Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Should Kindergarteners Be Writing? How Common Core Is Dividing Early Educators

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Lisa Coughanowr, a kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary in Brazil, helps a student draw a classmate.

Students in Lisa Coughanowr’s kindergarten class at East Side Elementary in Brazil, Indiana, are already learning to write sentences.

They’re supposed to draw a picture of a classmate, and then list something they like about that person. But several students are struggling with the illustration portion of the assignment.

“The ones that aren’t quite ready, they draw arms coming out of heads,” says Coughanowr. “It’s so developmental. They just can’t get the concept that your arms come out of your body, not your head.”

This is the second year kindergarten teachers in Indiana have taught to the Common Core, a set of nationally-crafted academic standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Under the new standards, kids are supposed to be able to compose basic, explanatory texts by the time they leave kindergarten.

Coughanowr says that in her experience, students eventually catch on. But some early education experts argue 5- and 6-year-olds are too young to master those skills.

“It appears that early childhood teachers and child development experts were excluded from the K-3 standards-writing process,” write educators Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. From The Answer Sheet:

1. The K-3 standards will lead to long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math. This kind of “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

2. The standards will intensify the push for more standardized testing, which is highly unreliable for children under age eight.

3. Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills — all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

4. There is little evidence that standards for young children lead to later success. The research is inconclusive; many countries with top-performing high-school students provide rich play-based, nonacademic experiences — not standardized instruction — until age six or seven.

Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s critique of the Common Core, along with a New York Post piece about kindergarteners cracking under pressure, ignited a debate this week about how the new standards are shaping early education.

Audrey Fetters, a kindergarten teacher at Flint Springs Elementary in Huntington, told StateImpact she thinks kids need play and creativity if they’re going to master foundational skills. She says there’s no room in the 90-minute literacy block that’s part of the Common Core for arts and crafts.

“When else in my day am I going to do that?” Fetters says. “I hardly get the paint out anymore. I still sing all the time, but I think one of the things that really suffered was that creativity and spontaneity.”

Why Others Argue The Common Core Will Boost Reading Skills

But not all kindergarten teachers feel the same way.

“Always before we thought they couldn’t handle it. But surprisingly, they can,” says Coughanowr, adding that she had similar concerns when Indiana began transitioning to full-day kindergarten a few years ago. She thinks her students have largely risen to the new standards’ challenge.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Kindergarteners at East Side Elementary in Brazil practice writing.

Ed Hirsch, a former education professor and proponent of the Common Core, offered this response to challenges that the new standards are a “threat” to young students:

The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.

Of course, much more goes into reading at age 17 than early childhood education, and there has been some recent improvement among 9-year-olds in reading, especially among our lowest-performing students. Why hasn’t this improvement carried into later grades? As I have argued many, many, many times, the fundamental problem is that American schools, including preschools, typically delay systematic efforts to build students’ vocabulary and knowledge until far too late (usually the end of elementary school or even later).

Building word and world knowledge must begin in preschool if we are to have any hope of closing the enormous language gaps identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, or of enabling children to listen and read with comprehension.


  • JStreit

    The children with the experiences and background are ready to read and write and can rise to the challenge. Our children living in poverty, that have not been read to, traveled with or spoken with need those experiences first. Unfortunately, they are expected to “rise” and end up frustrated, written up for acting out and ultimately hating school or god-forbid, being retained in kindergarten. We will see the results of common core in 12-13 years when robots are produced and imagination is a thing from the past.

    • Sandra Hawk

      This was the Kindergarten Language Arts Standard and Criteria before Common Core was adopted:

      Standard 1 READING: Word Recognition, Fluency, and Vocabulary Development

      Students know about letters, words, and sounds. They apply this
      knowledge to read simple sentences.

      Concepts About Print

      K.1.1 Identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book.

      K.1.2 Follow words from left to right and from top to bottom on the printed page.

      K.1.3 Understand that printed materials provide information.

      K.1.4 Recognize that sentences in print are made up of separate words.

      K.1.5 Distinguish letters from words.

      K.1.6 Recognize and name all capital and lowercase letters of the alphabet.

      Phonemic Awareness*

      K.1.7 Listen to two or three phonemes (sounds) when they are read aloud, and tell the number of sounds heard, whether they are the same or different, and the order. Example: Listen to the sounds /f/, /m/, /s/ or /l/, /n/,/v/. Tell how many sounds were heard and whether any sounds were the same.

      K.1.8 Listen and say the changes in spoken syllables (a word or part of a word that contains one vowel sound) and words with two or three sounds when one sound is added, substituted, omitted, moved, or repeated. Example: Listen to the word bat and tell what word is left when you take the /b/
      sound away. Tell what word is left when you take the /br/ sound away from the spoken word brother.

      K.1.9 Listen to and say consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) sounds and blend the sounds to make words. Example: Listen to the sounds /b/, /e/, /d/ and tell what word is made.

      K.1.10 Say rhyming words in response to an oral prompt. Example: Say a word that rhymes with cat.

      K.1.11 Listen to one-syllable words and tell the beginning or ending sounds.
      Example: Tell what sound you hear at the beginning of the word girl.

      K.1.12 Listen to spoken sentences and recognize individual words in the sentence; listen to words and recognize individual sounds in the words.

      K.1.13 Count the number of syllables in words.

