Should we teach kindergarteners to read?

Playing with cloud dough

Making a volcano with cloud dough

Making friend's names with magnetic letters

Making friend’s names with magnetic letters

This week I read an article citing a report saying that forcing kids to read before they are ready could be harmful. The report specifically references Common Core Standards in Kindergarten and says “there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success”. While it was surprising to me to hear that there is “no evidence”, it was not surprising to read the other findings the authors reported. I hear over and over about blocks and dramatic play stations taken out of classrooms, recess taken away, and endless inappropriate assessments being given (an “online, practice quiz for kindergarten” should never, ever happen). Our children deserve better.

Reading in the Gingerbread House

Reading in the Gingerbread House

I agree completely with what the authors of the study share in the report. Children need to play – it is how they learn (and research does support this).  But I also think it’s important that we give our kids every chance to get that important school literacy piece as soon as possible – with developmentally appropriate practices. It is tragic that, as the article states, “teacher-led direct instruction in kindergarten has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based experiential learning that we know children need”. I don’t think that we should force children to read, but I do think we can immerse children in rich literacy experiences early on and ignite an interest in learning to read and write. We don’t need to have hours of drill and kill and teacher-led direct instruction. We don’t need worksheets and mindless one-size-fits-all instruction. We don’t need hours of assessments. We don’t need to make kindergarten (or first, second..or any grade, for that matter) full of these things.

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the "laundromat"

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the “laundromat”

My classroom is a play-based kindergarten classroom, with a great deal of authentic and meaningful literacy experiences offered each day. We read aloud, we have choices throughout the day in curriculum, content and activities, we have a daily Writer’s Workshop, we play, we learn letters, sounds and links, we have 2 recesses each day, we have snack, we read pictures and words in books, we build things with blocks, we learn how to read,  we dress up in the drama center, we play in the kitchen/spaceship/laundromat, we put on puppet shows, we learn how to form our letters, we discover things in sensory boxes, we have guided reading groups, we explore things we are interested in, we read charts and poems, we wonder, question and grow and we do it all in an active, playful, meaningful and developmentally appropriate way. And at the end of the year, some of my kindergarteners are reading at the county-wide benchmark. And some aren’t. But they can all tell you a favorite author and what kind of books they like. They can all read books they’ve written and tell you what author/illustrator they see as a mentor.  They all see themselves as readers and writers. That is ultimately my goal.

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

I’m reminded of the phrase from medicine, “first, do no harm”. This needs to hold true in education. The last thing any of us want is a child refusing to go to school, locking himself in his bedroom, and hiding under his bed. We want children excited about learning, passionate about topics they are discovering at school, talking about favorite authors and illustrators, questioning, wondering and eager to learn, empowered because they know they have a voice in their learning. We don’t want to harm our children. If we are being asked to do things that we know are not developmentally appropriate and that may harm some children, then we need to speak up. It’s worth fighting for the blocks, the recess and the dramatic play. It’s worth fighting for our children. Thank you to the authors of the Defending the Early Years project study for giving us another tool to fight with.

10 Comments

  1. Excellent and well-written article. I was just talking to a colleague the other day about “benchmarks” and the pressure so many of us feel to reach these levels with our kindergarten students. If my students believe they are readers and writers, then I reached my benchmark. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

  2. Wow, what a great article! I taught first grade for 7 years until my son was born in 2011. I cannot tell you how nervous I am to even think about going back to the classroom. So much has changed in the last four years. My friends who are still teaching say they no longer have time for learning centers, writers workshop, and even guided reading groups ( all the things I LOVED about teaching). It is very refreshing to read an article written by a teacher who has kept these wonderful, child centered, and age appropriate learning practices alive! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your well written response. Thank you for recognizing that each child learns at their own pace. Unfortunately, beacuse kinder expectations are so high, parents expect more in preschool. It is so hard to defend a child’s need to play and explain that, that is how they learn.

  4. Thank you for your well written response. Thank you for recognizing that each child learns at their own pace. Unfortunately, because kinder expectations are so high, parents expect more in preschool. The families that attend my preschool know this, however it is hard to convey this to new families, when they tour my school. It is so hard to defend a child’s need to play and explain that, that is how they learn.

  5. I started out teaching through centers and have fought for years to keep them in my classroom. I will never forget the wonderful Laura Mast telling me and other kindergarten teachers at my school over 15 years ago,”Always do what is developmentally appropriate for your children regardless of change in education.” Times may change and technology may change but children should be allowed to be children and learn through play . They should face each day at school with a smile on their face , joy in their heart, and love for the journey they have embarked upon called learning that will last forever 🙂

  6. There is a part of this conversation that never seems to get any attention. Teaching kids WHY to read. That can be done from birth in the cuddly lap reading, in library story time, in home and preschool read alouds and in animated discussions about new and interesting people, places, things and ideas. Once kids know WHY to read they are way easier to teach to read and in fact kids who “get” reading early often come to Kindergarten reading because they figure most of it out themselves. The path to a literate life must pass through the heart.

  7. My sons had a wonderful kindergarten teacher who did a wonderful job of integrating play and academics. I’m SO thankful they were allowed to learn in such an environment. They were both ready for first grade even though they are completely different types of learners.

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