Tisha Shipley

Early Childhood Education: Implementing Developmentally Appropriate Practices into Literacy Instruction

A top priority for early childhood educators is to teach children to read. Using developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) while incorporating foundational concepts into lessons help teachers differentiate instruction, engage students in the learning process, and increase achievement of all children. While students are treated as unique individuals, all practices should be appropriate to the child's age and developmental stage and build on previously taught concepts. The purpose of this article is to explore teachers' experiences as they implement DAP into their literacy instruction. It also examines obstacles they face as they implement their practices.

Early childhood education has become very popular in the last several years and is being highly acknowledged and recognized by educational institutions and important government figures (Pelo, 2008). A significant amount of money has been put into early education lately because of the positive affects the programs are having on students' future success in school (U.S Department of Education and Health and Human Services, 2011). In early childhood classrooms, the focus should be on DAP that incorporates the physical, social, emotional, and cultural development of the whole child with diverse populations in relation to literacy instruction (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007).

Literacy is the core and foundation level of teaching. This allows children to build on basic skills which start in early childhood classrooms. Teachers must effectively plan literacy instruction, reflect on developmental stages of children, the interests of those children, and allow them to engage in the learning and problem solving process (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Early childhood professionals that employ a literacy-engaging atmosphere where DAP is used prove to have thriving and successful students (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). When DAP is employed in classroom environments, lessons are more successful, highly effective, and all students benefit throughout each learning domain in relation to literacy instruction (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

Implementing developmentally appropriate practices into classroom literacy instruction means meeting the students at the developmental stage they are currently and enabling them to reach goals that are set for them. DAP reduces learning gaps, increases achievement for all children, and allows students to share and engage in the learning process while they solve their own problems as they learn new information (Compple & Bredekamp, 2009). Developmentally appropriate practices are proven in research to help children succeed.

A teacher that implements DAP into his teaching employs a busy classroom where students are self-engaged, interacting physically with objects and people, mentally processing, and constructing knowledge that builds on previous learning (Beaty, 2009). A DAP classroom has direct-hands-on interaction, is full of materials, activities, and interactions that lead to different kinds of knowledge that young children should acquire during the early years (Beaty 2009). As educators we choose teaching strategies that best fit our students by using our knowledge of children, child development, and learners and how they learn, how to plan curriculum, understanding what the goals are, and learning styles.

Purpose of the Study

Current literature in the area of DAP is theory-driven as it gives recommendations for implementation and theories about what a classroom should look like (Van Tassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2005). This study closes that gap and investigates teachers' experiences and obstacles they face as they implement DAP into their literacy instruction, and gives examples of developmentally appropriate literacy teaching strategies these teachers use that work in their classrooms.


The process for collecting the data for this study entailed interviewing six early childhood teachers, who have at least two years' experience teaching young children, have the ability to use and knowledge of DAP, and were able to provide a comprehensive description of their experiences with DAP. All six teachers possess an early childhood degree from an accredited university and are highly-qualified to teach in an early childhood environment. The face-to-face interview consisted of nine open-ended questions, but other materials such as logs, journals, diaries, or lesson plans were also collected. Each teacher brought to the study a different perspective of what kind of educational preparation and background they had with DAP.

Through the analysis of the data, four overlapping themes surfaced:

  1. Teachers perception of DAP is positive,
  2. Collaboration is irrelevant,
  3. Relevant professional development is important and pertinent to helping teachers implement DAP, and
  4. All classroom teachers have barriers they face when implementing or using DAP in their teaching practices.

Perception of DAP was consistent and positive throughout this study, and was seen as pertinent to each participant. They each feel DAP fosters greater learning and retention of the information being taught. The teachers each reported that they believed in and have a personal philosophy of helping children succeed. They each reported that they try their best to incorporate DAP into their personal teaching practices on a daily and consistent basis.

As the teachers were interviewed, the benefits of implementing DAP were very prominent. Early childhood teachers realize how young children develop and learn and know what students need to develop skills on their own time (Morrow, 2009).

