When should kids learn to read?

readThe Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years just released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten – Little to Gain, Much to Lose, discussed in a Washington Post article titled “Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — may harm some.” This post looks at what we know about children and early literacy learning.

When I was a child in the 60’s, I came into kindergarten knowing how to read – I could easily read any picture book. I was the only real reader in the class – but I came from a big family of early readers. By the end of the year, my classmates were all expected to have their alphabets down, and more kids were reading. By the end of first grade, most kids were reading. Those who weren’t got a little extra help in second grade and were caught up by the end of the year. That may reflect the normal range in developmental capabilities.

But today’s kindergartners are being taught to Common Core standards. In kindergarten, there are over 90 standards kids are expected to meet, including:

  • Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
  • Associate the long and short sounds with common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.
  • Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.
  • [And, by the end of the year:] Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

Is this do-able for some kids? Absolutely. My kids all read before kindergarten. My youngest just turned 4 and has already mastered the standards I just listed. (And believe me, it’s not because we drilled him with flashcards or worked with worksheets for hours… we’re much too lazy as parents to do that! We just did simple things to create a good environment for literacy learning, and he took it from there.)

But NOT ALL KIDS are ready to read at this young age!

Kids develop in predictable patterns, but not at exactly the same rate. And they’re stronger in some areas at any given time than in others. For example, although my kids were early readers, they also each had areas they were “behind on” for their age, which were the challenges they needed to work on in kindergarten.

Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs
along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. … Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.

When we focus on academically based standards, it’s hard for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for that, but it’s also hard for kids like mine who needed skills that weren’t necessarily on the list of things a teacher is now “supposed” to teach. “In a survey… of early childhood teachers… 85% of the public school teachers reported that they are required to teach activities that are not developmentally appropriate for their students.”

And when teachers are asked to teach non-developmentally appropriate content, they have to do it in non-developmentally appropriate ways.

We hear increasing reports of kindergartens that use worksheets and drills, rely on lengthy whole-group lessons, and require teachers to frequently pull children out of the classroom to administer assessments. A parent recently wrote: “My 5-year-old son started Common Core Kindergarten this year in California. Even though it’s only been two months he is already far behind. … [W]e are required to do … [worksheets] four nights a week. It’s the same boring thing over and over again… I know he’s not stupid but I’m being told in not so clear terms that he is. It’s very disheartening.”

Drills and worksheets are not the way kids learn.

Well, in the short-term, they can be. Direct instruction CAN help children memorize specific facts and learn specific skills, but it doesn’t foster the curiosity and creativity that can be beneficial for learning in the long run. (Learn more in this article on “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.”) And, the “boring” work can drain the passion for learning from our kids, which I believe is key for long-term academic success. And, for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for the work, it can make them feel stupid. I know of boys who weren’t ready to read at age 6 and 7. They learned at that age that they were “stupid” in school subjects and continue as young adults to think of themselves that way.

The report states: “We could find no research cited by the developers of the CCSS [Common Core] to support this reading standard for kindergarten… of the people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS, not one of those individuals was a
K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional.”

What does the research show?

 There is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade.

So, what is developmentally appropriate for preschool and kindergarten? Play-based learning.

Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences and current needs. As they construct their ideas through
play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.

Being able to read well will also depend on the strength of a child’s oral language development. Active, play-based experiences in the early years foster strong oral language in children. As children engage in active learning experiences and play, they are talking and listening all the time. They attach words to their actions, talk with
peers and teachers, learn new vocabulary and use more complex grammar. As they build, make paintings, and engage in imaginative play, they deepen their understanding of word meanings. As they listen to and create stories, hear rich language texts, sing songs, poems and chants, their foundation for reading grows strong.

What’s the evidence that play-based preschool and kindergarten works in the long-run?

In one study, in the third grade there was little difference between students who had been in play-based preschools versus academic achievement programs. By 6th grade, the kids from the academic preschools earned lower grades than those who were in play-based preschools. A German study in the 70’s compared kids from play-based vs. academic preschools. In fourth grade, those from play-based programs excelled “on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school.” So, they’re not only successful academically, but also socially. In an American study from the 60’s, children from impoverished households were assigned to either play-based preschools or to a scripted, direct-instruction approach. There were similar short-term gains for all children in the first year. But at age 23, there were significant differences. 47% of the kids from the direct instruction classroom needed special education for social difficulties versus 6% of the play-based alumni.

When looking for preschool or kindergarten for your child, you can look for play-based options. If they are in a kindergarten that follows Common Core standards, you can look for ways to balance that out at home with lots of child-directed free play. You can create a literacy-rich home environment without pushing reading. If your child is ready to read young, they will do so. If they’re not ready, they won’t feel stressed or stupid.

If you are the parent of a toddler, don’t feel any pressure to teach your child to read. But, you can create an environment full of literacy materials that show reading is exciting and fun.Read my ideas on this or follow this lead:

[In play-based settings] Teachers employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print —without bombarding or overwhelming the child. These may include telling stories, reading picture books and big books, singing songs and reciting poems, reading from posted charts (using pointers to read along), drawing and writing with invented and conventional spellings, taking dictation from children, and helping children write their own stories. In organic and meaningful ways, teachers often use print — labeling block structures, cubbies, and interest areas, writing recipes, transcribing the children’s stories, and making charts for attendance or classroom jobs.

photo credit: ThomasLife via photopin cc

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3 thoughts on “When should kids learn to read?

  1. Great info, THIS WAS SHOCKING “85% of the public school teachers reported that they are required to teach activities that are not developmentally appropriate for their students.” GOOD REPORT

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