The Reading Rush: What Educators Say About Kindergarten Reading Expectations

kindergarten reading expectationsA student sits at the kitchen table of her Washington, D.C.-area home. She rubs her eyes as she cries. A book lay open in front of her. The six-year-old kindergartener shouts in desperation at her mother, “I can’t do this! I don’t know how to read!”

Many kindergarteners are experiencing similar outbursts with the national push to get them to read and write by year-end. For some students, this is a walk in the park. But the majority of educators who responded to an NEA Today Facebook post on reading-age appropriateness, say most kindergartners aren’t ready.

“Parents think their children will learn letter recognition and sounds. They are shocked to learn what is expected in kindergarten,” says Hilda Kendrick, a kindergarten teacher in Jeffersonville, Ind. “The reading requirements stress out teachers and students.”

Kendrick explains that the Indiana Academic Standards and the College and Career Readiness Standards for reading expect kindergarteners to not only read, but write sentences, too. Under the Common Core State Standards, kindergarteners do more than just sing the ABCs. They are guided to develop a deep understanding of what the alphabet does and how each letter blends to make words.

Pennsylvania kindergarten teacher Holly Mariucci says, “There are a lot of kids who aren’t ready for that. There’s so much pressure on them to perform.”

The root of this pressure could be traced as far back as 1983, with the Nation at Risk, which lambasted the state of U.S. schools and called for a host of much-needed reforms to right the alarming direction that public education was seen to be headed.

Since this scathing indictment, most schools have taken drastic steps to meet the report’s challenge to adopt “more rigorous and measurable standards” for learning.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind scaled up expectations that trickled down to young learners. Subsequently, “the law placed pressure on students in kindergarten, first, and second grades to pass the third-grade standardized test,” says Shyrelle Eubanks, a senior policy analyst for NEA and a former kindergarten teacher in Maryland.

But Eubanks says children can do more in kindergarten. “It is not developmentally inappropriate to learn to read in kindergarten. It’s the approach that could be developmentally inappropriate.”

Peggy Martin-Lockhart of the Greater St. Louis Area agrees, saying it’s okay to expose early learners to print so they can begin to recognize sight words, “but you can’t expect everyone to grasp it—their brains aren’t ready.”

Her career in education spans 31 years, from kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal to special education administrator. She’s an advocate for developmentally appropriate early education, which means playtime must be an element of learning for kids this young.


For Mariucci, playtime is over.

She explains that 13 years ago in Pennsylvania she taught half-day programs that focused on letters and the sounds they made. Kindergarteners moved to first grade where they learned how to decode words and learned ten to 12 sight words.

“As the years went on everything got pushed down to a younger age,” she says.

Her district expects kindergarteners to finish the year reading at a D-Level. This means student should read fiction and non-fiction; follow text with the eyes (not point); read text with fewer lines of repeated words; read compound words; self-correct mistakes; and read high-frequency words: an, am, do, go, he, like, me, my, no, see, we.

“There’s no research that show kids who master these skills in kindergarten have any better academic success than kids who do it in first grade,” says Mariucci. “We’re getting away from what they need—and that’s play.”

For Betsy Wycislak, a kindergarten teacher in Illinois, the standards are appropriate and her kids do get to play. The issue often stems from the standards being re-interpreted by the school community, which includes some administrators, legislators, school boards, and community leaders.

“People are pressured to show good test scores and the standards are being re-interpreted to fit this idea that if we want students at a certain lexile level at the end of high school then they have to be reading in kindergarten,” says the 20-year veteran. “This doesn’t align with how kindergarteners’ brains are wired or how they learn—but some [people] are panicked.”

This panic has created angst among educators, who have gone from a play-based learning environment to structured classwork with more academic preparation and less social development. And in the name of high achievement, kitchen sets have been put away, recess cut, and creative curriculum swapped for worksheets.

Mariucci, who prided herself on an annual school performance that included games, art, songs, word decoding, math, listening, and public speaking, was disheartened to learn she was to cease and desist the show.

“It wasn’t just fluff. It was a thematic unit that aligned with Common Core,” she sadly says.

The reason? She needed to stop wasting instructional time for practice on a show.

Recess has also fallen victim to instructional time, too. What once was a 30-minute block of time has decreased to 20 minutes. It’s less time when you account for the lack of transition time: lunch ends at 12:10p.m. and recess begins at 12:10p.m.

“They don’t get a moment to breathe,” Mariucci says.

