To Read Or Not To Read? That Is The Kindergarten Question

By Lillian Mongeau — January 15, 2015 1 min read
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A new report out by the advocacy organization Defending the Early Years calls the Kindergarten Common Core Standard that children should be able to read emergent texts developmentally inappropriate.

According to the report:

Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the snowball [of academics in kindergarten] has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education. The kindergarten standards, in use in over 40 states, place huge emphasis on print literacy and state bluntly that, by the end of kindergarten, children are to "read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding." Large amounts of time and money are being devoted to this goal, and its impact is felt strongly in many preschools as well. Many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.

Whether or not children should be required to demonstrate a proficiency in reading has been a debate amongst early educators for several decades. As the report, released Jan. 13, notes, many experts agree that kindergarten has become more academic since the 1980s.

In an article summarizing that research, Education Week blogger Sarah D. Sparks noted one particular study that showed time spent on literacy instruction in kindergarten has undergone a significant shift:

From 1998 to 2006, kindergarten teachers reported devoting 25 percent more time to teaching early literacy, from 5.5 hours to seven hours per week, according to the working paper by Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and Anna Rorem, a policy associate at the university's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. The researchers analyzed changes over time in teacher expectations, curriculum, and students' time on task using data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

The study Sparks highlights did not look at teaching methods, so it does not address the concern raised in the Defending the Early Years report that worksheets and other rote tasks will be required for students to reach the goal of reading emergent texts by the end of kindergarten.

Books that qualify as emergent texts have simple, often repetitive language that children may end up learning by heart, like a favorite song, before they are truly reading. An example would be “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Bill Martin, Jr., illustrated by Eric Carle. The story consists of a question like, “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” and then an answer like, “I see a red bird looking at me.” Next, the red bird is asked what it sees (a yellow duck) and so on. The sentence structure remains the same throughout the text.

Given the already growing focus on literacy, the requirement to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding” in kindergarten may not be a major shift for states. In California, where I do most of my reporting, the previous reading standard was that children should be able to “read simple one-syllable and high-frequency words.” That standard could have been met with a book like “Brown Bear,” but it also could have been met with a stack of sight word flash cards. Is the focus on tests better? Is it more or less developmentally appropriate?

The Defending the Early Years report cites research about focusing on play-based learning in the early years and calls for more research about the effectiveness of teaching reading to young children. In the meantime, it the move towards reading basic words by the end of kindergarten is likely here to stay.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.