The teaching of English in the pre-primary classroom is often characterised by a blended whole-child/academic approach to learning. What is the difference between the whole-child and more traditional language-focussed or academic 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 toys and materials designed to promote a variety of skills (both cognitive and non-cognitive). The whole-child approach not only fosters all areas of children’s development and learning—literacy, mathematics, and science understanding as well as social–emotional and cognitive skills—but also it also lays the foundation for lifelong learning. 

Text by Maria Korma, Early Years Specialist, British Council Greece, Spyridoula Matatsi, Early Years Specialist, British Council Greece and Cliff Parry, Academic Lead, British Council Greece

For example, story-telling may provide an opportunity for developing the following domains:

  • Literacy: understanding that print carries a message
  • Communication: enjoying listening to and talking about a story-book
  • Mathematics – counting objects in the story, identifying similar shapes in the classroom
  • Creative expression – copying and colouring simple shapes and objects from the story
  • Social – engaging in a play theme based on the story with 2 or 3 more children
  • Emotional – expressing feelings about the story-book and showing awareness of the feelings of others
  • Natural – comparing things in the story and the world around them
  • Motor skills – using scissors to cut out and simple shape taken from a story
  • The academic focus approach lays 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.  
  • For example, if the aim of the lesson is to teach colours, the following activities might be used in this order:
  • Show and say – show children flashcards of 4 different colours, say the colour and ask the children to repeat chorally and individually
  • Song time – sing a simple song containing the colours and support with gestures. Ask children to copy gestures and then repeat.
  • Colouring time – ask children to colour familiar objects and say what colour it is.
  • Run and stand – put flashcards in different parts of the room, say a colour and ask the children to run and stand next to the flashcard
  • Circle time – hide and point – show children the flashcards, put them on the floor, turn them over and then ask the children to find a particular colour

Recent research has however compared the effectiveness of an academic-focused approach vs. the whole-child one. The study found that young children score higher on tests of school readiness when they get instruction using academic approaches designed to build particular skills, compared to receiving instruction exclusively through the broader whole-child approach. 

Ultimately, the debate between the academic focus and the whole-child curricula will have to be settled through real world experience. The truth as Is generally the case lies somewhere in the middle. •


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