We hear it all the time: “Kindergarten is the new First Grade.” More and more, the expectations of today’s kindergarteners are those that were expected of first graders generations ago. The question is: are we pushing our children too far, too fast? Should your child really be able to read in kindergarten?
I was an elementary school teacher for many years. As I worked on my graduate program over 20 years ago, I started to see a shift in the expectation for children. At that time, standardized curriculum assessments were just becoming a ‘thing,’ and even then, as a primary teacher, I thought, “Wow. We’re really pushing our children!”
Twenty-plus years later, I watch parents everywhere worry about whether they should ‘red-shirt’ their kindergartener (keep their younger five-year-olds at home one more year before they send to kindergarten). Parents know the expectations are very different than when they were in kindergarten.
Today’s kindergartener is often expected to come into the classroom knowing letters, sounds and even reading by mid-year, and those who are just catching on at the end of the year are often considered ‘delayed.’
But are they? Is expecting your child to read before kindergarten a realistic and developmentally appropriate expectation?
The jury is mixed with regard to that answer. Many educators, particularly primary educators, believe that they are pushing children further than they ever have before and families are suffering for it. In response to a question about readiness the National Education Association put out to teachers, many teachers said that we are simply going further than we should expect of developing brains.
One kindergarten teacher said that parents are shocked when they learn just how high the learning stakes are in kindergarten. Another said that there’s too much pressure on children to perform and that we are seeing the price they pay as they age and face depression and school anxiety.
The 2002 implementation of No Child Left Behind put standardized testing of all children, even primary students, at such a priority that school systems believed they had to up the stakes for all learners if they were ever going to have ‘passing scores’ by the third grade.
And so, the race to do more, faster became one that kindergarten teachers all over the country find themselves in, and few find it appropriate for their students. For teachers, it’s not about lowering expectations for our children, it’s about ensuring curriculum is developmentally appropriate and that we don’t throw fundamentals of kindergarten (like helping develop social and emotional IQs) out in an effort to score better on tests.
Most teachers know that there’s really no research out there that proves learning to read in kindergarten gives any advantage to children over the course of their education, and fear that we are putting too much pressure on our children, particularly when other countries don’t emphasize the learning of reading until a later time.
In England, there is a great campaign to start formal schooling later than the age of four, with research showing great benefit for doing so and allowing more play. Finnish schools, long-known for their superior education statistics on a global level, don’t even start formal schooling until the age of seven, and focus heavily on play development in the years before.
Researchers from Germany and New Zealand found that children who started reading later (both of those countries do not make school attendance compulsory until the age of six) than those who did younger caught up to their peers in reading, typically by the age of ten, and with little issue.
And even in the United States, more and more organizations are joining to fight for our children, pointing out that research does not prove children should be able to read in kindergarten, and that there are far more benefits to allowing our children to read at their own rates, with six-to-seven-years-olds being the targeted ages, depending on the child and her early childhood experiences.
Researchers have been saying this for years, and still, the overwhelming theory sold to parents is that there is something wrong with their child if they are not reading by the end of kindergarten.
Carol Leroy is the director of Reading and Language Center at the University of Alberta and says that the process of attaining literacy is actually a very gradual one that begins with play in infants. She says that there is little to no evidence that supports children should be reading in kindergarten and we do a disservice to parents when we preach that belief without telling them truly how to help best their children.
The International Association of Reading and the National Education Association of Young Children agreed as long ago as 1998 and still, we push to read more, read faster. Even back in 1945, researchers believed that a formal approach to reading should not begin before the mental age of six, and still, it’s often suspected a child may have a delay if they are not reading in kindergarten.
Can children learn to read in kindergarten (or before)? Of course, they can. Some can naturally, as their early childhood experiences help lend themselves to do so.
Some are gifted, and reading comes easy and early and often even before kindergarten. Some are taught to, even if developmentally not ready to do so, in an effort to keep up with the what curriculum standards dictate.
But should we expect them to?
This educator stands with generations of research and success in other countries who put more emphasis on the emotional and social development of kindergarteners, which prepares them for reading. Especially because more and more advances in technology share neurological truths about the brain’s ability to learn to read, and what that is dependent upon — hint, hint, it’s not the magic grade of kindergarten!
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