiar spaces.
  • Learning practical activities such as gardening or caring for animals.
  • Identifying varied environments: countryside, sea, mountain, plain, forest, stream, river, waterway, city, etc.
  • Observing human constructions: houses, businesses, roads, etc.
  • Consciousness-raising about the importance of waste materials, etc.
  • Learning to identify sources of pollution: noise, odors, etc.


The National Academy of Science's Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success is available online at The Core Knowledge Foundation's Preschool Sequence: Content and Skills Guidelines for Preschool can be ordered (for $25 each) by calling 800/238-3233; more information on the sequence is available at The curriculum for the école maternelle, Programmes de l'École Primaire Français: English Translation (1996), is developed by France's Ministry of Education. To read more about the école maternelle in English, visit the French-American Foundation's Web site at

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Content Matters

American Educator, Summer 2003