More Work, Less Play in Kindergarten

Elise Cauton works on reading skills in the ABC Center in Lauren Herdrich's kindergarten class at Bel Pre Elementary School in Montgomery County.
Elise Cauton works on reading skills in the ABC Center in Lauren Herdrich's kindergarten class at Bel Pre Elementary School in Montgomery County. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nearly every kindergartner in Montgomery County knows how to read. That wasn't the case just five years ago in Maryland's largest school system or, literacy experts say, in most of the nation's public schools.

By pushing for all children to read before the start of first grade, Montgomery school leaders have embraced an emerging goal in public education. In essence, kindergarten has become the new first grade.

Kindergarten used to be mostly about play: singing songs, "housekeeping" in a Little Tikes kitchen and being read to. That is changing largely because of full-day kindergarten, which has swept the nation's public schools in the past 20 years, stretching the instructional day from 2 1/2 hours to six.

The new kindergarten is partly a societal concession to busy two-income families and partly a response to the growing sense that 5-year-olds are ready for formal study. Full-day kindergarten is required in the District and several states, including Maryland, where it is mandatory as of the fall. Virginia does not require it.

And No Child Left Behind, with its focus on minority reading achievement, has ratcheted up pressure for kindergarten "to be more academic," said Marcia Invernizzi, a University of Virginia professor who oversees a statewide literacy assessment.

Last spring, nearly 90 percent of kindergarteners in Montgomery passed a simple test that required them to read a short storybook, which would have been unthinkable in the county a decade ago. The percentage of kindergarten readers has more than doubled in five years.

In Arlington County schools last spring, 88 percent of kindergartners passed a beginning-reading test developed at the University of Virginia; 86 percent passed in Stafford County; and 90 percent, in Clarke County. In Virginia as a whole, 82 percent passed in spring 2006, compared with 78.5 percent in 2003.

No recent statistics indicate how many of the nation's students are reading when they exit kindergarten, and many school systems do not track the reading skills of kindergartners. But literacy experts say progress is clear. Historical data suggest about 15 percent of kindergartners were reading a decade ago and fewer than 5 percent a generation earlier.

"Traditionally, first grade has been seen as the grade where you teach kids to read," said Jennifer Turner, an assistant professor of elementary reading at the University of Maryland. "That curriculum was basically a first-grade curriculum. And now it's a kindergarten curriculum."

On a recent morning at Bel Pre Elementary School in Montgomery, kindergarten teacher Lauren Herdrich wrote the word "little" on the board. Then she wrote "Little" and scanned her pupils for knitted brows.

"Is that going to trick us?" she asked the group of children gathered around a U-shaped table. "No, it's not going to trick us. It's still the same word."

Montgomery's quest for kindergarten literacy dovetailed with the move to full-day instruction, phased in between 2000 and 2006 in the 140,000-student system. Full-day study made it possible to offer 90 minutes or more of daily reading instruction, which has become standard. School officials also lowered average class size from 25 to 15 at high-poverty schools. And the system began testing whether students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade were able to read.

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