Academic Achievement For All—When Are Children Ready to Learn?

SnipBlog107aWow!  You’ve come a long way, baby! In the 1980s and 1990s, educators and policy-makers were jumping on the bandwagon to provide free kindergarten programs in all public schools. The reasoning then was that after a year of kindergarten, every child would finally enter first grade ready to learn.

Fast-forward to 2015. Now policy makers are clamoring for academic preschool programs so that every child will enter kindergarten ready to learn.

The president proposed that we should provide full day preschool programs for all kids, even though it is well documented that current preschool programs like Head-Start have limited success.

“Head Start has an impact on 4-year-olds’ language and literacy skills while they are in Head Start, but these early gains are not sustained as the children develop and move into the early school years. Furthermore, there is no evidence of impacts on children’s math ability, pre-writing skills, or teacher assessments at the end of Head Start, at the end of kindergarten, or at the end of 1st grade. In other words, the children in the Head Start group ended their Head Start year with moderately higher skills than their counterparts in the control group, but this advantage did not lead to longer term gains when they were in school. At the end of 1st grade, they end up at the same point as the children who were not given access to the program…The Head Start group scores are not statistically different from the control group scores in kindergarten and 1st grade.”  (1)

Not many years ago kids were expected to start learning the ABC’s at age six when they entered first grade. Now it is no longer acceptable for students to enter kindergarten expecting to be taught everything they need to know to move on to first grade. If they don’t know at least some letters and sounds, they are already behind. In a decade or two from now, will we be saying that kids still don’t know enough, therefore we need to provide a full school day for three-year-olds so they will enter preschool ready to learn?

Administrators in my district say they want to “focus more effort on connecting with early learning and child care providers to ensure that they are equipped to help children prepare for kindergarten.” (2)

Maybe we should stop and think about this!  If putting kids in school a year earlier didn’t achieve the desired results back then (since our test scores have remained flat), what makes us think putting children in school yet another year earlier will work now?  A number of studies demonstrate that starting children in school at age four can actually be detrimental to their achievement.

Do we really think that all four-year-old children should be in school for a full day? Not everyone does. Education Corner writes, “Even though children in daycare programs can develop intellectually, children benefit most when parents stay at home with their children and educate them.” (3)

If they are not going to go to school, what should preschoolers be doing? Playing, of course! Play gives children the opportunity to learn to be self-directed, to persevere, focus attention, imagine, experiment, discover, problem-solve and create. Too much formal education at a tender age may detract from this very important part of child development.

Young children learn things informally, from parents and siblings. During parent or caregiver interactions, children learn that something is big or little, sweet or sour, smooth or rough, loud or soft, light or dark, red or blue. Parents naturally teach their preschoolers basic concepts like colors, shapes, counting, sorting, etc.

Children are listening and talking and expanding their vocabulary. We know that exposure to adult conversation with rich vocabulary usage will increase young children’s use and understanding of complex vocabulary words. Parents should be reading books aloud to young children which also helps develop vocabulary. A large vocabulary is linked to better reading comprehension and more successful decoding. Learning to read is critical for school success.

Some children are ready to learn to read as young as age four. I know a few of them. But most children at this age need to be physically active in play, and will not thrive in a formal academic setting. Play helps young children’s brains develop. A number of studies show that play-based preschool learning is good for kids. (4)


Some will argue that preschool helps children become better socialized, learning to take turns and share. That’s what parents used to teach kids along with their brothers and sisters and friends before formal schooling began! Unfortunately, far too many children are not taught considerate behavior prior to entering school and teachers are now expected to fill in the gaps. This steals time away from formal learning for these children and for those around them who are affected by their lack of self-control.

