Last October, Tim Walker wrote a fantastic piece for The Atlantic titled, The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland which resonated with me on so many levels.  It would be great to have an ongoing conversation about our Kindergarten CCSS and the expectations we have of our youngest learners (beginning with our three y.o. preschoolers).  The article is a great read for all parents and educators (and it wouldn’t hurt if our administrators and district leaders read it too).  You can find it here.

During my tenure as an educator I have had the opportunity to teach pre-k and kindergarten.  Kindergarten was another animal… boy was it hard!  Besides the obvious learning curve for me, the hardest part were the assessments, most of which focused on reading and language arts standards.  I knew my students were smart and their intellect stretched far beyond some assessment.  Unfortunately, at the end of the day (it seems) my district only saw them as a number connected with growth over time.

The article by Tim Walker made several points that make such common sense I am sure many educators read this article and go, “well duh.”  Let’s engage in conversation below.

First, we have to address the elephant in the room: pre-k and kindergarten have become much more academic in the last 20 years.   Just like Walker writes, “The American kindergarten experience has become much more academic- at the expense of play.”

Since I am not a researcher I will talk about my personal experience.  When I was in kindergarten I remember playing in the kitchen area.  I remember story time, centers, recess, lunch, nap time; so much fun!  Kindergarten then was like pre-k is now.  I also remember that I began to read by the middle of first grade and not kindergarten.

Nowadays the CCSS takes what we learned in first grade and makes those standards kindergarten standards.  Now, I don’t think that the CCSS are a bad thing.  With the right resources and materials teachers can help students achieve greater growth, deeper understanding, and real learning of different subjects.  However, pre-k is not a mandated grade in this country and it makes it unfair to have such expectations for students, at the age of six, who might not have been in a school setting before.

I learned to read in first grade, went to college, and even got a job.  Turns out, reading after the age of five makes capable adults.  Who knew?

This struck a particular chord with me.  I appreciate that aside from parents, teachers in Finland are the authority in student’s learning.  The decision to teach reading is based on whether or not a teacher, and parents, together determine a child is ‘willing and interested’ to read.  This is such a powerful tool- taking anecdotal notes from school and home to make the best decision for a specific student.

When I began to teach kindergarten it was my district’s expectation that kindergarten students would be reading at a level E by the end of the year.   Level E- the reading level of an EOY first grader!  These students were expected to know the top 100 words (Fry’s list) and as a network administrator noted, “a working knowledge of the top 200 words would be best”.  While I definitely think that if a student is ready to begin reading we should have big expectations for him/her.  I also believe that not all students are in a place, where developmentally, they are ready to become readers at the age of five or six.

It was difficult for me to push my students towards those district expectations.  On the one hand I wanted to have high expectations for my students.  On the other, I have internal conflict about the age appropriateness of said expectations.  Unlike our Finnish counterparts, American parents don’t have much of a voice when it comes to dictating when a student can be taught to read.  We teach reading beginning day one of kindergarten (and pre- reading skills before then).

Many times I worked so hard with kindergarteners to get them to read and they could care less about letters and words.  Now, they loved story time and reading a story is much more than just reading words.  These students wanted to read the pictures, ask questions, tell me about something they noticed, etc.  All of these observations are important pre-reading skills.  However, the act of finding meaning in words was of no interest to them. And that is OK.

In my state, pre-k is not a mandatory grade so the expectation that all 30 of my kindergarteners were ready to read and write from day one is quite the task.  Even if pre-k was a mandatory grade, and all kids were prodigies, there is no guarantee that all four year olds could pick up a book (level B and higher) and just read on day one of kindergarten.

In my specific district there isn’t enough data that is shared with teachers to show how prepared pre-k students are for kindergarten.  While I give copies of student work and assessments to the kindergarten teacher, the teacher does not have access to the online version of the continuum.  Sometimes assessments aren’t placed in cumulative folders.  Other times the high attrition rate of students in my district makes it hard for paperwork to follow students from place to place.

Now, I understand that teacher accountability is of utmost importance.  We should be held accountable for the growth our students make over a year.  But, doesn’t that accountability piece make a lot of assumptions?  Like the assumption that the teacher in front of students is the only factor contributing to learning?

In “Finland only 10% of children live in poverty, in the U.S. 22% of children (that’s 16 million students) live in poverty.”  As we all know, poverty doesn’t just mean lack of one or two things.  Unfortunately, poverty brings many social/economical factors that lend themselves to student learning.  While it would be great if students could walk into classrooms and all issues stopped at the door, I think we can all agree that it doesn’t happen.  As a consequence, our students don’t have a ‘clean slate’ for learning and the assumption that all kindergarten students can get an EOY level E reading level is unfair.

This above Finnish proverb makes me smile.  It gives me hope that even though we are not there yet, we are moving in the right direction.  The discourse about the age appropriateness of teaching reading and writing for our early learners is something that has been a part of my career since my first day of teaching.

We have a long way to go but as long as we are individualizing student learning, keeping parents in the loop about their child’s education, and teaching students in meaningful, and child centered, ways we will get there.  Our students will begin to want to find meaning in letters and words once reading interests them.  And who knows, it might be at age four, five, or six.  Or it might be later, but if we let them dictate the drive to read they will undoubtedly be more willing to take chances.

What do you think?  Do we have the right expectations for our kindergarten students?  Should we adopt the Finnish model of early reading education?  Are the countries too different to make such comparisons?  What are your frustrations with your district’s expectations?  Keep the conversation going below!

Cinthya Quintana
Cinthya Quintana

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