You Can’t Force Developmental Milestones: A Parent’s Perspective on the CCSS Kindergarten Foundational Reading Standards

In a recent Facebook discussion about PARCC and the Common Core State Standards, I commented that the Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate in the younger grades. Another participant in the discussion challenged that assertion, and pointed to the CCSS kindergarten literacy standards. He asked me to identify what was inappropriate in them.

Here’s an edited and expanded version of my response:

I think pointing to the Reading:Literacy Standards (Kindergarten) for an analysis of developmental inappropriateness misses the mark. My concern with the standards for the youngest grades is not with the Reading: Literacy Standards, which are about comprehension and understanding stories, but rather with the Reading: Foundational Standards (Kindergarten), which are about phonics and decoding words. The Reading: Foundational Standards require ALL kindergartners, for instance, to be reading CVC words (i.e., 3 letter short vowel words) by the end of kindergarten, unless those words end with r, x, or l. Requiring such phonics-based reading skills at that level by the end of kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. I can tell you that from my own experience.

I have two girls. Both have September birthdays. For a whole host of reasons, none of which I’m interested in debating here, we made the decision that we were fortunate enough to have the resources to make — we gave both of them an extra year of private preK. As a result, both started kindergarten just before they turned six, rather than just before they turned five.

Both of my girls are bright, capable, and inquisitive. But they’re also very different kids, with different learning styles, interests, and developmental paths. As an aside, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I have two kids, because seeing how different my younger daughter’s path is from my older daughter’s is a constant reminder of how amazingly different two typically developing small humans from the same gene pool really can be. It’s remarkable to see — and a constant source of wonder for me.

As I hope my regular readers might imagine, my house is full of books. We don’t have a family room, but in addition to our living room, we do have a dedicated library on the first floor of our house, and it was that library with its floor to ceiling built in bookshelves that made me fall in love with this house. But even the library doesn’t come close to holding our book collection. I’m not quite like my old friend Mel, of blessed memory, who, with his wife, had to move out of his four bedroom house to make room for the books it contained (he and his wife went to live in a small apartment nearby instead), but if it wasn’t for the Kindle, that path might have been part of my future.

We’ve read to our kids regularly since they were in utero. Not surprisingly, our collection of children’s books has mushroomed. My oldest has four bookcases in her room, and my youngest can’t contain her books on the 3 bookcases in her room. I belong to a book club, I read regularly for pleasure (and let my kids see me doing so), my kids know that I taught high school English Language Arts, and it’s been clear to my kids for their whole lives that understanding life through literature is central to our family values.

My oldest started asking me to teach her how to read shortly before her fourth birthday. Although my academic training was in teaching middle and high school, I was game to try. So I picked up a few resources, and we gave it a whirl. However, despite the fact that she already knew all of the letters and their sounds, it quickly became clear that she simply wasn’t ready, so we put formal reading instruction aside. I think we made another stab at it about three or four months later, but again, no dice. We tried it once or twice more, but each time the frustration for both of us outweighed any benefit, so we stopped.

Then, in about March of her last year of preK (so she was five and a half at that point), it was like a switch turned on. Within about a week of her renewed request for reading instruction, she was suddenly reading, fluently, anything and everything she could get her hands on. She never looked back. By the time she entered kindergarten six months later, she was reading — with comprehension — a wide variety of texts, including simple chapter books. She’s continued to gobble up books — and to love reading — ever since.

Obviously, meeting the kindergarten foundational standards would have been a no-brainer for my oldest. But remember, she had the gift of that “extra year,” so she started kindergarten weeks before her sixth — not her fifth — birthday. That was before our district’s Common Core implementation, but I’m not sure reading would have been so straightforward for her if she’d been forced to heavily drill phonics-based reading skills during what ended up (because of our choice) being her final year of pre-K. It’s clear to me from trying (at her request) to teach her that she simply wasn’t ready for phonics-based reading instruction at that time, but that’s when many kids — especially those who have fewer financial resources — enter kindergarten.