It seems that the argument for preschool socialization actually isn’t a very good one. “A study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California showed negative social­ization in the areas of externalizing behaviors, inter­personal skills, and self-control as a result of even short periods of time spent in preschool centers.” (5)

Some states already have a proven track record with preschool programs. Academic gains favoring children who have attended preschool are quickly lost. “More than a decade after offering students uni­versal preschool, neither Oklahoma nor Georgia has shown impressive progress in students’ academic achievement, as measured by the National Assess­ment of Educational Progress. In fact, in Oklahoma, fourth-grade reading test scores have declined since 1998 when the state first implemented universal preschool. Furthermore, the report notes, ‘by the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia’s preschoolers.’”  (6)

Years ago, parents kept children home until around age six when they entered first grade, and then they learned the alphabet and how to add and subtract. So why did we start sending children to school at younger ages?

“The kindergarten movement was propelled by the industrial revolution and the introduction of women into the factory labor force…Kindergarten, once a half-day affair required by only 40 percent of US states, has become largely a full-day affair required nationwide. Academics, including math and reading curricula, testing and grades, are now the norm in many schools. Programs for younger children have expanded as well…Having your child cared for outside of the home, once looked down upon as an abrogation of a mother’s maternal instinct, is now a socially accepted practice. Indeed, those parents who choose not to put their children in out-of-home settings are the ones perceived as insufficiently concerned with their child’s welfare.”  (7)

The big question is when do we decide that enough is enough?  When are children too young for schooling? When do we stop requiring more academic achievement from children at ever younger ages?  We have seen little gain in test scores in the years since we began providing kindergarten for all children and I strongly suspect it won’t happen when we provide full day preschool for all children either. Let’s let kids be kids a bit longer and let them imagine and build and learn through play until they are really ready to learn.



1-  (Chapter 4, page 15)

For more information on Head Start, see this:

And this:


3 –





Information on Early Literacy:



Common Core and Reading Assignments—What Are We Missing Here?

SnipBlog99What a concept! Some teachers assign books to their students that they can actually read instead of assigning them to read books that are far above their reading ability! Is this surprising? Is it a bad thing? Are policy-makers suggesting that students should be assigned to read books at an instructional level that they cannot read because those students are in a grade based on their age?

The Thomas B Fordham Institute published a report on October 22, 2013 titled, “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.” Here is a quote from the press release:

The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and are more likely to try to fit texts to skills…Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text…

The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) make substantial efforts to match students with books that presumably align with their instructional reading levels…This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.

It appears that because students need to be learning complex language, they had better be reading complex words. That is all fine and good if the student is a strong reader and can actually read those complex words. But many students are not strong readers due to poor instruction and through no fault of their own.  What are we to do?  Start where the student is, not where you want him to be.

Let’s say you go out to the mountains and you are just learning how to ski, so you can barely stay standing up on your skis. Your instructor takes you out to the bunny slope and gives you some tips on how to fall safely (because you are going to fall!) and how to point your ski tips and whatever else they teach a beginner. But the resort owner comes out and tells the instructor that you need to be practicing the giant slalom because that is what skiers should be doing at your age.  Wonder how well that’s going to work?

What are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be. You cannot start where you want them to be if they have not learned the skills needed to function at that skill level and expect them to be successful. That is a recipe for creating dropouts.

If students are reading at a first grade level, then they need to begin at that level and be taught the skills that will allow them to quickly improve their ability.  We have programs available that will do exactly that—but we aren’t using them nearly enough and our students are paying a high price.

We can teach students the complex language in higher level books—but we can’t expect them to read those texts on their own until we have taught the reading skills that they need to do so. We should not discourage struggling readers—we must start where the student is. We know that students learn much of their extensive vocabulary from reading a lot of books—but students who cannot read well have been left behind.

Instead of insisting that we force difficult or impossible reading assignments on our struggling readers, we need to put a much greater effort into first teaching students to read well. We need to think in terms of teaching students to read well by the end of first grade rather than by the end of third grade. But if that is not where they are—what are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be!



See the Thomas B Fordham Institute report  “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments” here:               

Sound Bytes Reading helps struggling readers learn the basic skills they need to become strong and independent readers.

