Play, Common Core, and Early Reading Untangled

Common Core kindergarten standards are OK according to reading researchers.

Posted Jun 22, 2015

In a raging debate, leading researchers in reading education are speaking out in favor of keeping Common Core Kindergarten Literacy Standards. Their message? It’s perfectly fine for five year olds to play and learn to read in school!

Perhaps Dr. Tim Shanahan said it best: “There are not now, and there never have been data showing any damage to kids from early language or literacy learning.” [1] As a former first grade teacher who is currently Distinguished Professor Emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, past president of the International Reading Association, former member of the National Reading Panel, and appointee to the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Literacy, he’s qualified to weigh in on the topic.

Shanahan cites the following studies from Developmental Psychology and the Journal of Educational Psychology showing the long-term benefits of early literacy achievement. “Early reading performance is predictive of later school success,” he says when listing these psychological studies and more: Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, et al., 2007; Juel, 1988; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001; Smart, Prior, Sansor, & Oberkind, 2005. [2]

In addition he reminds us of a slew of studies “showing the immediate benefits to literacy and language functioning from kindergarten instruction” which are summarized in the National Early Literacy Panel Report (available on line) which he co-chaired.

Other Heavy Lifters in Reading Education Weigh In

Most reading educators, including myself, recommend teaching reading and writing in a play-based academic kindergarten. There need not be a “play” versus “academic learning” battle over kindergarten CCSS standards. To argue that children need to play in kindergarten is a non sequitur and a nonstarter in this debate. In fact, the best models of kindergarten learning including the highly regarded Montessori model, the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, and the High/Scope Preschool Program based on the well-known Perry Preschool studies, and others, teach early literacy skills as well as social and emotional learning through play. [3]

             Teach beginning reading for kids who are not getting it at home.

Dr. Deborah Stipek. Dean of the Graduate school of Education at Stanford made the point in a quote this month in the New York Times: most children from affluent and middle-class families get early literacy experiences at home or in preschool. For example, two-thirds of the kids who enter kindergarten can identify upper and lower case letters. [4] “Middle-class parents are doing this anyway,” says Stipek [teaching letters; giving preschoolers book experiences and exposure to literacy] “so if we don’t do it for kids who are not getting it at home, then they are going to start at an even greater disadvantage.” [5]

Those of us who work directly with kindergarteners in schools see legions of children in low income “free and reduced lunch” schools who enter kindergarten having rarely been read to and having little knowledge of letters or sounds. Unlike kids from more affluent districts, when these kids enter kindergarten they often can’t tell you the name of a favorite book or write their own name. Some can’t hold the book correctly to turn the pages. They can’t name common zoo animals or farm animals or exhibit the kind of background knowledge and vocabulary needed for comprehension.

Some proponents of delayed reading support their stance by pointing to high-achieving students in Finland where reading starts much later. It’s not a valid comparison due to Finland’s very different social structure, superior system of teacher education, much less variable demographics, and most importantly, due to the huge differences in the spelling systems of two very different languages. Giving poor kids in America Finland’s “gift of time” to learn to read sucks poor English-speaking kids into early reading failure.

Dr. Nell Duke, a professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan and a member of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Research Panel weighed in on this topic over the last month. She blogs for the ILA Literacy Research Panel and connects over 300,000 ILA members around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. In her two-part series entitled “Addressing the CCSS for Kindergarten in Developmentally Appropriate Ways,” Dr. Duke shows that all six literacy standards for kindergarten “can be addressed through instruction that involves neither long hours of drill nor worksheets.” [6]

In addition to the International Literacy Association which has the world’s largest membership for reading professionals, the large and respected National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) stands behind teaching reading in kindergarten. In Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice: An Introduction for Teachers of Kindergarten, the authors state that by the end of kindergarten “most children will be reading simple and predictable text.” (NAEYC pg. 104) [7] Reading simple and predictable text comports with the CCSS’s Fluency expectation: “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

The attack on Common Core kindergarten standards and the claim of no long-term benefits put forth in the non-refereed opinion report by the Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood advocacy groups [8] is misguided, a misinterpretation, and unsupported.

Children—especially low-income children—should begin to develop both reading and writing skills in kindergarten as expected in CCSS standards and avoid falling behind. While it’s true that even in America some kids with delayed reading succeed, they are rarely lower-income students.

Debate, action, and advocacy to improve kindergarten education in America is sorely needed. But we will better serve our kindergartners by untangling the knot tied to CCSS kindergarten standards.

For specific examples of Common Core State Standard expectations for literacy in kindergarten go to “An Ode to Common Core Kindergarten Standards” and I’ll help you demystify all the kindergarten Common Core State Standards for literacy.

[1] Shanahan, T. (2015, Jan 19). "Why does he want to hurt kindergartners?" Retrieved from:

[2] Shanahan, T. (2015, Jan 19). "Why does he want to hurt kindergartners?" Retrieved from: Studies listed:

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E., (1997). Early reading acquisition and the relation to reading experience and ability ten years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.

Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 437-447.

Smart, D., Prior, M., Sansor, A., & Oberkind, F. (2005). Children with reading difficulties: A six year follow-up from early primary to secondary school. Australia Journal of Learning Difficulties, 10, 63-75.

Snow, C. E., Tabors, P. O., & Dickinson, D. K. (2001). Language development in the preschool years. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school (pp. 1–26). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. (preschool literacy and language predicts 7th grade performance)

[3] Kulkarni, Susan and David Liben,(2015) “What Do the Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy Say About Kindergarten?”

[4] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). Entering kindergarten: A portrait of American children when they begin school: Findings from the condition of education 2000. NCES, pg. 5.

[5] Rich, Motoko (2015, June 9) “Kindergartens Ringing the Bell for Play Inside the Classroom,” New York Times.

[6] Duke, Nell (2015, May 28) “Addressing the CCSS for Kindergarten in Developmentally Appropriate Ways, Part I” Duke, Nell (2015, June 4) “Addressing the CCSS for Kindergarten in Developmentally Appropriate Ways, Part II.

[7] Phillips, E.C., Scrinzi, A. (2013). Basics of developmentally appropriate practice: An introduction for teachers of kindergarten. (pp.104). Washington, D.C: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

[8] Carlsson-Paige, N., McLaughlin, B.G. & Almon, J.W. (2015) “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose,” (link is external) issued jointly by Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Children. January 13. 2015. (see

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook (link is external), Twitter (link is external), and LinkedIn (link is external) and find out more information about his work on his website (link is external).