Our son Sam didn’t learn to read in kindergarten, even though he was one of the oldest children in his class. He did learn to read in first grade, but not particularly well and not until the end of the year. As a matter of fact, he didn’t become a solid reader until about third grade.
But guess what? Sam graduated from the University of South Carolina in May. In four years. With honors. His “slow start” in reading simply didn’t matter beyond age eight or nine. And fortunately for him and for us, his kindergarten and first grade teachers understood that. They knew some children learn to read in kindergarten and some don’t, just like some children develop fine or gross motor skills at a very young age, while others develop them as they get older.
But today’s kindergarten children and parents may not be as fortunate. In the 17 years since Sam started kindergarten, early elementary education has changed dramatically. Now, in many schools, children are expected to learn to read in kindergarten. The Common Core standards promote early reading for all children, and teachers are under tremendous pressure to turn children into readers before they reach first grade. Children who don’t meet that standard may be labelled as “slow” or “behind grade level.”
But even though education has changed, children have not. Some children still learn to read easily in kindergarten (Sam’s brother did), and some don’t. The ones who don’t often focus their developmental energy on other areas, such as activities that emphasize fine motor, gross motor, or communication skills, during the preschool and elementary years. Nothing is wrong with those children! (Clearly, a small number of children do have developmental or learning issues and will need extra help learning to read. But most do not.)
If your child doesn’t learn to read in kindergarten, don’t panic. Instead, do these five things:
Talk with his or her teacher, and with other specialists if necessary.
Determine whether the teacher really thinks your child may have a problem, or if he or she is developing normally – just not reading yet. If your child’s teacher is young, it may be helpful to talk to a teacher who was educating young children before the push for early reading began. If your school has a reading specialist, talk with her too. Read about child development and learn about the tension that exists between some modern education standards and normal development. Talk with other parents, but trust your instincts too. I’ll admit that I was worried when Sam wasn’t reading by the middle of first grade. But I talked with his teacher, other teachers we knew, and other parents, and came to the conclusion that he was eventually going to learn to read on his own schedule!
Let your child know that nothing is “wrong” with him or her.
If your child expresses concern about not being able to read, assure him that children learn to read at different ages. Point out the things he’s good at, and provide opportunities to grow and have fun in those areas. Talk about how children learn things in different ways and on different schedules, and that it’s all perfectly normal.
Enjoy books and reading in your home.
Read to your child every day. Go to the library regularly, visit bookstores, and let her see you reading. Choose books you both enjoy, and make it a fun and relaxing part of your daily routine. Allow her to “read” or tell the story, but don’t force trying to read. Create an environment in which reading is a joy and a pleasure.
Provide opportunities for active and engaged learning.
Young children don’t learn by filling out worksheets – they learn by doing stuff! But many schools have reduced or eliminated “doing stuff” and replaced it with activities that promote test taking, not learning. Find out what’s happening in your child’s school and classroom, and do what you can to encourage using units, centers and other holistic learning activities. And provide lots of opportunities at home for learning through doing, with activities such as cooking, gardening, building, drawing, pretending, painting, and playing games.
Ensure that your child gets plenty of exercise and outdoor activity.
Physical activity helps children learn! It promotes healthy development of their bodies, increases brain activity, and promotes thinking skills. Encourage your child’s teacher to provide lots of opportunities for the children to play outside and move around in the classroom, and provide the same kinds of opportunities at home. Limit screen time and encourage activities that get your child up and moving.
If your son or daughter doesn’t learn to read in kindergarten, take a deep breath. You haven’t done anything wrong, and in all likelihood nothing is wrong with him or her. Assess the situation to the best of your ability, ask for help if you need it, and don’t panic. The odds are good that he or she is developing normally and just needs a little more time to learn to read.