Learning to Talk and Learning to Read – Part 2

Learning to read is a process that involves both visual and auditory input.  Children must learn to match symbols to sounds and then connect those symbols to make words.  Some children have difficulty remembering the symbols if too many are taught at once.  Reading can be made easier by teaching only a few sound-symbols at a time and then using them to practice decoding simple words.  Students should practice reading short stories using the same words they are learning to decode.


Is Reading Achievement Improving?


News reports this month lauded improvements in reading achievement but there has been very little improvement in the eleven years since 2002 as you can see in this graph from the NAEP website:

To access reading scores in place of mathematics scores, click on the bar just under the caption, “Are higher and lower performing students making gains?”

READ SnipHere is their explanation of the terms, basic, proficient, and advanced:

READ2 Snip

Several years ago in the Introduction to Sound Bytes Reading, I wrote:

 According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34 % of fourth graders in the USA read at only a basic level and another 34% read below a basic level.  In eighth grade, 43 % read at a basic level and 27% read below a basic level.  Our goal should be for all students to become proficient readers, yet 68% of fourth graders and 70% of eighth graders cannot read at a proficient level.

Recently the following statement about the 2013 Nation’s Report Card was made by the president of The Center for Education Reform, Kara Kerwin:

It’s a disgrace and truly incomprehensible that after decades of mediocrity, we celebrate today the fact that only 34 percent of our nation’s 8th graders can read at grade level and only 34 percent are proficient in math.

Other news sources made these statements:

While overall performance remains poor, this year’s report card does show improvement. Nationally, math scores were higher in 2013 than they have been since 1990 for both grades and for all student demographic groups. What’s more, the percentage of students who scored “advanced” on the tests was higher in 2013 than in any year since 1990.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress from the U.S. Department of Education shows that many high school seniors are graduating unable to read at grade level, and one in four cannot read at even the most basic level.   Just 38 percent of 12th graders were proficient in reading.

In an article, “NAEP Results Show Math Gains, But 4th Grade Reading Still Flat,” Erik Robelen wrote:

The nation’s 4th and 8th graders have inched up in mathematics, new test data show, but the results are more mixed in reading, with 4th grade scores flat compared with two years ago.  Overall, achieving proficiency in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” remains an elusive goal for the majority of American students. Only about one-third reached that level or higher in reading.

The 2013 Nation’s Report Card can be seen here:

Have we really improved reading achievement?  Not much.  But we could improve a lot more if we followed the guidelines outlined in the April 2000 “Report of the National Reading Panel.” They outlined what a good reading program should include:  Phonemic Awareness instruction, Systematic Phonics Instruction, Vocabulary Instruction, Guided Oral Reading, Independent Reading, Fluency Instruction, and Comprehension Instruction.

The components of a good reading program should not be taught in isolation.  Children who are learning to read should be learning the sounds of the letters, decode words using those same letter-sounds, and read a story using the words they just learned. Make sure students know the meanings of new words before reading a story. If students can decode well, fluency will not be difficult. Check comprehension by asking questions about the story.  Let’s follow good practice and improve reading instruction!

Reading for Pleasure


How many students spend any significant amount of time reading for pleasure?  How many students spend a great deal of time playing computer games?  Are our children experiencing the joys of reading for fun—or do they read only what they are forced to read in order to get their schoolwork done?

Some schools have created a “Reading for Pleasure” elective course which has proven to be very popular.  This shows that kids ARE interested in reading for pleasure, but they may not be interested in reading and analyzing the traditional books that are assigned in English/Language Arts courses.

We know that students first need the tools to decode words quickly and automatically. Only then will they will be able to think about and enjoy what they are reading.  Reading books also expands students’ vocabulary acquisition.

Once students can read well, we can help them learn how to choose books that will be entertaining or educational or both.  You might even consider reading the same book your child is reading so that you can discuss the stories together.

