Saturday, October 24, 2015

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten?

In a rather snarky post in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog last week, literacy expert and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Shanahan, mocked a recent article in The Atlantic, by Tim Walker, entitled "The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.The Atlantic article reports on the play oriented kindergarten practices of Finland.

In response Shanahan says essentially, "We're not Finland!" Personally, I am glad to hear this in a blog from the conservative Fordham Institute, since our failure to match Finland's (and other places like Singapore, Japan and Lichtenstein) performance on international tests like PISA has been a chief driver behind the education reform movement.

The United States is different from Finland, of course. Finnish children are much less likely to be poor and are much more likely to be raised in a household with two college graduates. Finnish kindergartners also learn to read in a language that is far easier to decode than English.. But five-year-olds in Finland are not developmentally that much different from five-year-olds in the US. Five-year-olds around the world learn best through structured play. As Mr. Rogers said long ago, "Play is really the work of childhood."

Shanahan says he has read the research and that to argue that literacy should not be taught in kindergarten is a claim you can make "only if you don't know the research." Well, others have read the research too, and not everyone would agree that formal instruction in literacy in kindergarten is a good or necessary thing. Many researchers, including Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years, argue that "no research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten."

What is a poor teacher to make of this? How is a parent supposed to know what is appropriate for kindergarten? As usual, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

An unfortunate by-product of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core State Standards has been to make kindergarten instruction look more like first grade, and not a very joyful first grade at that. The Common Core standards' call for kindergartners to read "emergent texts with fluency" and "identify long and short vowels with common spellings" and "use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes" leads inevitably to more teacher directed instruction and developmentally inappropriate worksheet completion activities for kindergartners.


To his credit, Shanahan says he does not support worksheet driven instruction in kindergarten, but he must have some serious blinkers on if he believes that the Common Core call for more rigor has not already led to more worksheet driven, teacher-centered, developmentally inappropriate instruction in kindergarten across the country. One person's rigor is another person's worksheet. And research would support the idea that children don't need to be reading by the end of kindergarten, they just need to have the knowledge and understandings in place to help them be successful in learning to read.

On the other hand, it is part of the work of children in kindergarten and, therefore, part of the responsibility of kindergarten teachers to make sure that every child is ready to become a successful reader. Most of this work can be accomplished through structured play. Here is the literacy knowledge that rising first graders should take with them from kindergarten.

  • A rich oral language both spoken and receptive
  • A love of books
  • An awareness that books can entertain and inform
  • A working knowledge of the alphabet
  • Concepts about print like how to hold a book, how to turn pages and that print carries the meaning
  • The ability to hear and generate rhymes
  • The ability to hear and segment sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • The ability to match sounds to letters (phonics)
  • A store of about 25 sight words (the, it, and, I, me)
  • The ability to retell a story that has been read aloud
These literacy abilities can be acquired through the following instructional designs:
  • Structured play activities where students interact orally and in writing
  • Daily read alouds
  • Shared reading
  • Interactive or shared writing
  • Direct teacher instruction (kept brief and focused)
  • Word and language games and activities
  • Targeted small group instruction
  • One-on-one instruction as needed
  • Independent reading
  • Independent writing
Of course, no successful kindergarten program can be one-size-fits-all. The younger the children, the more critical it is that a program meet individual needs. When it comes to kindergarten literacy some children will enter already reading, some will have some letter knowledge and still others will not yet know their letters. Instruction must meet the needs of all these students. Readers should get instruction that strengthens their precocious reading ability and letter name learners must receive instruction that helps them learn their letters, but none of this means that play is not central to the kindergarten experience.  For a good guide book on developmentally appropriate kindergarten instruction, I recommend Kindergarten Literacy, by Anne McGill-Franzen.

In the end, kindergarten can be a joyful experience full of rich literacy learning opportunities. Should a child be expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten? My answer would be no. Should every child leave kindegarten positioned to become a successful reader through subsequent instruction in first grade and beyond? Absolutely.