My youngest is a kindergartener right now. Like her sister, she also has a September birthday, so she turned six shortly after school started in September. Unlike her sister, she didn’t start kindergarten reading — and there is no way she was ready developmentally a year ago, even though she met the kindergarten cut off back then (i.e., she could be in first grade now). Now, she is on track to meet the standard that requires reading CVC words by the end of the year, but that’s only because she was fortunate enough to start kindergarten just before her sixth birthday rather than just before her fifth. Many — probably most — kids in our country don’t have that luxury.

My youngest, even more so than my oldest, is also a kid who gets really frustrated when asked to do a task she’s not yet developmentally ready to manage. Whether it’s academics or something else, when we’ve made the mistake of trying to push her to do something before she was developmentally ready, the result has been that she’s gotten really resistant to the task she’s not ready for, to the point that she ends up mastering it far later than I think she would have if we’d just left her alone.

I am convinced that forcing my youngest to learn phonics to read a year ago — when she could have already been in kindergarten — would have been a nightmare. In fact, I tried briefly, remembering her sister’s experience, but it quickly became clear that forcing reading before she was ready was a terrible idea. To be honest, even the tiny (and quickly abandoned) attempt I made caused some reading resistance, which I think we’ve pretty much managed to undo at this point, but it’s taken a lot of patience to get there.

Until now, my youngest just hadn’t hit the developmental switch required to read successfully. But that developmental switch — i.e., that point at which individual kids are ready for the abstraction necessary to be able to translate symbols on a page into the spoken language they’ve spent the last five years acquiring — it’s not something we can switch on earlier either by wishing or by imposing standards requiring it. Some kids are ready at four, some kids are ready at five, and some kids are ready at six. All of those ages are within the normal range for reading development — and despite taking some time to look, there’s nothing I’ve come across that indicates that an earlier reader’s long term outcomes will be better than those of a kid who learns to read later in the typical developmental range.

This difference among children — as illustrated by my own girls — is precisely why a standard requiring real progress toward phonics-based reading in kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate. As I learned in my educational psychology and reading instruction classes, by sometime between their sixth and seventh birthdays, most kids have reached the developmental milestone that allows them to learn to read. At the moment, although it’s a slower process than with my older daughter, I can see that my six year old is getting there. For instance, she’s finally suggesting, at least once in awhile (to avoid housework, but that’s another story), that she try reading with me. But again, she’s a full year older than many other kindergartners.

My youngest is bright and creative. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons she’s relatively slow to read is because she can imagine alternate — and entertaining — realities for hours on end. That is, her imagination is so engaging that she doesn’t need authors’ stories to provide entertainment for her. As a result, reading — that is, the process of interacting with an author’s imagination — is less appealing for her, and so she’s less motivated to do it.

My daughters’ different experiences with learning to read are why I believe that the Common Core Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten, at least, are developmentally inappropriate. Forcing phonics-based reading on kindergartners as a standard they must all meet to be on the path toward college and career readiness is counterproductive because it’s developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. If my younger daughter had started kindergarten a year ago, as she could have, I suspect that she would have been subjected to a cascade of interventions. Those interventions would not have occurred because she had a learning disability or any other problem that needed addressing. Rather, she would have been subjected to such interventions because the Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten are simply inappropriate for many five year olds.

The solution is to change the standards. Yet instead, their advocates often seem to be focused on interventions aimed at making all kids march in lockstep to a rhythm that fails to reflect the normal range of their developmental trajectories. It’s that insistence on lockstep, especially in the youngest grades, that frustrates me. Such insistence appears to mark the difference between endorsing a set of standards and advocating an ideology that allows no deviation from the party line. Our kids — especially our kindergartners — deserve better.

P.S. I think this story also explains why the developmentally inappropriate expectations of the CCSS reading foundational standards are only going to widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap.  As noted above, the only reason that my little one will be able to meet the CCSS reading foundational standards by the end of kindergarten is going to be because she was privileged enough to have parents who could “red-shirt” her.  It’s the fact that we could afford to choose to keep her in a high-quality play-based preschool for an extra year that’s going to allow her to meet CCSS for kindergarten.  Not all families have that luxury: instead, the younger kindergarteners are going to be more likely to end up in repetitive, phonics and decoding focused response to intevention (“RTI”) or similar programs, which I think would have frustrated my little one further, and probably sent her even further down the path toward reading resistance.  How many children living in poverty are going to end up in that boat, because the standards themselves set developmentally inappropriate expectations?