Mind the Gap

The school year starts with a significant disadvantage among kindergartners, too, because some don’t know how to write their names to others reading a few sight words. Some students come from an academic preschool setting while others come from the arms of baby sitters who rarely exposed them to books.

“We try to close that gap,” Mariucci says, “and have everyone reading at the same level by the end of 180 days, but you can’t—there’s just a big gap. I have a little boy who still can’t write his name, and it’s day number 163.”

In Indiana, all but one of Kendrick’s students can read at Level Six, which includes a variety of sentences with eight to 10 words; words with inflectional endings (-s, -ed, -ing); some compound words; and some irregular past tense verbs (ran, came). Some of her students are reading chapter books while others are on a third-grade reading level.

“Even though play is out, I try to make it fun and I can justify everything,” she says, adding that her district has yet to tie evaluations to test scores, which makes a difference in a teacher’s approach to learning.

What also helps? An administrator who gets it.

Martin-Lockhart says, “principals who have developmental knowledge of literacy are often more supportive of their kindergarten teachers, and will give them the freedom to make executive decisions—but not as many of those are like that now.”

Wycislak, who teaches 50 miles outside of Chicago, says she has good administrators in her building, and district personnel who are willing to listen. “Those are key variables. A principal who’s being evaluated on how well the kids are doing might stress and push that on to the teachers.”

Whether educators agree with the standards or expectations, one thing is clear: kindergarten needs to be fun and engaging. “All children are gifted,” says Kendrick. “Some just open their package sooner.”

  • Dana D.

    Spot on!

  • Becky Brown

    As an educator for 31+ years, we are told what to teach and how to teach it. Developmentally appropriate has gone by the wayside. Everything now falls under “Common Core” lessons & test driven instruction. Recess is quickly being pushed to the side. I have been told (with a finger wagging in my face!) that if its not a common core lesson for my grade level, I cannot teach it. It’s sad how a standardized test has taken over our class instruction time & the stress is definitely passed to us from administrators & its passed on to our students. Believe me, teaching isn’t as rewarding as it has been in previous years. Our student’s performance is documented & compared every year to the previous year(s). Our jobs are held over our heads the entire school year. Every year, teachers are held accountable for more & more with little help & administrative support. I love teaching. It’s my life’s work. It was a calling, however, I can’t say that I love it anymore. There is way too many politics & politicans involved making education decisions. It’s a job many have never held nor have they visited (random, unscheduled) a classroom. This is just my 2-cents worth! Hope you all have a great Fourth of July!

    • Diane

      My feelings exactly. My last 2 years of teaching, before I retired, was unsatisfying. I didn’t want to go to work and lost my ethusiasm for teaching. I never imagined I would ever feel this way.

  • joedog

    One huge problem that everyone seems afraid to address, is that different children are at different development levels, due to a variety of factors. Our elementary schools are set up to provide experiences that are developmentally appropriate for most girls from a lower middle class or higher socioeconomic background, but that are not appropriate for many boys of the same age, or for the many children who have never been exposed to reading or books prior to entry into school.

    We often hear about how American schools are not as good as those in Finland – but in Finland, students begin formal education at age seven, and are already expected to know many things that we teach in school – alphabet, numbers, and basic reading and writing skills. Could it be that two keys to the success of the Finnish system are that they wait until children are developmentally ready for school before enrolling them, and that parents in Finland are expected to play a role in educating their children?

    • Robin Webster

      Yes! We are so off the mark with many boys…they end up hating school!

  • Robin Webster

    Your recommendation is sound; however, my experience has been that those who need more knowledge on developmentally appropriate practice are not interested in hearing what teachers have to say. Much of what they do is politically motivated. It is seldom based on the needs of children, specifically those who are most at risk. The disadvantaged in our country don’t have the clout or voice to demand what their students need. Also, there seem to be a gazillion educators willing to jump on board to create the curriculums that are not developmentally appropriate and make a good chunk of change while they are at it. Why is everyone buying into this “pushing down” mentality? I was involved in a writing workshop at a prestigious university with 30 other educators. We asked the esteemed, experienced professors leading the program, who have been involved in many studies on learning processes, what was going on with all this “rigor” stuff in lower elementary grades. Their response was, “Do you think anyone asks us? We are as frustrated as you are!” So who is steering this ship anyway? I am very frustrated, as I see my struggling students being pushed through the system when they haven’t reached the benchmarks necessary to do well. Very, very frustrated!

    • Deborah Dosh-Healy

      Yes, when are we going to respect research on developmental readiness!

