Saturday, January 24, 2015

K Reading Instruction: Ignoring the Experts

Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood have released a report about the use of Kindergarten reading instruction. Authored by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, and Joan Wolfsheimer Almon, the report gives up its conclusion in its title: "Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little To Gain, and Much To Lose."

If you prefer your information in video form, here's a handy short clip they've created to tout the report's conclusions:

Both the video and the report are fully accessible to people who have not been soaking in education policy debates for the past several years, so they are perfect educational tools to share with your civilian friends.

The report is not a long or arduous read, but it's still a full twelve pages, so I'm going to give you the bullet points version.

* Many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten, but the Common Core Standards require schools to do exactly that. Researchers have demonstrated that the developmental milestones of early childhood have not moved significantly since at least the 1920's. Researchers also offer a wide range of time frames for those milestones to be hit, an observation confirmed by anybody who ever spent time around more than one tiny human. Citing superhuman education research machine Mercedes Schneider, the authors note that the Common Core's creation involved not one single grown human with professional expertise, training or experience working with the tiny humans that they were setting standards for.

* No research supports the idea that learning to read in Kindergarten results in long-term gains. It's true that no research can hope to show just how much grown human social status and adult self-esteem is derived by parents who can casually observe at cocktail parties that their five-year-old is currently polishing off the complete Harry Potter series, but so far no researcher has been able to show that a kindergarten reading head start leads to early admission to Yale, cuter prom dates, and more frequent raises. Anecdotally, I am sure by the time students have arrived in my classroom to argue about how much they don't enjoy reading Heart of Darkness, any super advantage they may have had from an early reading start has pretty much disappeared. I don't think I'm unusual in this respect, and so far nobody has conducted research that would prove I'm wrong.

* Research does show that play-based programs are far more effective than any sort of Tiny Human Academics. Also, children learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.In other words, letting five year olds act like five year olds instead of trying to make them behave like college freshmen is a good choice. It works, and the research shows it.

* Active, play-based experiences in language-rich environments help children develop their ideas about symbols, oral language and the printed word — all vital components of reading. Yes, we know a lot about how to do this stuff effectively.

* We are setting unrealistic reading goals and frequently using inappropriate methods to accomplish them. Which sort of follows. If your goal is to make pigs fly, is there anything you might attempt that wouldn't be inappropriate. This is why it matters that CCSS goals are bad goals set by people who don't know better-- if you start from bad goals, you will use bad methods to pursue them.

* In play-based preschools and kindergartens, teachers intentionally design language and literacy experiences which help prepare children to become fluent readers. In other words, back off. We're professionals and we know what we're doing. What may look like "just messing around" to people who don't know any better is actually laying the groundwork for literacy. And no, you can't get the same effect from a pre-packaged computer program. Tiny humans need to learn from other humans.

* The adoption of the Common Core State Standards falsely implies that having children achieve these standards will overcome the impact of poverty on development and learning, and will create equal educational opportunity for all children. No well-promoted set of government standards will make the effects of poverty disappear. Nor do the standards trump actual developmental stages. You don't get children to grow taller faster simply by insisting that they must, or else.

* Recommendations. The authors wrap up with a list of Things They Want To Have Happen. Erase Kindergarten standards from CCSS. Do some more actual research on what works, particularly with students in poverty. Convene a task force (yeah, I'm not really excited about that idea). No high stakes testing for pre-third grade students. Make teachers better and put experienced ones in high-poverty areas.

Okay, so I don't think all of their recommendations are winners. But they've done a good job of laying out the problems with the kindergarten reading standards (and really, with the standards beyond just those). The standards were set by people who did not know what they were doing, and so the standards don't fit the children. To try to make the children fit the standards requires a sort of educational malpractice.

And yet we already know plenty about what works when teaching children to read. And plenty of teachers were already doing it. Early childhood reading instruction is an area where the amateurs running the Common Core show clearly pushed aside and ignored the experts in the field and demanded that solid techniques and approaches be replaced with unfounded approaches. CCSS demands flying pigs. It's time for the amateurs to just back up and let the people who know how to teach the tiny humans do their job.


  1. Yes, I totally agree....except the one comment I have to make is, perhaps, what about this?

  2. I am not convinced that the Matthew effect is genuine, and even if it is, pushing kids to read earlier - before they are developmentally ready - isn't going to solve that lack.

    Plus, I'm pretty tired of this "learn to read/read to learn" thing. As a kinder teacher, we are learning to read and we read to learn, too. My colleagues all the way up would say the same.

  3. The correct response to the Matthew effect is not to force everyone into the "have much" category. It's to reshape the system so that we counteract the effect, particularly in the early childhood years, where development naturally varies so much.

    In order to do that, of course, we would have to scrap the very concept of standardization.