Each teacher in the study reported having some sort of professional development and that it is very important to how well one teaches in the classroom. They were each understanding about budgets and limitations to what kind and how much professional development they received each year. All participants when asked said they did want more professional development for their teaching practices and wants it to be meaningful to what they are doing in their classrooms. As each teacher voiced what he believed to constitute as relevant professional development, the best DAP teaching strategies believed to help children in the classroom with literacy development surfaced.

There are many DAP teaching strategies that teachers use to reach children. Teachers often try several teaching strategies to reach all types of learners in their classroom. Collaboration, professional development, and continuing education help teachers to learn new ways to incorporate DAP so that students succeed, want to succeed, and feel that success.

The fourth theme that arose from the data was barriers that teachers face when they try to implement DAP into their literacy instruction. Interview results indicated that every teacher faces barriers in the classroom. Barriers can range from administration, government mandates, education, professional development, and budgeting constraints. Additionally, testing, time, and supportive staff and administration, along with large class sizes and different learning levels, make incorporating DAP into literacy instruction a challenge for teachers.

It was found during the collection of the data in this study that a classroom atmosphere must be inviting, nurturing, and engaging. Children must be evaluated, and the teacher must use a variety of instructional practices such as modeling, encouraging words, differentiation, small groups, and demonstration for children to understand and master new skills. Professional development is important, and barriers must be overcome.

Each participant in this study discussed teaching strategies that best fit their teaching practices. For young children to develop literacy skills they need time to engage, practice, and participate in meaningful activities where they can interact and respond with peers on reading and writing efforts. The next section gives developmentally appropriate teaching strategies teachers can incorporate into their teaching practices (Rockwell, Hoge, & Searcy, 1999).

Developmentally Appropriate Literacy Instruction

Direct Instruction

A teacher stands in front of 20 four-year olds and explicitly shows them how to hold a book correctly. She points at the picture on the cover and they brainstorm on what the book may be about. She shows the title of the book and points to each word as she reads them showing one to one correspondence. Then she opens the book and proceeds to read it. This model of instruction is called direct instruction. Direct instruction (sometimes referred to as explicit instruction) can be used in a small group, large group, or in a one-on-one situation (Beaty, 2009). Direct instruction is used to teach many lessons in an early childhood classroom, and can be incorporated into centers, small groups, free play, guided reading, and large group activity where the teacher is providing the instruction and the students are engaged in their learning.


In another early childhood classroom a teacher sets the environment up into individual themed areas children can choose from. When visitors come to the classroom they see small motor skills, gross motor skills, blocks, computers, arts and crafts, and sand and water areas that are engaging, differentiated, and meaningful to children. DAP can include thematic instruction as literacy content is presented (Morrow, 2004). Centers in an early childhood classroom are meaningful and beneficial in many ways and are most often presented through a theme so that they are meaningful to the students. Centers are used for self-initiated and self-directed activities that students can choose and learn at their own pace. Not only do students become deeply involved in their own learning, centers also allow students to become part of a classroom community where they can progress at their own rate and choose activities that are purposeful to them individually (Beaty, 2009). Centers encourage social interaction, stimulate language, and help teachers to enrich the everyday curriculum (Pate, 2009).

Children are able to explore, work with others, interact, engage in language and literacy development, and be active in centers. These areas will increase their vocabulary, practice effective expression, use language to describe, compare, and relate, create stories, resolve conflict, and begin learning the usefulness of daily experiences of literacy activities (Rockwell et al., 1999). Centers provide a rich and abundant source of literacy development opportunities.

Free Play

Imagine entering a classroom where children are dressed as doctors, towers are being built, red and blue paint is being used for the picture of an American flag, children are walking on a balance beam in the middle of the room, and play dough cookies are being made and baked. The individual areas children can choose from allow them to converse, pretend, and explore their physical environment which benefits all areas of literacy instruction (Beaty, 2009). This teaching strategy is called free play which sparks curiosity, allowing children to practice not only fine and gross motor skills, but also oral language, and even achieve mastery in many areas. Through this type of self-exploratory play, objects and materials become real world manipulatives where they can develop their own sense of the world and their learning styles.

Small Group Instruction

In another classroom a teacher sits on the floor with a small group of children in front of her. They are discussing a story. The teacher models how to read print from left to right, they discuss what is happening on each page, and problem solve how the story may or may not end and why. This is called small group instruction and it allows for open-ended learning opportunities that are relevant and meaningful to each group (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 2007). Small group instruction is effective because teaching is focused on what each student in the group needs (Iaquinta, 2006).

