Teaching Kindergarteners to Read

Photo by Renee Jones-Schneider, Star Tribune
Photo by Renee Jones-Schneider, Star Tribune

There was an article in yesterday’s Star Tribune about how kindergarten is becoming the new first grade. It’s an informative article, corroborating my experience as a volunteer in a Minneapolis public school kindergarten. Today, in the letters page, there are the perhaps inevitable opinions about how it’s too bad kindergarten children are being made to, well, learn to read, and another by a woman who clearly knows how to do it all better.

My goodness, as if Minneapolis public school teachers didn’t have enough criticism to contend with.

Experience tells me there is some apparently built-in reading readiness that varies from child to child. Anyone who has spent any time in the company of children knows this. I, too, read the article with some apprehension until I got to this line:

Minnesota’s climb to a more rigorous kindergarten can be traced partly to statewide goals urging that all third-graders should read at grade level.  

So that’s the goal, which in fact was the same goal, based on the same developmental assumptions, floating around 25 years ago when my kids were in grade school. Not all children will be reading by the end of kindergarten. It’s possible that not all children COULD read by the end of kindergarten.That’s not the goal. The goal is grade-level reading by third grade. How could anyone object to this?

What is it that people imagine? Five-year-old little Jenny being shunned by the teacher because she can’t recognize a word? Good Lord, when was the last time you were in a kindergarten classroom? I’ll tell you what, I was in one just yesterday and yes, the children were engaged in an activity in which they were learning words “to recognize by sight,” is what their amazing, experienced, unflappable teacher told them. Every child sat down with his or her oversized pencil (easier to grip) and, in a brand new notebook dedicated to the exciting prospect of learning to read, wrote the words the teacher wrote on the board. The words were “I,” “see,” and “a.”

I helped one child by writing the words first in a yellow highlighter (teacher’s fantastic idea) over which he drew the letters with his pencil. The little girl across from us managed on her own, as did most of the other children. Because the teacher in this classroom is excellent, everyone had the opportunity to shine. If you had trouble with the letters, you got a chance to draw a picture of a dog (which is the word the teacher chose to end the sentence). The little girl across from me drew a really spectacular dog.

Here’s how my kids learned to read, in a household full of books and people who love books: slowly. Gradually. In their own time. They were not subject to ridicule for differences in the way they learned to read. They were not rewarded or punished for a skill that takes a long time to master.

Why is it the automatic assumption that it would happen any other way in a kindergarten classroom?

Listen, teachers have a big job. If you doubt that, I suggest you get yourself into a public school to volunteer. Then you’ll see, as I have, that a goal of reading by third grade MUST be addressed in kindergarten, especially for children in what is called “low print” households. And please: Trust that the amazing teachers we have in our schools want only to bring the pleasure and magic of reading to every single child in their care.


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