These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.
[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MARCH 21, 2001 ]
In the kindergartens, a misguided push
Kindergarten has long aimed at developing social, emotional and verbal skills to enhance later academic success, especially for children who do not attend quality preschools. But now, hoping to raise scholastic performance, some districts require all kindergartners to sit through as much as two hours of daily reading drills.
Experts may differ on the value of this regimen for older children, but for kindergartners it should produce disapproval for many reasons.
First, the shift is something of a ruse. Many 5-year-olds are not ready for academics, so several states have simply raised the kindergarten age. Nationally, children entering kindergarten must be about 4 months older than before.
This creates an Alice-in-Wonderland effect. You push the first-grade curriculum down into kindergarten with one hand while driving the kindergarten entrance age up with the other. You accomplish little except to turn kindergarten into a diluted first grade, with children closer in age to traditional first graders.
Second, even the older eligibility has not fully offset the academic push, so more parents now hold children out of school an extra year. White children are more likely held out; black children are more likely to enter but to be kept back by school officials to repeat kindergarten.
Both patterns reflect 5-year-olds who are not ready for academics. The reason for the racial difference is probably that white parents, with better preschool options, are more likely to keep children out of regular school until they can handle a diet of reading and arithmetic.
A third reason not to make kindergarten so academic is that it turns normal childish behavior into an illness. Leonard Sax, a family physician in rural Maryland, notes that 5-year-old boys are less developmentally ready for academics than girls. Dr. Sax says he is now often asked to prescribe Ritalin for otherwise normal kindergartners who can’t sit still to concentrate on reading. The American Psychological Association last month published his proposal that school entry be later for boys than girls. It makes sense only if kindergarten won’t accommodate all age-appropriate behavior.
Fourth, young children develop unevenly, more so than older ones. Those who seem behind may soon spurt ahead. Only by age 7 does the normal range narrow. So while flexible teaching with low pupil-adult ratios is desirable in other grades, it is crucial in kindergarten, where only some children are prepared to read.
The same curriculum won’t work for all 5-year-olds. Experts used to say all reading in kindergarten was inappropriate. Now, many have gone to the other, equally foolish extreme. While many children can read early and will be better readers if not delayed, it is not true for all.
The differences are due not only to natural developmental variation. A 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, professors at the University of Kansas, found that parents with professional jobs spoke about 2,100 words an hour to toddlers. For working-class parents it was 1,300, and for those on welfare only 600.
Preschool can counter this gap, but needier children are less likely to attend quality preschools. So while some enter kindergarten ready for literacy, others require more verbal and social interaction, developing vocabularies and emotional skills.
Before children want to read, they need hours of adult storytelling from exciting books. Otherwise, they may learn alphabet sounds but gain no desire to decode letters on their own.
A final reason the shift in kindergarten is a bad idea is that even for children ready for academics, there is a trade-off, a price paid for formal reading and arithmetic. Kindergarten teachers must downgrade other priorities to meet mandates for direct instruction.
The cliché that “play is children’s work” has been too easily forgotten. Guided play teaches social, emotional and academic proficiency. Children taking turns learn to negotiate and respect others’ viewpoints. Pretending that blocks are people, they practice abstract thinking. Knowing that a block (or letters) can stand for something else is a preliteracy skill.
Time spent on academics also competes with activities like cooking, something kindergarten teachers used to do more often. Young children may count by memorizing number names, but this has little value if they do not first have a feel for adding two plus three cups of flour to get five cups.
Some children are ready to read and add in kindergarten. But to get more 5-year-olds prepared, improving preschool access and quality is more productive than forcing kindergartners into drills from which many derive little lasting benefit.