Guided Reading

In this last classroom example there is a horseshoe-shaped table with four students and one teacher sitting around it. They are fluently reading a passage together in unison. They are using expression and connotation. After they are finished the students engage in a grand conversation about the story. This practice is called guided reading which increases students' comprehension, fluency, phonics, phonemic awareness, and provides opportunities for students to engage in critical and analytical reading patterns (Fisher, 2008). Re-teaching, enrichment, teacher observations, self-monitoring, and helping children become more confident readers are all goals in a guided reading group (Morrow, 2009).


All practices in an early childhood classroom should be appropriate to the child's age and developmental stage. In 2001, approximately 12 million children between birth and age six were receiving educational services by someone other than their parent (McDonald, 2009). This statistic shows how powerful early childhood education, and the implementation of DAP in the early years, is significant.

Research indicates a positive correlation between a highly qualified early childhood classroom that uses DAP and later school success (Birdwell, 2009) and educators' teaching strategies have a direct effect on student achievement (Van-Tassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2005). The focus of this study was to give teachers a voice and allow them to describe their experiences in implementing DAP.

Every day, teachers encounter problems, obstacles, and constructs that hinder them from incorporating teaching strategies into the classroom setting (Goldstein, 2008). Administrative support and allowing teachers to not only teach mandates, but allow them to teach the way they know is best for young children through the use of DAP and teaching strategies allows teachers to teach children and differentiate instruction to best fit each child. It will also allow teachers to communicate their thoughts and needs about what types of professional development would benefit their classroom practices and students. Aspiring teacher candidates, administrators, and teachers will all benefit from this study by administrators better understanding how they can be supportive, teachers can share, and support one another through obstacles they are facing, and teacher candidates will better understand what they will face as they enter the teaching profession.

Using Centers in Your Classroom

If a class is studying fall for example, literacy activities throughout the day are embedded into centers so that students will gain information about the season. The following is a teacher plan for literacy instruction using the theme fall.

  • Monday Center: Library Center
    The teacher would plan on having all types of fall books available for students, including picture books, informational books, rhyming books, concept books, fairytales, and fantasy. Students have the opportunity to choose books to read or to listen to. Some great books for young children for the fall include: Katie McKy's Pumpkin Town! Or, Nothing Is Better and Worse Than Pumpkins (2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Amy and Richard Hutching's Picking Apples and Pumpkins (1994, Scholastic), and Betsy Maestro's Why Do Leaves Change Color? (1994, HarperCollins). This center teaches concept of print, brainstorming, retelling, phonological and phonemic awareness, and prediction (Dodge, Colker & Heroman, 2002). Children in the library center will explore different types of stories and books, learn to listen for understanding, recognize written words are symbols, begin matching words with printed text and then recognize printed words, sight words, and high frequency words (Dodge et., al 2002).
  • Tuesday Center: Writing Center
    The teacher brainstorms with students on fall words, putting these words followed by a picture in the literacy center. There will be fall stickers, stencils, cut outs, cards, and paper for students to make books with and to practice writing. The fall words will eventually be added to the large book of other themed words that are kept in the literacy center. Students can look through the themed book, they can write letters or stories, and use fall stamps and draw pictures to decorate their work. This center is teaching concepts of print, brainstorming, and self-initiation. A writing center provides many different opportunities for children to write in a variety of ways. A well-stocked center will have many different types of materials including: construction paper, different size markers, pencils, crayons, blank paper, staples, and tape (Rockwell et., al 1999).
  • Wednesday Center: Block Center
    Students build a block tower as high as they can. As they build the tower, they must draw a card with a word on it and place a high frequency, sight, or fall word on the block and read them as they build. This center is teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, sounding out, and blending. In the block center, students can also make signs about their towers and expand their vocabulary by talking about their buildings to teachers and peers (Rockwell et al., 1999).
  • Thursday Center: Sand and Water Center
    Students search in the sand for all objects that are fall related. For example, there may be leaves, walnuts, small pumpkins, acorns, or pictures of children in Halloween costumes. Students can take these objects and put them in alphabetical order, write a story in the order they found the objects, and make lists. Students will also look for letters that will make words that they previously brainstormed earlier in the week and make a list of them. As the sand and water table is set up, the teacher would choose items that will excite children's curiosity and further their exploration through conversation (Dodge et al., 2002).
  • Friday Center: Miscellaneous Center
    In a miscellaneous center, objects, subjects, and ideas can be changed frequently. Many times there will be play dough or silly putty to play with, or children may make ice cream to go along with a theme. This week students could take newspapers and magazines and find fall words and pictures, cut them out, write them down, or use silly putty to copy and transfer the word onto the paper. They will then find a partner and read the words they found.


