Not every child needs to read in kindergarten

A cartoon drawing of a bookshelf of classic children's books

By Jessica Smock

I remember few details from kindergarten: a giant slide in the middle of our classroom, a mid-year visit by Smokey the Bear, the gentle voice and red hair of my teacher.

Kindergarten was its own little world within the school—a nurturing cocoon—with its own special playground, its own tiny buses, its own half-day schedule.

This spring when my son’s wonderful teacher recommended an additional year of preschool for him, instead of advancing with the rest of his class to kindergarten, I didn’t panic. After all, the school he was attending was small and academically challenging, and I understood he might not be ready for its particular standards. The teacher’s concerns—that he had trouble writing his letters, didn’t focus all the time in class, didn’t answer questions about literature with enough detail—didn’t worry me much. He was four. Just a little boy who liked garbage trucks and Sesame Street. We were moving to the suburbs anyway, and I figured my son would do just fine at our local public school, where he would spend his days listening to stories, playing in sandboxes, making friends, and learning the basic routines of classroom life.

Months after this conversation with his teacher, I realized that my son would probably do just fine in public school kindergarten, but only if he could go back in time and attend kindergarten in 1980, not 2016.

My son is not ready for kindergarten in 2016.

Kindergarten—which means “garden for children” in German—is not kindergarten anymore. It’s yesterday’s first grade, or even second. Kindergarten’s academic standards are dramatically more rigorous than even a decade ago (“find textual evidence”; “read texts with purpose and understanding”; “distinguish between similarly spelled words by identifying the sounds of the letters that differ”).

A 2014 study from the University of Virginia compared kindergarten teachers’ expectations for their students in 1998 to today. The differences were striking. In 1998, 31% of teachers thought that kindergarten students should be able to read by the end of the year. By 2014, that figure is now about 80%. More than a third more kindergarten teachers now think that kids should enter school already knowing the alphabet and how to hold a pencil. In 2014, about three-quarters of kids in kindergarten took at least one standardized test. In 1998, the researchers didn’t even bother asking that question on the survey. Overall, the researchers found huge decreases in the amount of self-directed, creative play time—dress up, art, sand and water play—and increases in the amount of time students were involved in teacher-directed, whole-class instruction.

I have a doctorate in educational development and policy, and in graduate school, as the Common Core standards were being developed, I was a passionate champion of higher, common standards for our nation’s students. Yet I took it for granted that the standards would be determined by experts in each age range to be developmentally appropriate.

Unfortunately, the Common Core academic standards for the younger grades were not written by early childhood professionals or scholars. Of the 135 people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards, not one of them was an early childhood teacher or early child development expert.

Kindergarten today ignores a basic fact of young children’s development that is well-known by early childhood educators: normal development in young children occurs at very different rates and in very different ways. For example, the average age that a baby starts to walk is 12 months, but some kids start walking at eight or nine months and others (like my toddler daughter) at 15, or even 16, months. Some may crawl before they walk; some—like my daughter—skip crawling altogether. My daughter is now 19 months old and walks just as proficiently as the other toddlers in her class who learned to walk several months before she did.

Similarly, the average age that a child learns to be an independent reader is about six and a half. Some learn to read at four, and others at seven, and both extremes are developmentally normal. In fourth grade, kids who learned to read at four are typically not any better at reading than those who started at seven. Countries like Finland and Sweden, which outpace the United States in international testing, do not even start formal academic schooling until age seven.

We need to respect children’s individual developmental timelines. The idea that “earlier is better” for reading instruction is simply not supported by research evidence. Children’s long-term achievement and self-identities as readers and students can be damaged when they are introduced to reading and literacy too early.

Where does that leave my family? I’m sad that my son won’t experience kindergarten as a gentle transition into the rhythms of school, as a space primarily for exploration and play, and as a place where building strong relationships with adults and other children is the primary annual goal. I’m sad that our culture of testing and assessment has moved down to even the youngest grades.

And I’m angry. I’m angry that in kindergarten he may be expected to meet standards that are not developmentally appropriate for him. I’m angry that our educational system ignores what research and evidence from other countries tells us is best for our children’s emotional, social, and academic lives.

I want to protect my son’s childhood, and I want him to grow and learn at his own pace. Increasingly, the early grades of our country’s public schools are not the place for kids like him—kids who are not ready at five to become “proficient” readers and writers—to thrive.

AUTHOR’S UPDATE: It’s two years after I wrote this piece and my son is now in first grade at his neighborhood public school. He is thriving. He gets lots of support, loves his teacher, and enjoys school. Somewhere around the age of six, it was if a switch went off in his brain and he began to write, read, and focus in a newer, more sophisticated sort of way.

I’m grateful that I didn’t force him into a formal academic environment when he wasn’t ready. That extra year allowed him to mature at his own pace, ease into a full day of academics, and gain confidence.

When he was four, he attended a very structured, academic preschool. It was a disaster. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he simply wasn’t ready. During a parent-teacher conference, his preschool teacher said to my husband and me, “Your son needs the gift of time.” She wanted him to repeat preschool.

At the time I inwardly rolled my eyes. “Gift of time”? What did that even mean? Or was she really saying that my son wasn’t all that bright?

Now I understand that this teacher did actually mean that this extra time—of trusting in your child’s potential, of being patient as a parent, of understanding that your kid’s development might not match today’s timetable—was a gift to my child. I don’t think every child needs that “gift,” but for some it makes all the difference.

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