      * When letters have a slanted line before and after them, such as /f/, /sh/, /b/, this represents the sound the letter makes, not the name of the letter.

      Decoding and Word Recognition

      K.1.14 Match all consonant sounds (mad, red, pin, top, sun) to appropriate

      K.1.15 Read one-syllable and high-frequency (often-heard) words by sight.

      K.1.16 Use self-correcting strategies when reading simple sentences.

      K.1.17 Read their own names.

      K.1.18 Understand the alphabetic principle, which means that as letters in words change, so do the sounds.

      K.1.19 Learn and apply knowledge of alphabetical order (first letter) when using a classroom or school library/media center.

      Vocabulary and Concept Development

      K.1.20 Identify and sort common words in basic categories. Example: Tell whether the words blue, yellow, and red are colors, shapes, or foods. Tell the names of some favorite colors.

      K.1.21 Identify common signs and symbols. Example: Identify the meanings of common signs and symbols, such as stop signs or store signs, from the colors, shapes, logos, and letters on these signs or symbols.

      K.1.22 Listen to stories read aloud and use the vocabulary in those stories in oral language.

  • Bloomington mom

    I have young children. My nine-year-old is reading and writing fluently. My six-year-old is becoming more adept at making letters, but the act of trying to write a sentence is exhausting to him. I know that many children his age can handle that. He can’t. And yet, I’m not worried about his literacy. He loves to listen to books and has enormous curiosity about the world. What I want from school is an environment where he can develop the motor control for writing at his own pace, but where his mind and body are engaged and challenged. I care much more about whether he is interested, loving learning, and enjoying school than I do about whether he can write a sentence by the end of the year.

    • Sandra Hawk

      Are they making him hand print everything he wants to say? I would think keyboarding would be an option for projects and writing compositions. The standards don’t require everything to be hand printed. And cursive is optional now.

    • laurus

      Take a look at Reading The lessons, resources and worksheets that go along with the leveled texts really helped my home-schooled friend. They are child friendly, and reduce the pressure of the school-based testing. If your child learns better with you, he might eventually improve in school. Often times, there is only one teacher in a sea of 30 children in a class; how can the teacher really give each child the attention he needs? Be pro-active and take a look at sites that you feel comfortable with to give your child the confidence and joy in learning.

  • Susie Highley

    Maybe the reason 9-year-olds aren’t reading as well is related to CCSS in kindergarten: we’re taking the joy out of everything. Testing, standards, and drills are crowding out curiosity and creativity. Many kids have few opportunities to just read for pleasure; instead they have to over-analyze and deconstruct everything.

  • Kindergarten mom

    My son is in kindergarten this year. He comes from a highly literate household. We read to him all the time. His vocabulary and syntax are off the charts. But he struggles with the fine motor skills required by so many writing exercises, and he’s recently decided he dislikes reading. Why? Because it isn’t simply fun anymore. He’s being drilled on recognizing sight words and being asked constantly to sound out words. Since when is being able to read by yourself required for building vocabulary and knowledge, Ed Hirsch? Hirsch’s justification for the changes is essentially that previous reforms haven’t worked, so maybe this one will. How about treating education as more of a science? We’re not inventing it from scratch! Rely on the evidence that’s out there. Virtually all of the experts agree that early reading doesn’t correlate to long-term academic achievement.

  • Sandra Hawk

    The adoption of Common Core has changed things in Kindergarten, but the standards and criteria were in the same general ballpark well before the decision to adopt Common Core. What the adoption of Common Core seems to have done is make everyone really start paying attention to the standards and criteria because now those scores are being used to determine which schools stay open and to a significant extent which teachers and principals are retained and which are promoted.

    The fact is Indiana’s Standards are much higher than anything that was being imagined when most of us were in school. But that didn’t happen with Common Core, that happened much earlier.

    Drilling is happening a lot now because so much is at stake on tests, so testing happens all the time now — both formally and informally. And driil — especially in schools whose scores put them under the gun of potential dissolution if improvements aren’t made — has become the order of the day in all too many classrooms.

    There are ways to address the achievement gap which is unconscionable and needs to be addressed, but nothing we are doing makes any sense in the real world. The problem is our political dialogue is 95% polemic, so it has very little to do with the real world, or real people, let alone real children and their circumstances.

    Also education is fast going the way of healthcare and prisons and being corporatized for profit. When I was a child ( I’m 53) all our hospitals were non-profits or government run, and no profit corporations were running prisons in Indiana.

    As public schools fail, and the table has been tipped so many of them can hardly do anything else except in exceptional circumstances, profit corporations are in the wings prepared to step in.

    Now they won’t do this for free. They do it for profit. (i.e. it’s either going to cost more money, or they are going to have to deprofessionalize teaching so teachers get paid less), a lot less. There isn’t a lot of waste going on — teachers are buying school supplies and enrichment materials for their classrooms out of their own pockets, and any administrative bloat that’s still there isn’t going to cover it for the long haul.

    Right now our schools in Indiana are mostly non-profits or government (local school board, Mayor’s office, Indiana Department of Education) run. But last year we adopted a voucher system and Governor Pence wants to expand it. If the proposed expansions are adopted it will change things here, and faster than than any of us can, or want to believe, and not for the better.

    Take a look at what is happening elsewhere:

    Chicago and Philadelphia are much further along the privatization front than Indiana. Why is Chicago closing schools, and how are people responding??? Read and find out:

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