Reading at five: why?

08/21/2013  |  By JOAN ALMON
Early Childhood

Kindergarten and preschool education in the U.S. have changed radically since the 1970s when I began teaching young children. The play-based, experiential programs of the past are rarely seen in kindergartens and are even disappearing from preschools now. Instead, hours are devoted each day to teaching young children reading, writing, and arithmetic and giving tests or preparing children for tests. Little if any time is given for play or other free choice activities.

When these changes first began to appear, I asked many kindergarten teachers why they were changing their curriculum. The most common answer was that parents wanted their children to read in kindergarten. Today this goal is strongly supported by many policy makers and school leaders and preschools are under pressure to prepare their children to be able to read in kindergarten.

For 40 years I have searched without success for studies that support the notion that reading at five is a helpful step for long-term success in school. A recent doctoral thesis confirmed the absence of such evidence. Sebastian Suggate, studying in New Zealand, did an extensive search for quantitative, controlled studies that showed long-term gains for children who learned to read at five compared to those who learned at six or seven. He found one methodologically weak study from 1974 but could find no others. Thus, a major shift in American education has taken place without any evidence to support it. Nor have NAEP scores — Department of Education tests that are often called the nation’s report card — over the past 20 years increased enough to indicate that we are making strong gains, especially when one considers the problems that accompany the current focus on cognitive learning in kindergartens and in preschools.

Many experts in child development are very concerned about the current approaches. For example, Stephen Hinshaw at the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in hyperactive disorders, spoke of the need for a broad-based kindergarten approach. He was quoted in Time magazine in 2003, saying, “Even more vital than early reading is the learning of play skills, which form the foundation of cognitive skills.” He pointed out that in Europe children are often not taught to read until age seven. “Insisting that they read at five,” he said, “puts undue pressure on a child.” This pressure has continued to mount in the 10 years since he was quoted, and there is no end in sight, although many parents, teachers, and school leaders speak about the problems they are seeing as a result of current practices.

In addressing the question of why children should read in kindergarten it is necessary to recognize the important goal that children should read proficiently by the end of third grade. The Casey Foundation describes this goal in its report, “EARLY WARNING! Why Reading at the End of Third Grade Matters,” which states that reading proficiently by the end of third grade can be a make-or-break experience for children. Until then children are learning to read. After that they are reading to learn, and it is hard to master subjects beginning in fourth grade if one cannot read at least at age-appropriate levels. The report cites a Yale study that found that three quarters of students who were poor readers in third grade remained poor readers in high school.

Third grade reading is a clear goal, and for most children an age-appropriate one. What do preschool and kindergarten children need to know to achieve that goal? Bank Street College, a leading institution for early childhood education, has developed an on-line guide for early literacy development. It identifies three main stages for developing strong reading skills.

  • In preK to first grade children are typically emergent readers and writers.
  • In first and second grades they are early readers.
  • In second and third they are early fluent/fluent readers.

Bank Street describes a number of typical achievements for emergent readers/writers. Among their examples are being able to understand that written language conveys messages and pretending to read and write. Children may know some letter names and some letter-sound associations; and they can write some letters, usually those in their own names.

These goals are more appropriate than most standards I have seen. Speaking with teachers, I’ve learned that while some children in their kindergarten classes can do the work required by the standards, many simply are not ready. There is nothing developmentally wrong with the children. It is the expectations that are not developmentally appropriate. What happens then to children who are consistently asked to do more than they can do? Or are required to sit still and pay attention for long periods while the class works to meet the standards?

The outcomes of the standards movement, including its social-emotional impact on young children, are rarely discussed. It seems that everyone in education is to be held accountable except those who develop the standards. There is growing concern that current standards and practices are a factor in rising rates of aggression and serious misbehavior in preschools and kindergartens.

For example, Connecticut schools suspended or expelled 901 kindergartners for aggressive behavior in 2002, twice as many as in 2000. One New Haven school official attributed the spike in violence among kindergarten children to the increasing emphasis on standardized testing and the elimination of time for recess, gym and other chances to play.

