Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

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Little to Gain and Much to Lose

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Joan Wolfsheimer Almon

In the United States there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early – in kindergarten or even prekindergarten – will help them be better readers in the long-run. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that this is so. How then did this idea take hold so strongly? This statement and the following are the words of the authors….

The 1980s saw the beginning of a shift in kindergarten education from play-based experiential approaches to more academic approaches, from hands-on exploration to worksheets and teacher-led instruction. The new approaches gained momentum like a snowball growing in volume and speed. They were given a mighty push by No Child Left Behind and another by Race to the Top’s early childhood competitive grants, causing many to describe kindergarten as the new first grade.

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Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the snowball 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-readers texts with purpose and understanding.” We could find no research cited by the developers of the CCSS to support this reading standard for kindergarten. And, of the people on the committee that wrote and reviewed the CCSS, not one of those individuals was a K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional.

Many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.

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Teacher-led instruction in kindergarten has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience.

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Preparing children to read has become the dominant activity in most kindergartens crowding out many high-quality learning experiences young children need.

While the timetable for children’s cognitive development has not changed significantly, society’s expectations of what children should achieve in kindergarten have. A recent two-year study by the Gesell Institute in New Haven found that “children are still reaching important developmental milestones in much the same timeframe as they did when Dr. Arnold Gesell first published his data in 1925.” (Optometry has a long history of interest in child development and vision development which Dr. Gesell stated are inseparable. Optometrists have been part of the staff at the Gesell Institute since the 1940s.)

There is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. (Note that this is not referring to precocious readers.) In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade.

A number of long-term studies point to greater gains for students in play-based programs as compared to their peers in academically-oriented preschools and kindergartens in which early reading is generally a key component. This is especially true in the social-emotional realm.

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All aspects of the child – cognitive, social, emotional, and physical – are inextricably linked in learning. Through engaging in meaningful experiences in the real world, including in creative play and interactions with caring adults, children build skills and knowledge onto what they already know.

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Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences and current needs. As they construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem-solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.

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Our written language is a system of abstract symbols that represent the spoken word. Young children take years to build the foundation they need to be able to make sense of print. An important aspect of this process is being able to understand abstract symbols. Children learn that real things can be represented by symbols when they play and use hands-on materials. For example, a toddler might pretend that his wooden block is a phone to call daddy.

Early education can also provide children with a wide range of life experiences that enrich their understanding of the world and help them comprehend the content of books.

In play-based kindergartens and preschools, there is true intentionality around literacy and language. Teachers employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print – without bombarding or overwhelming the child.

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