Reading & Literacy

Debate Persists Around Early-Reading Standards

By Liana Loewus — June 05, 2015 7 min read
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Among the many debates around the Common Core State Standards is an ongoing one about kindergarten: Do the standards ask too much of 5- and 6-year-olds in reading?

At the heart of the dispute is a literacy standard that says kindergartners should be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Experts agree it’s a more advanced expectation than appeared in most previous state standards—but there’s less consensus on whether it’s a better expression of what kindergarten pupils should be doing or an overreach. And a series of papers in recent weeks and months is keeping the debate alive.

Critics of the common core argue that the standard is not “developmentally appropriate.” They say kindergartners should be in play-based programs, and such lofty expectations are leading to harmful “drill and kill” teaching methods.

That standard in particular is “revolutionizing what kindergarten looks like in this country,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and a co-founder of the advocacy group Defending the Early Years. “There are less developmentally appropriate play-based experiences for kids.”

Key Reading Standards for Kindergartners in the Common Core

There’s disagreement about whether the common-core literacy standards expect too much of kindergarten students. A note in the introduction for the K-5 reading foundational skills states that kindergartners should “demonstrate increasing awareness and competence” in areas including the following:

Phonics and Word Recognition
• Demonstrate basic knowledge of one-to-one letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary sound or many of the most frequent sounds for each consonant
• Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels
• Read common high-frequency words by sight (e.g., the, of, to, you, she, my, is, are, do, does)

Print Concepts
• Recognize and name all upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet

• Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding

Proponents of the common core, however, say such claims are based on misreadings of the common standards. In two briefs published on the topic last week, Student Achievement Partners, a professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the standards, points out that the standards don’t require mastery in foundational reading skills; they just require kindergartners to show they’re making progress. The standards are also compatible with play-based experiences and even contain a note encouraging them, they say.

In addition, many literacy experts say that while the standards themselves are developmentally appropriate, the instructional methods teachers are using to tackle them aren’t necessarily so.

“You can have a classroom that’s very unplayful, and kids are still learning very little literacy in there, or you can have a playful one, and they learn a lot of literacy,” said Kathleen Roskos, a professor of education at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, and an expert in early-literacy development. “I’ve seen so many kids that are delighted reading to dolls and then going to a story chart, taking the pointer, and tracking print, and they’re finding it to be the most fun in the world. It depends on the conditions.”

Perceptions of Difficulty

The common core defines emergent-reader texts as those with short sentences made up of learned sight words, such as “the,” “he,” and “is,” and consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” or “mop.” Such texts may also contain symbols that represent words children may not yet know.

People without a literacy background may imagine such texts to be more difficult than they are, said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “In their thinking, it’s a cold reading of a brand-new text with words students have never seen,” she said. “And that’s not what they’re looking for in the Common Core State Standards.”

Ms. Duke offers the example of an emergent-reader text from TextProject, a free online resource for teachers, called Buns and Jam. The short book starts with a picture of buns and the corresponding word. The next page has a picture of jam with that word, and the final page of the book has another picture and says, “Jam on buns. Yum!”

Although pediatricians have agreed somewhat on when children should reach developmental milestones such as crawling and walking, developmental stages in reading are less concrete. (The one marker most literacy experts generally agree on is that students who don’t read by the end of 3rd grade will continue to struggle.)

The term “developmentally appropriate practice” was coined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the 1980s and is defined as practice “that promotes young children’s optimal learning and development” and is informed by what teachers know “1) about child development and learning; 2) about each child as an individual; and 3) about the social and cultural contexts each child lives in.”

The NAEYC published a paper in April noting that, while the common standards are generally consistent with developmentally appropriate practice, they run the risk of restricting the early-childhood curriculum and leading to assessment methods that are inappropriate for young children.

Defending the Early Years argues that the standard about emergent-reader texts doesn’t take young pupils’ differences, and the range of years in which they develop, into account, as developmentally appropriate practice requires.

“There’s an expectation that all children learn the same thing at the same time,” said Ms. Carlsson-Paige. “And that doesn’t happen unless there’s some kind of coercion involved.”

She notes that while some of the standards begin with the words “with prompting and support,” that particular standard does not.

The recent Student Achievement Partners brief on myths and facts about the common-core K-3 language arts standards, written in response to the advocacy group’s claims, points to a note in the introduction for the K-5 reading foundational skills that states kindergartners “are expected to demonstrate increasing awareness and competence"—not mastery.

“We have that qualifier on top saying that some students may not be able [to read emergent-reader texts], but they’re expected to make progress,” said David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team at the New York-based group and a co-author of the briefs. “And that’s huge.” No other grade levels include such a qualifier.

Ms. Carlsson-Paige says the organization is just “backpedaling.”

“Teachers use the standards, they’re not reading obscure introductory material. ... I’ll eat my hat if anyone ever saw that note.” Defending the Early Years would like to see the standard retracted, she said.

Worksheets and Drills

In a January report, the early-years group also argues that the requirement that kindergartners read has led to “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.”

Again, Student Achievement Partners claims that’s an instructional issue, not a standards one. “It’s important to understand that drill and kill is not the right way to teach almost anything,” said Mr. Liben. “That doesn’t mean we should eliminate the standard because some people are implementing it incorrectly.”

Another major hitch for the early-years group is the need for play in kindergarten, which it says the common standards are hindering. Good reading is dependent on oral-language development, and “active, play-based experiences in the early years foster strong oral language in children,” the group wrote in its report.

Common-core proponents don’t disagree. In fact, the common core’s introduction to the English/language arts standards says play “is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.”

Kindergartners can and should use play to reach the standards, said the University of Michigan’s Ms. Duke. “The dichotomizing of play with academic development is a problem,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is wanting to get play out of the kindergarten classroom.”

Ms. Carlsson-Paige and her colleagues also argue that learning to read in kindergarten has not shown long-term gains. Pupils who learn to read in 1st grade go on to read just as well as those who learned earlier, they say.

Student Achievement Partners’ brief responds that, while it’s true some students can delay learning to read without consequence, “beginning to develop literacy skills in kindergarten helps children, especially low-income children, succeed with reading and avoid falling permanently behind.”

Ms. Duke said it’s an issue of equity. “The reality is if you take something like knowing the alphabet, ... many kids in this country—and disproportionately kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds—come in [to kindergarten] knowing that already,” she said. “It’s not OK that some kids who happen to have gotten that knowledge outside of school have it and some kids don’t.”

That’s just misdirection, said Ms. Carlsson-Paige. “The standards are misleading people to think we’re going to increase equal educational opportunity and overcome the impact of poverty on learning [with standards],” she said, “and I think we need to address those problems directly.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Debate Persists Around Kindergarten Reading Standards

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