Preschool Curriculum: What Works?

preschool curriculum

In the preschool curriculum world, Is the whole-child or a literacy- and math-focused approach more effective for preparing children for kindergarten? This is a topic we have covered before (see here and here), but new reports keep the debate alive.

A recent Education Week article cites a study that compared the effectiveness of an academic-focused curriculum vs. the whole child curriculum, which (the study notes) is the curriculum mandated for the federal Head Start Program. The study found that “young children score higher on tests of school readiness when they get supplemental instruction using curricula designed to build their literacy and math skills, compared to receiving instruction exclusively through the broader whole-child approach.”

Preschool Curriculum Approaches


The recent research … compared several literacy-focused programs and a math program to two whole-child programs, Creative Curriculum and HighScope, that are widely used in private and public preschools. In a 2011 survey, for example, two-thirds of Head Start providers reported using either The Creative Curriculum or HighScope.

“The improvements in school readiness that came with supplemental instruction to the whole-child approach were modest in literacy and strong in math at the start of the kindergarten year. By the end of kindergarten, however, those gains were no longer statistically significant.”

What is the Difference Between the Whole-Child and the Academic Focus Approaches?
The whole-child approach, ”rather than directing teachers in their explicit academic instruction, … seeks to promote learning by encouraging children to engage independently in a classroom stocked with prescribed toys and materials designed to promote noncognitive and, in some cases, cognitive skills …” while typically providing only general guidance to teachers on daily activities. The academic focus approach “lay[s] out specific activities aimed at building up the targeted skills, while still allowing for child-directed activities.” It offers “sequenced, explicit instruction, where instructional content is strategically focused on those skills. Content-specific curricula often supplement a classroom’s regular curriculum … and provide instruction through developmentally-sound ‘free play’ and exploration activities in small or large groups, or individually.”
Definitions: ”Boosting School Readiness: Should Preschool Teachers Target Skills or the Whole Child?”


The specific findings include:

  • A literacy-focused curriculum had a modest, but significantly better outcome on tests of literacy skills than the whole-child curriculum did.
  • A math-focused curriculum had a larger improved outcome on tests of math skills (compared to the improvement in literacy skills) than the whole-child curriculum did.
  • None of these improved outcomes remained statistically significant through the end of kindergarten, instead showing the fade-out effect commonly observed in preschool programs.

Naturally, proponents of the whole-child approach debate the findings. The creators of Creative Curriculum charge that the study used an outdated version of their program (and in fact the study drew data from 2008), and that the new version provides detailed, day-to-day guidance for teachers on how to implement the program. Additionally, a focus solely on academic skills, whole-child advocates say, neglect the other skills children develop from a whole-child approach, but advocates of an academic focus say that those other skills are developed through their approach as well.

It is important to note that the study does not conclude that a solely academically focused curriculum is best for preschoolers, but its findings suggest that an effective preschool curriculum include an academic focus rather than only engaging in the whole-child approach. The study also notes that no curriculum was followed specifically according to its particular guideline, but that the analysis reflected real-world teaching conditions. (The fade-out effect is its own concern, as we have discussed previously.)

Ultimately, the debate between the academic focus and the whole-child curricula will have to be settled through real world experience, but the weight that current public policy gives to the whole-child curriculum makes this a vital question for further research.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us