Beaty, J. (2009). Preschool appropriate practices. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Birdwell, J. (2009, July 23). Upcoming summit focuses on economic benefits of early childhood development. Oklahoma Gazette, para. 6. Retrieved from http://www.okgazette.com/oklahoma/article-4137-upcoming-summit-focuses-on-economic-benefits-of-early-childhood-development.html

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Dodge, D., Colker, L., & Heroman, C. (2002) Creative curriculum for preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.

Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2007). Education psychology: Windows on classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Fisher, A. (2008). Teaching comprehension and critical literacy: Investigating guided reading in three primary classrooms. Literacy, (42), 52–58.

Goldstein, L. (2008). Teaching the standards is developmentally appropriate practice: Strategies for incorporating the sociopolitical dimension of DAP in early childhood teaching. Early Childhood Education Journal, (36), 253–260.

Iaquinta, A. (2006). Guided reading: A research-based response to the challenges of early reading instruction. Early Childhood Education Journal, (33), 34–39.

Kostelnik, M., Soderman, A., & Whiren, A. (2007). Developmentally appropriate curriculum: Best practices in early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

McDonald, D. (2009). Elevating the field. NAEYC Public Policy Report. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Morrow, L. (2004). Developmentally appropriate practice in early literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 58(1), 88–89.

Morrow, L. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early literacy instruction. Distinguished Educator, 89(2), 86–89.

Pate, M. (2009). Language and social development in a multilingual classroom. Young Children, 64(4), 12–19.

Pelo, A. (2008). Rethinking early childhood education. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Rockwell, R., Hoge, D., Searcy, B. (1999). Linking language: Simple language and literacy activities throughout the curriculum. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

U.S Department of Education and Health and Human Services (2011). The federal budget: Fiscal year 2011. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov

Van Tassel-Baska, J., & Stambaugh, T. (2005). Challenges and possibilities for serving gifted learners in the regular classroom. Theory Into Practice, (44), 211–217.

Tisha Shipley is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Ashford University. She received a doctorate of education in Curriculum and Instruction from Northcentral University and a master's degree in Elementary Education/Administration and a bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education from Northwestern Oklahoma State University. She has taught multiple grade levels at Moore Public Schools, including pre–K children and gifted 3rd–6th graders, and served as a cheer sponsor and a principal. Most recently, Shipley served as director of preschool programs at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Shipley presents at early childhood conferences and helps teachers in their classroom. She has also started a teacher website to help teachers, parents, aspiring teacher candidates, and administrators at www.busyclassroom.weebly.com.

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Comments (4)

Maria Gelsthorpe

January 24, 2014

Dr. Shipley,
First, congratulations on your article!  The importance of DAP in every aspect of teaching cannot be overstated.  While there is certainly a place for direct instruction in the classroom,  self-directed learning centers are not only a more effective means of educating our children, but a more encouraging one as well. Educational mandates, in my humble opinion, need to be re-evaluated for compatibility with DAP practices. 

Beverly Warden

January 28, 2014

Dr. Shipley,

The information in your article is right on target.  The importance of early literacy cannot be emphasized enough! It’s been a true delight to see you develop into an educational expert.

Celeste Campbell

February 19, 2014

Well done Dr. Shipley. Being attuned to the obstacles commonly faced by early childhood educators as they implement developmentally appropriate literacy instruction is critical for both practitioners and aspiring educators. Of course, the most important benefactors of your study will be our students. Thank you for sharing your findings.

Jennifer Irwin

February 24, 2014

Dr. Shipley, we are so proud of you!  Thank you for representing Ashford University smile

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