Step 1:   Teach students how to decode phonetically.  This requires a strong phonetic reading program for beginners or an effective phonetic reading intervention for struggling readers.  Chose a program (such as Sound Bytes Reading) that includes decodable stories  that match the phonics instruction so your student will get plenty of reading practice at her instructional level. Once students are strong readers, they can go on to the next step.  If an older student is a struggling reader, you might consider reading interesting books aloud to him/her so that   he/she will have the benefit of the exposure to enriched vocabulary while he/she is still learning how to read.

Step 2:  Find out what your students are interested in and then provide books on those subjects.  My kids loved reading DK Eyewitness books which have a lot of interesting pictures as well as text. You can find many interesting fiction or nonfiction books at various reading levels at your public library.

Step 3:  Broaden your students’ horizons by pairing fiction with nonfiction books.  So if your child is interested in dogs and reads at about a 3rd grade level, he could read “A Boy in the Doghouse” paired with the DK Eyewitness book, “Dogs.” At a 4th-5th grade level, a child might enjoy reading “Henry Huggins.”

At the high school level, look for nonfiction biographies to pair up with students’ history lessons.  Reading “A Long Way Gone” or “First They Killed My Father” will educate students about the difficulties faced by real people who have lived in war-torn countries. This kind of paired reading can lead to some very interesting discussions and a much broader view of the world we live in.


Reading Aloud Can Help Develop Your Child’s Vocabulary

In the article, Vocabulary Instruction Failing U.S. Students, published on January 24 of this year, a Michigan State University study takes a look at kindergarten reading curricula and concludes that students are not learning enough vocabulary words and that not enough attention is paid to make sure students understand the meanings of words. You can read the article here:

This is interesting because vocabulary acquisition really begins at home.  Children first learn words from their parents or other caregivers.  I have written about the importance of reading aloud to children because that is one of the best ways you can introduce children to new words.  Children also learn vocabulary from listening to parents and other adults talk.  They do not gain extensive vocabulary from watching TV or playing computer games.

Children should spend time doing things that will help them develop a broader vocabulary, encourage their creativity, and help them increase their focus and attention span so they will do well when formal instruction begins.  Time spent talking and doing things with adults is well spent.  Even very young children can use their expanded vocabulary to describe things.  A 2-year-old that I know recently looked up at the sky and exclaimed to his dad, “Birds.” His dad asked him, “How do you know those are birds?” and he answered, “Wings.”

The study found that common words are what is more likely to be taught to students. Try to use alternate words to describe things.  Once your child has learned a simple word like “little” to describe something, teach her words like “tiny,” “small,” “miniature,” and “minute.”

Why is vocabulary so important?

“Low vocabulary scores were associated with low reading comprehension scores…Wright said low-income children may start school with 10,000 fewer words than other students and are then exposed to reading programs that teach as few as two vocabulary words per week. She said more than 10 vocabulary words should be taught every week – not just in reading class but across all subject areas including math, science and social studies.”

Parents, be proactive in helping your children learn new words.  Don’t wait until your child is in school. Use lots of big, descriptive words when you talk to your children.  Nonfiction picture books are great tools for developing vocabulary. Talk to your child about the pictures and use lots of different descriptive words so your child will learn lots of new words to name and describe things.

Having a large vocabulary also helps students when they begin to learn to read. The more words they have heard and understand, the more words they will recognize when they are learning to sound out words. Recognizing words quickly and knowing what they mean makes reading easier and more enjoyable.

5 Reasons Why It’s Important to Read Aloud to Your Children

Do we really need to read aloud to our kids? Why should we read aloud to our young children? How does reading aloud to our children when they are preschoolers, benefit them later on when it is time to learn to read?  Are there long-lasting benefits that make the effort worthwhile?Here are five things kids can learn when parents regularly read books aloud to their children:

1.  About Books—Books have a front and a back cover, some books have interesting pictures, books have pages in them, the pages are read from left to right and top to bottom, and usually there are words on the pages in books.

