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How Much Reading Should We Expect of Kindergartners? A Look at the Standards

Do the common-core standards demand too much of kindergarten readers?, asks a new piece this week from KQED's Mind/Shift. 

It's a debate we've heard before. Much of the back-and-forth centers around the Common Core State Standard that says students should be able to "read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understandingby the end of kindergarten.

The common core defines emergent-reader texts as those with short sentences made up of learned sight words (i.e., the, he, is) and consonant-vowel-consonant words (i.e., cat, mop, bag).

As my colleague Lillian Mongeau wrote in January, the advocacy organization Defending the Early Years has called the kindergarten reading standards "developmentally inappropriate" and pushed instead for a play-based kindergarten classroom. But Robert Pondiscio, the vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and others have said reading is within the abilities of 5-year-olds. Pondiscio shot back that "it's simply incorrect to suggest that we can't have both play-based kindergarten and language-rich kindergarten. It's what the best kindergarten teachers have always done."

Within the common-core criticism, there seems to be an implicit notion that requiring reading in kindergarten is something new. But let's look at the pre-common-core kindergarten standards in a few states and see how much reading they require:

(Also, it's worth noting that previous standards can be tough to find at this point. Some state education departments have scrubbed them from their sites and replaced them with the common core.)

• The 1997 California state standardsas Mongeau notes, said kindergartners should be able to "read simple one-syllable and high-frequency words." The California standards also say students should "ask and answer questions about essential elements of a text"—though they don't have to have read the text themselves for that standard.

• Mississippi's standards from 2006 state kindergarten students should "recognize some high-frequency words in text," "read some sight words," and "understand and make simple inferences about text." 

• The 2001 framework from Massachusetts, known for having tough standards, said students in kindergarten should "use letter-sound knowledge to identify unfamiliar words in print and gain meaning." That sounds high-level, but the objectives under that standard are more foundational, including "understand that written words are composed of letters that represent sounds" and "use letter-sound matches to decode simple words."

And what about states that never adopted the common core? What do their kindergarten standards require?

• The Texas standards ask students to "use knowledge of letter-sound relationships to decode regular words in text and independent of content." The "in text" part is key here—and not so different from what the common core requires. 

• In Virginia, the standards ask students to "develop an understanding of basic phonetic principles," such as identifying the first consonant sound in single-syllable words. That's a far lower standard than reading a print text.

As you can see, all of the standards above (except Virginia's) do require kindergartners to read to some extent. But none of them require both in-text reading and comprehension simultaneously, as the common core does. So that does seem like a jump.

But is it a developmentally inappropriate one? 

Educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham would say that, considering that cognitive development does not happen in discrete stages, the whole idea of "developmentally appropriate practice is not a good guide for instruction."

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