Friday, January 3, 2014

The Common Core Goes to Kindergarten: How Should Teachers Respond?

One of the chief concerns about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that it is not developmentally appropriate for children in grades K-3. This concern is understandable since not one early childhood teacher or early childhood educator was involved in the development of the CCSS. I have discussed my concerns with the CCSS in general here and with the CCSS prescriptions for early literacy here.

In this post I would like to take a close look at the CCSS for English/Language Arts in kindergarten. The key questions to explore will be as follows:

·         What is developmentally appropriate in kindergarten?
·         What should be taught as it relates to literacy in kindergarten?
·         What guidance is the CCSS giving teachers that makes sense and what falls short?
·         How should teachers respond to curricular/instructional demands made on them that they deem inappropriate?

First a couple of illustrative stories. Diane Ravitch has been featuring the voices of teachers in her blog. A few weeks ago she featured these reports from two kindergarten teachers.

            1. I teach kindergarten. The five-year olds have an incredibly tight schedule to keep in our county: an hour of math, hour of science, 2 hours of language arts, half hour of social studies. We kindergarten teachers have had to sneak in rest time and social centers (such as puppets, blocks, housekeeping, play dough) which are so critical to their development.
            They have been forced to sit through the two close readings that go on for three days each and require them to write notes and then sentences to explain what they learned. My poor babies turned in papers with sentences made of fragments from our fact chart we had made, but they hung their heads because they couldn’t read the sentences they’d managed to write. I hugged them, told them they were great, and gave them chocolate. Then I reported that only 4 of my students passed….another poor reflection on my teaching.
            2. I am a kindergarten teacher, stressed to the nth degree from having to push 5 year olds in ways that make my blood boil from the wrongness of it. It is immoral to ask 5 year olds to write facts from a story they are listening to and to write sentences when they are only learning to read & write!!


            [E]ducation reformers such as Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor don’t seem to think much about what is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten children in the zealous implementation the Connecticut Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Moreover, Commissioner Pryor and other reformers are thinking of how can we get these kindergarten children into college as their main focus. In the place of  developmentally appropriate activities suitable for young children, Pryor and other “education reformers” want these kindergarteners to begin to work on “academic skills” instead of a kindergarten where creative play as well as language and number development use to be some of the central themes of the curriculum for these young children. Sadly, what we are also experiencing with the Common Core Elementary Standards for these very young children is stress as many of these vulnerable young children are not prepared for this level of education.

So what is developmentally appropriate literacy instruction for children in kindergarten? One of the things that makes this question so difficult is that the development of children, especially such young children, is so volatile and individual. There could be 20 different answers to the question in any classroom of 20 five year-olds. This means that more than anything else standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment and teachers must all be flexible enough to accommodate these individual differences. As I will discuss later, in some ways the CCSS acknowledge the need for flexibility and in some ways they undermine this. It seems clear to me from the anecdotes above and what I have observed myself in some kindergarten classes, that the implementation of the CCSS has often lacked this necessary flexibility.

Let me now answer the question. What is developmentally appropriate literacy instruction for kindergarten? In order to be developmentally appropriate instruction must take into consideration “age, individual growth patterns and cultural factors” (Reutzel, 2007). In literacy, kindergarten children should learn the following:
·         Oral Language
·         Concepts about Print
·         Letter Names
·         Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
·         Beginning Phonics (CVC words)
·         25 (or so) Sight Words
·         Listening Comprehension Strategies (Reutzel, 2007)
Children should develop these abilities through the following instructional routines:
·         Read-alouds
·         Shared reading and writing (charts and big books)
·         Guided reading
·         Discussion groups
·         Independent reading
·         Interactive writing
·         Independent writing and conferences
·         Word Work (beginning with name charts)
·         Word sorts and hunts (McGill-Franzen, 2006)
And teachers should provide instruction to children through the following:
·         Reading aloud
·         Mini-lesson direct instruction
·         Modeling
·         Prompting
·         Conferring
·         Linking reading and writing

What kind of guidance does the CCSS give us as it relates to literacy targets in kindergarten? Let’s start with oral language. Oral language development is critical to the literacy success of children. Some children come to school with quite advanced oral language proficiency and others do not. This is the beginning of the “achievement gap” because it is often children who come from homes impacted significantly by poverty who have an oral language deficit.

At least one researcher has some concerns about where the CCSS leads us as it relates to oral language development. Fiano (2013) says the following:

            The Common Core State Standards.do not stress the importance of merging the authentic expressive oral language that children enter school with and that of school's more academically focused vocabulary. The Common Core's College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language outline tightly woven and extremely structured academically based standards for vocabulary acquisition and use. The document presents specifically for kindergarten, “Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts” (p. 27). Although the anchor standard for language appears to place importance on language, it does not foster expressive oral language development in kindergartners. The standard is more concerned with the institutional academic agenda of vocabulary acquisition rather than centering on the student and honoring the cultural complexity in expressive oral language that each student brings to school (p. 78)

Fiano also cites a concern about how the CCSS can steal time from the oral language instruction children need.

            Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral discourse in student-led workstations will alleviate off-task behavior by students. Additionally, there needs to be time built in for teachers to observe the language that students are using during independent workstation use (p. 77).

Finally, Fiano will win the hearts of many kindergarten teachers when she advocates for the kind of workstations that were a familiar part of all kindergarten classes pre-CCSS.

            An emphasis needs to be put back on more authentic student-centered oral discourse tasks in workstations. For instance, an oral language or vocabulary workstation might be a kitchen area where students learn and use vocabulary and phrases related to the everyday workings within the kitchen environment, including whisk, temperature, barbecue, and cabinet, and incorporate synonyms for words associated with this environment, such as plates/dishes, silverware/utensils, and market/grocery store. A veterinarian workstation could include chart, stethoscope, artery, and dorsal for students to take care of “injured” animals, and a numeracy workstation might emphasize collaborative student tasks and discussion analyzing and comparing two- and three-dimensional shapes using language to describe similarities, differences, parts (e.g., number of sides and vertices/corners), and other attributes (e.g., having   sides of equal length) (p. 77) (emphasis mine).

I offer one other caveat about the Listening and Speaking CCSS in kindergarten. Under “Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas” we find this: “Add drawings and other visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide additional detail.” Anyone who has taught kindergarten would know that these young children draw first and then write about what they are describing. If they want to add detail they then add to their drawing prior to writing more.

The CCSS groups the areas of concepts of print, letter names, phonological and phonemic awareness and sight words under the heading of “Foundational Skills.” In this area I have no real problem with what the CCSS is suggesting as targets for student learning. I worry; however, that because these abilities are given a separate heading some will interpret the standards to mean that these skills are to be taught in isolation. This would be a mistake. The “foundational skills” should be taught, as all other literacy skills are taught, as a part of a dynamic engagement of students in real reading and real writing activities. Specifically, these skills are taught through read aloud, interactive writing, direct instruction through mini-lessons, guided small group instruction, authentic writing experiences, and structured play experiences in workstations.

As far as reading comprehension instruction is concerned, the CCSS addresses reading in literature and informational text with the phrase “with prompting and support.” I read this to mean that students will learn reading comprehension strategies primarily through teacher read alouds. This seems appropriate to me. It also seems appropriate that students would work with the teacher to create classroom charts of what they recall about a story, or to focus on characters or to recall important information. After this type of scaffolding, students might be invited to see what they can write on their own (probably after they have drawn a picture). I do not see anywhere in the CCSS where they call for kindergarten children to write in complete sentences or be able to read what they wrote as the teacher above recounted her kids were expected to do.

Should kindergarten children be able to read by the time they leave kindergarten? Of course some children will be reading by the time they leave kindergarten, but that does not mean it should be a goal of kindergarten instruction. I believe that all kindergarten children should get the instruction they need in literacy. For some that will be reading instruction, for others that will be getting ready to read instruction. What all students should get is small group instruction with like ability peers to move them forward in their literacy. The CCSS says that kindergartners should be reading “emergent reader” texts by the time they leave kindergarten. In my mind that leaves room for students to be reading at a variety of levels from A to F, just as most kindergartners will. It will ever remain a challenge for the kindergarten teacher to provide small group instruction and give children the attention they need in workstations.

This brings me to my last point for now. I believe that there is a great deal of misinformation out there about the Common Core. My colleague, Cynthia Mershon, discussed this in an earlier entry on this blog here. Teachers must be armed with a deep knowledge of what the CCSS says and what the research says about appropriate instruction for kindergartners. They must resist any call for instruction that is truly developmentally inappropriate and they must insist that curriculum developed in the name of the CCSS not only reflect the CCSS, but also reflect sound instruction.

One place to start would be to insist on the kindergarten workstation as a place that is still vital to kindergarten children’s development. Whether that is because the workstation is a place to develop oral language or literacy or numeracy, well-structured workstations should remain as a part of the kindergarten experience. Structured play is still a path to learning for young children. If the implementation of the CCSS does not seem to support this, then the CCSS needs to be revised, this time with input from educators.

References:
Fiano, D. (2013) Primary Discourse and Expressive Oral Language in a Kindergarten Student. Reading Research Quaterly. Nov 2013.

McGill-Franzen, A. (2006) Kindergarten Literacy: Matching Assessment and Instruction in Kindergarten. New York: Scholastic