Preschools are also coping with more difficult behaviors in children than were previously seen. In 2005 a study of nearly 4000 public preschools by Walter Gilliam of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine found that expulsion rates were three times higher in preschools than in K-12 classrooms. Among the children expelled, 4.5 times more boys were expelled than girls, and the rate was especially high for older preschoolers and for African American children.

Gilliam identified a number of factors contributing to these high expulsion rates, including child-teacher ratios, class sizes, number of hours children were in the programs, and the self-reported stress levels of teachers. But he also looked at the relationship between giving children time to play and expulsion rates. He found that programs that gave children time for dramatic play every day had a much lower expulsion rate than those that gave time to play only once a month or never — nine percent compared to 25 percent.

All of this leads to the urgent question of whether it makes sense to expect kindergarten children and preschool children to spend long hours preparing for reading, trying to master skills that come much more easily a year or two later. Given that there is no evidence of long-term gains, coupled with growing concern about losses, it is time for a change. Unfortunately, with standards set in place it is not so easy to change them to meet the needs of children. But one can be creative in how to meet them through experiential education and play.

For example, many of the literacy standards can be integrated with each other in lessons that may focus on books but which include artistic expression, acting out of stories, or engaging in hands-on activities related to themes from the books. Children love engaging with stories in multiple ways, and they then begin seeing literacy as part of a rich and creative life, not as an isolated activity. The same is true of meeting the math standards, or any other standards.

What do the Common Core kindergarten standards require in reading? Fortunately, the specific standard for reading is written vaguely enough to leave much room for interpretation. It says, “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” What are emergent reader texts? No one seems quite clear, but some say they contain pictorial sentences where words are replaced with pictures or symbols, such as “2”for two, or a drawing of a horse for that word. Children only need to know a few words to read a sentence. They can master this and still have plenty of time for exploratory learning and creative play.

One of the sad outcomes of the current standards movement is that the Common Core standards were designed to help graduates be prepared for college and the workforce, but they make it very difficult for early childhood teachers to foster creativity, curiosity, and imagination, qualities much prized by the workforce. An IBM study of 1500 CEOs worldwide, for instance, found that the quality they most prized in their employees was creativity. Yet a study of creativity by Kyung Hee Kim at William and Mary College found that creativity levels in this country had begun to drop in 1990 after several decades of rising. She found the problem was especially great among children in K-5. Business schools have turned to her asking for help in developing creative thinking in college students, which is ironical when we are inadvertently — or even systematically — diminishing it in young children.

Similarly, young children are deeply curious and learn a great deal through self-directed exploration. High school science teachers now speak of the need for more inquiry-based learning, which is exactly the way young children learn if encouraged to do so.

In short, there is no evidence that pressuring children to read at five improves their later reading, and much concern that it is damaging. There is now a call for more rigorous education for young children. This implies additional hours of didactic instruction and testing. What we really need is a more vigorous education that meets young children’s needs and prepares them for the 21st century, which is often described as a century of imagination and creativity. The children are ready. Are we?

Joan Almon is Co-founder, Alliance for Childhood.
Comments & Ratings

  12/7/2013 5:45:18 AM

What Is One Supposed to be Reading at Age Five? 
I am a completely literate adult. I graduated from a top liberal arts college. I attended a rigorous private high school. I could not read a single word until I was in 2nd grade. I understood the concept of reading, but I couldn't do it before then. I did not learn phonetically, so that was a total waste of time. I went to a Montessori school and no one really noticed that I couldn't read. I do remember having to memorize a book about a cat in 1st grade to keep the teacher off my back. I had my mom read it to me over and over and learned when to turn the pages and what words to say for each page. I remember that reading simply happened to me. I read very quickly and could read like a normal person almost as soon as I could read at all. I have never really understood the concept of reading at a certain grade level. It seems to me, or maybe this is only true for sight readers, that if a person can read than he can read period. Vocabulary would seem to be the limiting factor in what one could read, not ability to read. Phonetically decoding words however is a far cry from comprehension, and this seems to be what is being taught so early to children. Which brings me to my final point - what the heck is someone going to read at age five that is either important or interesting? Nothing probably. It's much better to have someone read stories to young children. I don't think that an attempt should be made to teach children to read until at least the middle of first grade. If a child is an early reader on his or her own of course this shouldn't be punished, but teaching kids to read in kindergarten is a waste of valuable time.
  12/3/2013 3:51:25 PM