2.  ABC’s are Important—Letters make words, words make sentences, and sentences tell a story.

3.  Vocabulary—Children who are read to will hear and learn many new words, so children who are read to will develop a larger vocabulary than children who are not read to. A larger vocabulary can help children recognize words when they are learning to read.

4.  Auditory Development and Imagination—Children who are often read to learn to listen and they learn to visualize the story in their minds. They learn to sit reasonably still and pay attention while listening to a story (age appropriately of course). They begin to gain phonemic awareness if they listen to rhyming stories or poems. When parents discuss the stories they read with their children, children also learn to think about what they have heard.

5.  Print Awareness—Parents often will move a finger along under the words as they read a story aloud to a preschooler, which helps the child become more aware that the print stands for meaningful words.  Children will often then begin to recognize words in the environment around them (such as “stop” or “exit” signs, and names of restaurants and stores).

These five things may not seem to be significant, but they are useful when students are ready to learn to read.  Children who have been read to are more likely to have an easier time learning to read in school.

This is not to say that children who have been read to will never have difficulty learning to read—because there are many children whose parents have done all of this and they have done it very well, and their children still have difficulty learning to read. Children also must be given good reading instruction, but given proper instruction, those who have regularly been read to have a head start compared to those who have not had this valuable learning experience.

Read a story to your child today!

Learning to Talk / Learning to Read – Part 2

Last week we discussed how infants first begin to babble using the sounds they hear in their native language, and then learn to connect sounds to make words, and still later they learn to string words together to make sentences. Eventually they are able to tell a story about something they have seen or experienced.

This week we will examine how the same basic process should be at work when children learn to read. But for most beginning readers, learning to read is not natural or easy like learning to talk—it must be carefully and systematically taught.  Children learn to speak naturally, but reading involves not just listening and repeating what we hear, but a much more difficult process of:

  1. Recognizing specific symbols that represent the sounds in our language,
  2. Connecting the written sound-symbols to make recognizable words, and
  3. Decoding words (and sentences) so we can understand their meaning.

This process is made even more difficult because English is a language that borrows words from many other languages; therefore we have many spellings that do not follow the “rules.”  However, if we systematically teach each spelling pattern along with the words that use that pattern we can insure that most if not all of our students learn to read well.

The first step in learning to read is learning the letters of the alphabet—the written symbols for the code.  Very few educators would disagree with this.  However, many disagree on what the next step should be.  Some have held to the notion that children learn to speak in whole words from the very beginning and therefore believe beginning readers should learn to read by learning to recognize whole words as a single unit by sight.

Last week we examined how children learn to speak. While they do quickly learn to speak in whole words, they first experiment with speech by vocalizing sounds, and then they learn to connect the different sounds together to make recognizable words.

Before children learn to read, they need to learn to recognize the alphabetic symbols (the A-B-C’s). It is essential that they also learn the sounds for each of those symbols, a few at a time.  They should be taught how to blend letter-sounds together to sound out real words.  Then they need to practice reading those words, separately and in sentences.  When children are given sufficient phonics practice (learning to connect the letter-sounds to make words), they will begin to recognize words as a whole unit and can begin to read simple stories.

Children who are taught to read by recognizing whole words as a unit without learning the individual sounds will read stories more quickly at the beginning, but because they cannot decode, many will lose this advantage by the end of third grade, and often much sooner. In a later blog we will discuss why this happens.

If you have a child who is already a struggling reader, the first step you can take is to find out whether your child has learned the “code”—not just the names of the letters of the alphabet, but does he/she know the sounds for the symbols that we use to create written words?

If your struggling reader does not know the sounds of the consonants or the vowels, or of additional letter combinations, you need to teach them, one at a time. Struggling readers have experienced failure so many doubt their ability to learn to read (or refuse even to try). It is important that the reading program you use does not introduce too many sound patterns at one time so your struggling students will be able to experience reading success quickly and be encouraged to keep trying.

