Consider the February 1, 2014, headlines of The Oregonian: “Too Many Oregon Students Unready for Kindergarten State Officials Lament.”
What is the crisis?
- “The typical Oregon kindergartner arrived at school last fall knowing only 19 capital and lower-case letters and just seven letter sounds out of at least 100 possible correct answers, the state reported Friday.”
- “They also were shown a page with 110 letter sounds on it. The average kindergartner could pronounce just 6.7.”
- “Gov. John Kitzhaber, in prepared remarks, called the results ‘sobering’”…
- “‘Things have changed in terms of what is expected when students start kindergarten,’ said Jada Rupley, Oregon’s early learning system director. ‘We would hope they would know most of their letters and many of their sounds.’”
Politicians, venture philanthropists, and even the President, make early learning into an emergency. What’s a poor kindergartener or preschooler to do when they must carry the weight of the nation on their backs—when every letter and pronunciation is scrutinized like never before?
Unfortunately, many kindergarten teachers have bought into this harmful message. Many have thrown out their play kitchens, blocks, napping rugs, and doll houses believing it is critical that children should learn to read in kindergarten!
A new study through the University of Virginia has determined that kindergarten is the new first grade! The study, by Bassok and Rorem, from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, “used two large nationally representative datasets to track changes in kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2006.” They found “that in 1998, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers indicated that most children should learn to read while in kindergarten. By 2006, 65 percent of teachers agreed with this statement. To accommodate this new reality, classroom time spent on literacy rose by 25 percent, from roughly 5.5 to seven hours per week.”
What’s wrong with these high-stress pictures?
There is a mistaken idea of what young children should be able to do—what is age-appropriate. Here’s a list of what “typical” children know upon entering kindergarten, from the National Center for Education Statistics report “Entering Kindergarten: Findings from the Condition of Education 2000:”
- Sixty-six percent of children entering kindergarten recognize letters in the alphabet.
- Sixty-one percent of children entering kindergarten know you read left to right.
- Many kindergartners do not yet possess early reading skills.
- Children might not point to letters representing sounds.
- New kindergartners might not be able to read basic words by sight yet.
- Only 1 in 50 actually read basic and complex words entering kindergarten.
Note this is what occurs but isn’t what young children should necessarily be doing when it comes to reading.
Don’t believe me? Pick up any book about normal reading development and you will find that young children progress when they are ready—at their own pace.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes the critical factor as to how a student will learn to read “is not how aggressively,” the child is given instruction, but rather their “own enthusiasm for learning.” They also state that many early learning programs “interfere with the child’s natural enthusiasm” by imposing on children to “concentrate on tasks” when they aren’t ready.
Why are young children being made to learn at a faster rate? Why is there this mistaken notion that children’s brains have somehow evolved to a higher level where they are supposed to read earlier and earlier?
All of this emergency talk has filtered into America’s classrooms. That’s why kindergarten teachers now believe all children must learn how to read in kindergarten. Having worked for years with reading and language problems in middle and high school students, I can tell you these new reading requirements for young children are terribly worrisome—even dangerous.
Many children will not be ready—not because they’re slow, not because they have learning disabilities, but because they’re normal and moving along at their own pace! The door should be opened to them in kindergarten and beyond to learn how to read in a relaxed manner. Even when a child has difficulty learning to read (dyslexia for example), you don’t attack the problem by pushing the child to read beyond what is considered normal.
When kindergarten teachers expect every kindergartner to focus on reading and learn it at that age, it opens the door for all kinds of problems. Here are a few:
- No Joy in Reading. Children learn to hate reading. When you assess children too early, currently done in kindergarten with Response to Intervention testing like DIBELS, children learn reading is a chore. It becomes something serious—even fearful for a young child.
- Vocabulary Emphasis. Most memorization is boring. When teachers focus on vocabulary acquisition and word recognition, young children lose interest in the stories. Curiosity is squelched. Some sight word instruction is fine, of course, but focusing so much and tracking every word as a data point is obsessive.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophesy. If a kindergartener is not reading yet (normal), but they are treated like they have a problem, they really could develop a problem.
- Loss of Cognitive Ability/Play. Heavily focusing on reading, at the expense of other important kindergarten tasks, like play, destroys critical aspects of learning. Without play, children lose the ability to think about things on their own. How does this toy work? How do I put the blocks together to build a house? What can I create on my own?
- Loss of Self-Worth. It is fine for some children to show up reading in kindergarten, but children who are not reading yet (perfectly normal) may lose the feeling of self-worth. They could also act out becoming a behavior problem. Adults, after all, never trusted them to learn some things on their own.
- Reading Ability Isn’t Everything. Kindergarten students who already read fluently might have other problems that are overlooked by the teacher. Or they become bored because they are given nothing new to learn.
- A Lack of Socialization. We know through research, like the study notes above, that socialization at this period of development is important, but with the total emphasis on learning to read at such a young age, socialization skills, including play, are pushed aside. Students miss out on developing relationships with other children. How will they get along later interacting with others as adults?
- Too Competitive. Children are taught at an early age that they must compete and win in order to receive approval. They don’t learn to care about others. They know some students read better or worse than they do. The emphasis is on reading not on the students and who they are.
- Disadvantaged Children. While some students from poor backgrounds may not have been exposed to books and a good reading environment early on, pushing them to read through assessment and drill could squelch their interest in reading forever.
- Research. Pushing children to read too soon defies past research by many recognized and well-regarded developmental psychologists and educators whose studies have stood the test of time.
While kindergarten is now the new 1st grade, in 10 more years will kindergarten be the next 2nd or 3rd grade? When will the current reformers be satisfied? When will they quit demeaning children and making them jump through inappropriate developmental hoops?
Enough is enough! Let children be children. Let them be their age. Bring back the joy of learning to read.
Shelov, Steven P. M.D. F.A.A.P. Editor-in Chief. The American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. The Complete and Authoritative Guide. (New York: Bantam, 1991) 348-349.