Former teacher, enthusiast of both Montessori & Waldorf 
Children shouldn't be pushed, pressured, and tested nor should they be held back! imho
In an environment where a child and his peers (some a little younger, some a little older) are exposed to letters, letter sounds, and books they will read at 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 or 9. No
pressure though, Mom, Dad, and Caregiver. No one child should be made to feel more exceptional than any other. Help them learn that each is unique and talented in their own ways.
  11/21/2013 12:05:29 AM
Sydney Gurewitz Clemens 

It depends on how you teach...if you're supplying words children need, and not pressuring them, then 
So, the work of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, which I wrote about in my first two books (see my website: ) consisted of giving a child the words that named the pictures in his or her head... words like motorcycle or perfume, ghost or mommy... read her, or read me about her, or read Katie Johnson about her, but don't throw out the organic quality of learning to read important words with the nonsense of teaching phonics (which have no connection to life) to a young child. We have to distinguish between the form and the substance!
  11/20/2013 8:30:55 AM
Carroll Smith 

Thank you 
I love you Joan Almon and your courageous stand for our children. You are making a difference!
  11/19/2013 7:29:28 PM
Darline Pinheiro 

Early education 
It is no secret that those who control the money and education have no clue about early education. Just as a house is only as strong as its foundation so it is with education.
Until we encourage young children to play and to create their own knowledge, the United States will never never be able to creat in the STEM world market. Why does no one do anything about this?
  11/17/2013 9:43:01 PM

First grade teacher / mother of a kindergartener  
I teach first grade, and have a son in kindergarten. I am so proud that he is beginning to read 14 weeks into his kindergarten year, and have to say, he was probably more well prepared for school than his peers. HOWEVER, my poor little man is so exhausted on the way home from school that he falls in the car everyday. My feeling is that just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should. I pray that my son, who loves school and adores his teacher, does not get burned out due to the rigor of his studies.
  11/15/2013 2:32:35 PM

There Are No Children Here 
I recently had the opportunity to observe a kindergarten class at our school. What I saw was upsetting. There was several groups of little children sitting at table reading, or attempting to read. There were no happy little faces, no children engaged in play and no evidence of childhood taking place in that room. We have outlawed crayons and coloring and replace it with leveled texts. Creative play has been replaced with the Common Core Standards. When did education stop being about the children. As I walked around the room, I remembered a book that I had read many years ago and how the title would be appropriate for this setting. The book was titled "There are No Children Here."
  11/14/2013 5:53:02 AM
Swedish preschoolteacher..  

Let them play! 
So sad to read about things like this..
Thats how they learn!
Everyday and all the time.
Let them be kids as long as possible!!
  11/3/2013 12:33:58 PM
Kindie Teacher 

Ontario Full day Kindergarten 
In Ontario we are moving towards the end of a 5 year implementation of Full Day Kindergarten for 4 and 5 year olds. This program focus is PLAY. The children learn through inquiry and authentic tasks. Together the teachers and the children wonder about the world and seek answers to their questions. The children make, create and work on projects that they are interested in. This is very child centred and student driven. The program, if managed correctly is awesome. I believe our job in Kindergarten is not to prepare the children for Grade 1, but for life.
  11/1/2013 6:47:35 AM
Andrew Swan 

Friedrich Froebel where are you now 
Great article that is being shared in social media. Kindergarten - The Very name should should prevent this academic style. We certainly want need to wait 20 years for evidence, it's all around us, increases in dyspraxia, childhood illnesses related to stress and a teenage rise in mental health issues. Let the children play.
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