Learning to Talk / Learning to Read – Part 1

How does learning to talk relate to learning to read?  Some people believe that children learn to speak in whole words from the beginning; therefore, beginning readers should learn to read words as a whole unit rather than learning letter-sounds first and then blending them into words. They also believe learning to read should be as natural as learning to talk. As we will see, if the premise is false, it leads to a wrong conclusion.

When an infant is very young, she spends a lot of time listening to the sounds around her.  Her first method of communication is to cry when she needs food or attention.  Humans have a built-in capacity to imitate others and they learn very quickly.  Babies observe the faces of the people around them and soon begin to communicate by smiling, frowning, or pouting as well as by crying.

While listening to others talk, infants soon discover that they can make speech sounds too. They practice what they hear by babbling—by imitating the speech sounds that surround them. The first pre-words we hear in the speech efforts of a baby are often something like ma-ma, da-da, pa-pa, or ba-ba. As babies become more skilled in imitating speech sounds, they begin to use parts of a word to get what they want: “wa-wa” might mean, I want water, or “ba-ba” might mean bottle. Still later, they begin to use single words to communicate—words like “no,” “mine,” “cookie,” or “doggy.”

Before long, toddlers begin to put words together to make simple sentences, sometimes getting the grammar wrong, but just as often getting it right. The more language they hear, the more information they have to draw from.  The more you interact with them, the more opportunity they have to practice speech sounds. Often you will overhear a mother talking to her toddler. The toddler will point and say, “fish” and the mother will say, “Yes, that’s a big, orange fish.” She is adding to her child’s vocabulary. This is why talking to your baby or toddler is so important. He is learning language from you.

Talk to your children. Describe things using rich, descriptive vocabulary words. Encourage your children to talk to you by asking them questions. This will help your children develop a larger vocabulary, which will be very useful to them when it is time to learn how to read.

In part two we will discuss how beginning readers learn to read, and why they do not learn to read as easily and naturally as they learn to talk.

Teaching Reading – Fluency Instruction for Beginning Readers

What is fluency? Fluency is one of the five main components in a good reading program.  If you speak a language fluently, you are able to speak it easily and without effort, and your speech flows smoothly.  You do not have to stop and think about each word you want to say.  Likewise, if you read fluently, you are able to move from word to word, from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph easily and with little effort, just like you do when you are speaking your native language.

Can we teach students to read fluently? Yes, we can. If students have a solid phonics foundation, they will be able to decode words easily because they will quickly recognize the letter-sound patterns they have been taught. A student must be able to decode words easily to be able to read fluently.  But reading fluently involves more than having good phonics instruction and decoding words. It also includes expression, intonation, and proper speed while reading.

When a reader reads a passage aloud with expression, a listener will hear the excitement of the story in the voice of the reader. Intonation means the tone of the reader’s voice goes up and down—and there will be a different vocal sound at the end of a statement than at the end of a question. Students may learn intonation intuitively if parents have been reading aloud to them frequently.  This is one reason why reading aloud to children is so important.

We can teach proper intonation to beginning readers who do not know how to do this. The fluency instruction in a good reading program will direct teachers to teach students how to use proper intonation by demonstrating it for them and asking them to follow the model.

Reading material should not be above the decoding level or the speaking and listening vocabulary level of beginning readers if they are to become fluent readers. A reading selection should not have many words that beginning readers do not understand. It is very important that we include vocabulary instruction when teaching beginning readers, struggling readers, and ELL students. A vocabulary level that is too advanced in a reading selection reduces both fluency and comprehension.

Fluent reading also requires practice reading aloud. This is why repeated reading of the same material is helpful. When re-reading stories, the student is able to put less effort into decoding the words and more effort into having smooth and expressive reading.

Fluent reading leads to better comprehension!