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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Should All Kindergartners Know Their Letters by Halloween?

By Peter DeWitt — August 28, 2013 6 min read
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What struggling readers need is more and better reading instruction not a different sort of reading lesson. In my view schools need to adopt a curriculum framework that everyone will use with all students. This includes remedial, special education and ELL teachers. Dr. Richard Allington

A couple of weeks ago I saw Dr. Richard (Dick) Allington speak at a regional training about college and career readiness. Dick Allington is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee. Before his present position at U of T he was at the University of Florida and began his university teaching experience at SUNY Albany.

Allington is not for the light-hearted. He is blunt, at times sarcastic and quite confident in what he says, and frankly he has served as President of the International Reading Association (IRA) and has numerous awards, so he can back up most of what he says.
When I saw him speak at the regional training, I looked around the room. Some laughed, others cringed, and a few weren’t sure how to take it all in...they were most likely the people who had not seen him speak before.

Dr. Allington began his speech by saying that all students, regardless of poverty level and past experience, should know their letters by Halloween in their kindergarten year. He continued his speech by telling schools what they do wrong. If school leaders attended the training hoping for a session of warm fuzzies and feeling good, they were sadly mistaken. I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride of emotions when he spoke.

Interview with Dick Allington
Truth be told, I like Dick Allington. I don’t agree with everything he says, including his answers to the following questions that I sent him after the training, but I never feel like I have to agree with or like everything a speaker says. There are times when I think he wants to tell us how bad we are, but also give us guidance in how we can do better.

Allington has some good points about such issues as Academic Intervention Services (AIS). Many schools have a high percentage of students who qualify for AIS. Some schools have numbers between 20 and 30% in each grade level. Unfortunately, many of those students don’t benefit from pull-out sessions by someone else, but they would benefit from different instruction in the classroom. I’m left wondering...where is the happy medium between both?

Dr. Allington is a big believer that if a teacher is certified to teach with an undergraduate and graduate degree, they should be able to teach students regardless of their academic ability. The following is some more of what Allington believes.

PD: You believe that all students, regardless of poverty level, should know their
Alphabet by Halloween, even the students who come in not knowing their letters.
How do they do that?


Yes, even children from high-poverty and limited literacy homes should be able to provide all the letter names by Halloween. Remember that there are only 26 letters and by Halloween children will have spent roughly 9 weeks in kindergarten. That means we teach 2 or 3 letters every week and were done by Halloween.

Best way to begin is to make sure every child has a pencil and paper on the second day of kindergarten. Tell students to write a story about anything they want to write about. Now some kids will just draw pictures, some will scribble and scratch and make letter-like forms instead of actual letters, some will use known letters and others (two-thirds of kindergartners already know all the letter names upon school entry) will begin composing stories using invented spelling.

What we know is that writing produces a huge motivation to learn letters and invented spelling produces letter-sound knowledge faster than any other method available. Kids should have an alphabet displayed, usually over the blackboard where they can locate every letter they want to write. Even better, put the alphabet on every desktop.
• Sing the alphabet song with the kids every day and point to the individual letters as they are named in the song.
• Write language experience stories twice every day on large chart paper. Read and reread those stories as you post them about the room.
• Read library books and big books aloud at least twice every day and while reading point out letters and words so that the kids begin to notice print conventions.

In the end, every kindergarten teacher should read Anne McGill-Franzen’s book, Kindergarten Literacy (Scholastic) to better understand how to create a print-rich literate environment for all kindergartners.

PD: You believe the last thing that struggling learners need is a fragmented curriculum, what did you mean by that?


I use fragmented as the opposite of coherent curricula. In far too many schools struggling readers are working in two or more different reading programs. In over the half the schools we studied they not only were working two different but two competitive curricula. By competitive, I mean, what they learned in one was not useful or even harmful if used with the other curriculum.

Some programs, for instance, emphasize cross-checking and others emphasize relying on sounding out unknown words. When one teacher asks whether a misread word makes sense and the other teacher asks whether the vowel has a short sound the kid gets confused.

In the federal Title 1 program about 20% of the programs are well coordinated and those programs produce roughly 20 percentile ranks larger gains than the typical uncoordinated, or fragmented, programs. My favorite design has both the classroom and reading teachers sharing a common curriculum framework and moving kids through that curriculum at twice the traditional pace.

What struggling readers need is more and better reading instruction not a different sort of reading lesson. In my view schools need to adopt a curriculum framework that everyone will use with all students. This includes remedial, special education and ELL teachers.

PD: In your presentation you mentioned that most principals don’t know what effective teaching looks like. What does effective teaching look like?


You walk into an effective teacher’s classroom and you see kids working and smiling and talking to each other. Rarely do see two kids doing the same tasks or reading the same books unless they chose to partner up. For instance, the effective teachers in high-poverty schools we studied most often had 100% of kids actively engaged in productive school work. Across the hall, in the classrooms of the teachers the principals recommended we observe at any given time one-third of students were not engaged in any productive work.

I’ll recommend that interested parties read the two books we wrote on the effective 1st and 4th grade teachers. Each book has a chapter length summary describing 6 different effective teachers. While their classrooms were hardly cookie cutter images of each other what they shared, besides producing high-achievement, was fairly common. Fairly common in these classrooms but rare events in typical classrooms.

PD: You said that most schools over diagnose students with learning disabilities.
How many students on average should be labelled with a disability and why do you
believe schools over diagnose?

RA: I don’t believe there are any children with this mythological affliction labeled LD. I think what we have learned in the past two decades is that there are some kids teachers give up on and then largely ignore. These kids get labeled LD. So for a total of how many students have an actual disability, I’ll go with 3%. That pretty much covers all the severe disabilities (blindness, deafness, severe mental impairment, etc.).

For more on effective literacy instruction by Dick Allington see this article.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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