Reading Log Revolt

Parents and teachers of elementary school aged students, I have a confession to make:

I loathe the reading logs my daughter brings home.

So, just to be clear, the reading logs that return from my house, faithfully filled out each week or month — those reading logs are big fat lies.

My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Each year since kindergarten, she’s brought home some version of the nightly “reading log.” Depending on the year and teacher, it’s been as simple as writing down the name, the book, and the number of minutes read (initialed or signed by a parent, of course), or it’s been as involved as a reading response journal that requires her to summarize, or pick out key details, or connect the text to her own life, and to record the number of pages read, time spent reading, etc.

But each reading log comes with one universal expectation: every single night, there’s some minimum requirement for reading (i.e., number of pages read, or amount of time spent reading). And on a nightly basis, that reading must be tracked.

My older daughter (unlike my little one) started kindergarten as a fluent reader, who had already moved on to reading simple chapter books (Magic Tree House, Beverly Cleary, etc.). More importantly, she started kindergarten as a lover of books. My biggest concern (and oh-how-I-wish-my-mom-was-here-to-laugh-as-I-finally-emphathized-with-her-experience-with-me) was how to pry her away from books. But within weeks, the reading log began to change all of that: “Mom, am I done with my fifteen minutes yet?” “Mom, why do I have to write this?” “Mom, I don’t know what to say.” And worst of all: “Do I HAVE TO read?” This, from my voracious reader. This, when previously my bigger concern had been prying books out of her hands: “Stop reading! Go outside and play with your friends!”

Something had to be done. I was watching my daughter’s joy in reading disappear before my eyes. So I made a deal with her: as long as she continued to read voluntarily on her own, I’d stop timing her, stop nagging her, and just sign whatever she brought me for a reading log as long as it looked vaguely reasonable (and honestly, even if it did not). Despite my general emphasis as a parent on honesty, I discovered that I didn’t care in the least if the reading log was accurate or not, because I knew that she was doing far more reading — with far more joy — on her own than the reading log required. Accurate logging was sucking the joy out of reading. It was like my billable hours requirement. For first graders. As a lawyer, tracking my time at work is a necessary evil. But I’m in my forties. My daughter is nine.

And for five years now, that’s how it’s worked in my house.

But there’s always a tension. Now teachers require the kids to write down which pages they read each night. Teachers, my kid doesn’t want to constantly track, track, track. And my kid doesn’t want to constantly be tracked, tracked, tracked.  My kid wants to escape into the world of fiction, where time loses its meaning as she inhabits its characters. My kid wants to read last thing in bed at night, and first thing when she wakes up in the morning, and in the bathtub. She wants to bring her “emergency pack” of books to her little sister’s family picnic for school, and she doesn’t complain when she doesn’t see the iPad for weeks on end, because she has her books.

And I fully believe that part of the reason she still wants to do those things in fourth grade is because I long since agreed that her reading log could be a work of fiction. But I hate lying, and I hate undermining your authority, and I’m wondering if maybe, perhaps, this can be the year that I come clean and we can make a deal: stop requiring the reading log, so I can stop lying on the reading log. But if not, be assured: this is the one and only aspect of my life in which my signature on that reading log my daughter faithfully brings back to you each month is not worth the paper it’s written on. And my daughter is learning a lesson from that — that sometimes, when the system is stupid and counterproductive, the greater good makes it okay to lie and game the system. I don’t like that lesson, but we’ve talked about it, and in this case, I think it’s worth the trade off.

So, for now, the joy my daughter continues to take in the printed page far outweighs the momentary discomfort it causes me to sign — and certify — as true, a reading log that is generally a patchwork of guesses, at best. Because I love my kid.  But wouldn’t it be better if we simply refused to make reading a chore?

I’ll trade lying on reading logs for photos like this any day.