This was written by Elfrieda (Freddy) H. Hiebert , president/CEO of TextProject, a not-for-profit aimed at increasing student-reading levels through appropriate texts. She is also a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Here, Hiebert analyzes the explicit and implicit assumptions within the Common Core State Standards regarding formal reading instruction in kindergarten: the dumbing down of kindergarten texts and the pushing down of reading instruction to kindergarten.
By Elfrieda H. Hiebert
“K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century”
(Common Core State Standards, Appendix, A, page 2).
In the case of kindergarten texts, this statement is blatantly false. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Kindergarten texts were added to core reading programs as a result of Reading First mandates in the first decade of the 21st century.
How the writers of the Common Core State Standards came to the conclusion that kindergarten texts — which had been nonexistent until a decade ago — had decreased in difficulty over a 50-year period is perplexing. The explicit assumption that kindergarten texts have been dumbed down over the past 50 years and that their difficulty levels need to be accelerated has consequences for how young children begin their formal reading experiences, especially the children who depend on schools to become literate.
The inclusion of kindergarten in this blanket statement about text difficulty represents an implicit assumption about beginning reading that also requires consideration — that earlier is better. Does beginning reading in kindergarten truly ensure that high school graduates are better at reading the complex texts of careers and college?
In this essay, I review research on both the explicit and implicit assumptions within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) regarding formal reading instruction in kindergarten: the dumbing down of kindergarten texts and the pushing down of reading instruction to kindergarten.
The dumbing-down of kindergarten texts
The Common Core State Standards writers cite two sources for the dumbing down conclusion: Chall (1967/1983, 1977) and Hayes, Wolfe, and Wolfer (1996).
Chall analyzed first-grade texts from core reading programs of 1956 and 1962. Hayes et al. found that the first-grade texts from the 25-year period represented in Chall’s analysis were significantly easier than either the texts of the previous or subsequent 25-year periods.
Further, massive changes occurred in first-grade texts in the decade after the Hayes et al.’s analysis (Foorman, Francis, Davidson, Harm, & Griffin, 2004). When California in 1988 and Texas in 1990 dropped controlled vocabulary in first-grade texts, the number of unique words and rare words increased substantially. These two features of texts challenge, and, all to often, overwhlem, beginning readers. Even with the move to decodable texts in 2000, the number of unique and rare words has stayed high.
Further, neither Chall’s nor Hayes et al.’s analyses included kindergarten texts. In Chall’s era and also in her stages of reading (Chall, 1985), formal beginning reading instruction began in first grade. Kindergarten was not even provided in some school districts and, where it was provided even in the late 1980s, kindergarten teachers believed that their students should not be involved in formal reading instruction (Durkin, 1989).
In 1990, two independent analyses verified the absence of kindergarten textbooks in core reading programs (Hiebert & Papierz, 1990; Morrow & Parse, 1990). Kindergartners worked in reading readiness workbooks. These workbooks included a handful of pages that could be folded into booklets. The booklets were composed of a small group of highly frequent words (e.g., the, a, and) and labels for pictures (e.g., a with a picture of a cat).
Shortly after these reviews, publishers added “big books” to kindergarten components of core reading programs. These were intended for read-along and read-aloud sessions but it was not until the early 2000 programs that texts for kindergarteners were embedded within the core reading programs to comply with Reading First mandates. An analysis of the exit-level kindergarten texts in a 2007 core reading program showed them to be comparable in difficulty to the texts of the 1962 and 1983 copyrights of the same program (Hiebert, 2008). Not only have kindergarten texts not been dumbed down over the past 50 years, the literacy demands for kindergartners have increased immensely, particularly over the last decade.
The pushing down of formal reading instruction
There are two fundamental assumptions related to the pushing down of formal reading instruction to kindergarten: (a) that 21st century American children are cognitively prepared to read at age five and (b) that pushing down the task of reading to kindergarten will aid in high school graduates’ ability to read the complex texts of career and college.
Are 21st century American five-year-olds cognitively prepared to read? At least for children who live in homes above the poverty line, many literacy opportunities exist for young children — educational television, colorful and inventive books, and preschool. Even with all of the literacy stimulation that middle-class children experience, however, few read as kindergartners.
The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Denton & West, 2002) shows that most children can recognize letters by the end of kindergarten and many can make the connection to the primary sound associated with a letter but few children are reading before first-grade.
These data are not evidence that 5-year-olds do not have the cognitive capacity or processes to read. Some five-year olds (and even younger children) learn to read when parents, teachers or a combination of the two groups plan to teach children to read (Durkin, 1966). Even in these contexts, however, many five-year-olds do not learn to read (Denton & West, 2002).
And for those children who do learn to read — two critical questions are: Is the instruction worth it? And what has been eliminated or diminished in children’s experiences to make time for formal reading instruction? I attend to the first question but not the second question in this essay. In the long run, the answer to the second question may be the most critical one in developing engaged, interested, and proficient readers. That topic merits its own essay.
Does pushing down result in higher reading performances? Substantial investments in literacy-related instruction of four-year-olds were made in Early Reading First and even greater investments were made in primary-level instruction that included kindergarten. Despite these investments, gains have not been evident in higher grades (Gamse, Jacob, Horst, Boulay, & Unlu, 2008; Jackson et al., 2007).
Evidence on the effects of early reading instruction on later reading achievement also comes from analyses of international data. Suggate (2009) examined reading achievement as a function of school entry age of 15-year-old students across 55 countries, controlling for social and economic differences. Results showed no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age but, in countries with earlier starting ages, the achievement gap was larger for 15-year-olds. A few benefit from the early introduction. The students who depend on schools to become literate struggle even earlier—and longer.
Potential for decreasing access for children of poverty
Chall (1977) was the one who proposed that dumbing down of texts might be an explanation for lower performances of American high schoolers on college-board exams. In one of her last projects, Chall (1999) identified a staircase of text difficulty to support reading of complex texts at and after high school graduation.
The CCSS also identified a staircase of steps with increasingly more complex text. The size of the steps in the two applications of the staircase model, however, differs substantially. At grade five, difficulty levels of the CCSS and Chall model were comparable. Prior to that, however, they were not. Chall advocated a more “gentle” perspective on when students should start on the stairway (grade one) and identified more moderate, although challenging, levels of text difficulty for grades one through five than those of the CCSS.
From Chall’s (1985) perspective, preschool and kindergarten were times when young children needed to be involved in listening to and retelling stories and writing with crayons, paints, and magnetic letters.
The foundation that ensures capacity — and interest — in reading complex text is grounded in appropriate early childhood experiences. When the steps are too big and when the capabilities of students do not match the size of the steps, the progression up the stairway of text complexity will likely be fraught with missteps and injuries.
The current policy initiative could well have the effect of making high levels of literacy even more inaccessible for the very students who depend on America’s public schools for academic learning—the children of poverty.
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