    • dancinggirl1555

      Well said. What’s being done to the education system by those who’ve never been in a classroom is scary as h***. Parents, teachers and principals have got to find a way to gain more control. One of the things that has to stop is homework in grades K-6. It’s insane. I find this business of forcing little kids to drag around those heavy backpacks and spend time after school doing silly homework when they should be playing and just being kids is positively criminal. Those who received their K-6 education…and yes, 6th grade belongs in elementary school…prior to around 1966 received an education that was far superior to the K-6 education anyone has received since WITHOUT A SINGLE HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT!!! If that isn’t proof enough that homework is actually detrimental in grades K-6, we now have studies showing that physical activity is a necessary component to intellectual development and learning capacity.

      But, the real insanity is that, before all the reforms that have failed so miserably, our education system was actually doing well. it needed some improving, but it should have been tweaks here and there “added” to what was already in place. Instead, around 1966, they began to “replace” what was working with “new” methodology and have continued to do so in the face of countless studies showing siad methods are ineffective. The results of all this ill-conceived mayhem have caused the graduation of millions of students who received a less-than-adequate education. Our lives are adversely affected by these consequences every day as silly…and critical…errors are being made in offices and pharmacies around the country. The workplace is now populated with younger employees who are making mistakes at such an alarming rate it’s as though they believe they’re being paid to do so. And, what’s worse, they couldn’t care less, a fact evident in their casual, shrug-of-the-shoulders response when we mention or complain about the mistake. It’s been my experience that they appear to not understand the mistake nor why it matters….and they don’t want to know.

      When elementary schools began giving stars and awards just for showing up and other nonsense to build self-esteem, they created a monster…generations of people who believe they’re entitled to the big bucks just for showing up and that they are “better than” and “know more than” their co-workers and everyone who’s older. The truth they should have all been bright enough to realize is that self-esteem is born of…a product of…self-respect and self-respect comes from a “doing” rather than a “being.” Rewarding all kids equally for showing up, i.e. “being” rather than requiring them to do good work inflated their respective egos with a fragile self-esteem when doing good work and performing well would have given them unshakable self-respect leading to solid self-esteem.

      Parents, teachers, principals and citizen need to join together to become an unstoppable force in the ending of all this insanity perpetrated by politicians and billionaires and millionaires, like Bill Gates and John Legend, who, despite their good intentions, don’t know enough to be effective with their contributions in time and money. At least one of Gates’ multi-million dollar projects was a dismal failure. We can’t afford to waste anymore time on unproven methodology. Use of technology in the classroom is another one of the areas where “new” and “innovative” is treated as though it automatically equates with “best” and “effective” and “mandatory” when none of that is true.

      “New” is NOT always better. The last 40+ years is proof of that. Kids are learning all they need to know about technology by 8 years old and what they don’t know can be learned in the last semester of their senior year. Other than convenience, it has nothing to offer K-12 education that is better. We learn history because knowing it teaches us much about ourselves. In this case, history informs the matter better than anything else. With the introduction of television, everyone was so sure it would improve learning. It did not, and studies now show that sitting in front of a screen is too passive to enhance learning and is often developmentally detrimental. Today’s technology is no different. It has its place; it just isn’t the classroom.

  • Deborah Dosh-Healy

    As a kindergarten teacher the last eight years (an educator for 24 years) I have come to realize why we use to wait to teach reading to first graders so many years ago; most six year-olds are ready to read, most five year-olds are not! I keep telling friends that there is something wrong with a culture that spends billions of dollars to pay adults (professional sports) to PLAY, but we don’t want five year-olds to play; we want them to hurry up and learn to read and write! I can teach a five year old to read by years end, but not without banging my head against the wall, and the child’s. We know that students do not learn well under STRESS, so why do we keep stressing our five year olds to read, when it would come so much more easily at six, when s/he would be developmentally ready to read. We as a society under estimate the power of learning that comes from PLAY. We are missing out on so many other necessary skills that come through playing that enhance learning down he line. It is time for parents and educators to advocate for childhood! These are not little adults in small bodies. WE are robbing our children of their childhoods to satisfy our societies fears that we won’t be FIRST!

    • Jennifer Hatcher

      I am currently a kindergarten teacher myself although I have taught other grades. I have been saying this for years. Many 5 year olds are not developmentally ready to read. I am glad someone else has my same sentiments. And yes, like you I can get every student reading by year’s end, it is a serious, serious process……..