6 Myths About Kindergarten Literacy Instruction

By Heidi Anne E. Mesmer & Marcia Invernizzi

No time for play . . . literacy instruction in kindergarten is destroying childhood!” the headline in the local paper screamed. The article went on to describe days filled with tedious assessments, eliminated playground periods, and administrators insisting that “fun” be removed from the daily schedule. The article ended with a series of “educational experts” offering an alarming anecdote — remove literacy instruction from the kindergarten curriculum entirely!?

We need kindergarten reform, but the call to take literacy instruction out of kindergarten reflects a deep misunderstanding of exactly what good literacy instruction is at the kindergarten level and why it is essential. In our discussions with parents, administrators, and schools we see six pervasive myths.

1. Myth: Kindergarten literacy instruction is teaching reading or pushing down the first-grade curriculum.

Fact: Kindergarten literacy instruction is responsively teaching young children the many facets that support their literacy development in many areas.

In a recent opinion editorial, a mother and columnist asserted she did not want her son to learn to read in kindergarten. One of the most pervasive misconceptions held by non-educators is that the words literacy and reading refer to the same thing. When K–5 educators use the word literacy they are referring to an umbrella term that includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing, as well as motivation, comprehension, and vocabulary (Frankel et al. 2016). (This is one reason the International Literacy Association, an organization of over 41,000 educational professionals, replaced the word reading with literacy in its name.)

One of the most pervasive misconceptions held by non-educators is that the words literacy and reading refer to the same thing.

In kindergarten, literacy instruction prepares children to learn to read, as it has for decades. It includes letter names and letter sounds; concepts about print (e.g., left to right, letters make up words); phonological awareness (e.g., recognizing rhymes, beginning sounds); writing; comprehending stories and information read aloud; learning new vocabulary; and, toward the end of the year, reading some simple words and easily memorized stories (usually with less than fifty words total). This multifaceted approach is consistent with the standards of all fifty states and the Common Core State Standards (NGA & CCSSO 2010).

Although letter instruction is important, it is not the only facet of instruction, and it should not be isolated from meaningful print and language. (Invernizzi & Tortorelli 2013; Justice & Pullen 2003; McKay & Teale 2015; Neuman, Copple, Bredekamp 2000). Children must understand the purpose of letters. When they watch a teacher point to words as she reads a big book or write spoken words on chart paper, they learn why letter knowledge is useful and powerful! These activities illustrate the alphabetic principle — that printed words are a way to write down speech and that letters represent speech sounds.

2. Myth: Kindergarten literacy instruction is developmentally inappropriate.

Fact: High-quality literacy instruction in kindergarten is developmentally appropriate and backed by decades of solid research.

Most kindergarten teachers do not reject literacy instruction but they do reject inappropriate expectations, high-pressure timelines, and meaningless assessments (See Myths 3–5). Unfortunately, the legitimate alarms being sounded about kindergarten could send the pendulum swinging too far in the wrong direction.

Between the 1950s and 1970s educators believed in “reading readiness” — the idea that prior to a certain age children did not possess the needed cognitive and motor skills to be taught to read. Some even claimed that before the mental age of six and a half, instruction was pointless. To this end, schools administered reading readiness tests at the end of kindergarten. These ideas are once again emerging. Yet, in 1966 Dolores Durkin conducted a study disproving this notion. She found there was no such thing as reading readiness and that “pessimistic opinions about the effects of early reading were not corroborated, and . . . early, and nonearly reading children were not markedly dissimilar.”

We simply cannot reverse the trend of high-quality literacy instruction in kindergarten. To do so would be devastating to children who depend on public schools for their education.

Today’s classrooms reflect the broader idea of “emergent literacy,” an approach suggesting that from birth onward, children are developing insights about language, reading, and writing (e.g., oral language, background knowledge, stories, print, vocabulary, verbal reasoning) that support later development (Sulzby & Teale 1989). Thus, all children are “ready” for literacy learning; instruction simply must intersect with what they know and need to learn.

3. Myth: There is no time for play, fun, or social-emotional development.

Fact: Kindergarten literacy instruction should be FUN and engaging!

You are doing it wrong as a kindergarten teacher if literacy instruction does not engage and delight children. High-quality literacy instruction is fun, but like every important endeavor in life, it is challenging as well. (And honestly, optimal challenge is what the human brain craves.) Literacy instruction introduces children to the thrill of recognizing their own name, the excitement of pointing to the words in a nursery rhyme, the delight of learning about pandas, and the exhilaration of writing a personal message (see McKay & Teale 2015). Furthermore, research shows that literacy elements can be integrated into play centers with blocks, kitchen toys, and dress-up outfits with positive effects on children (Neuman & Roskos 1992).

Literacy instruction need not exclude play, and playful environments need not exclude literacy instruction.

In addition, literacy instruction serves no purpose if children do not develop socially and emotionally. Literacy itself is inherently social; it is about sharing information, stories, and ideas. Thus, kindergarteners must develop empathy, respect, problem solving, patience, and confidence. In fact, the authors of the heavily cited article “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” write, “Academic instruction in early-childhood classrooms is often framed as inherently at odds with ‘child-centered,’ ‘developmentally appropriate,’ or ‘play-based’ practices. This presumed dichotomy — that preschool and kindergarten must either be geared toward play and socioemotional development or focused on rigorous academic instruction — is false.” (Bassok, Claessens, Engel 2014).

4. Myth: One size fits all.

Fact: Kindergarten literacy instruction cannot be the same for everyone.

For many kindergarteners (and not just those who struggle) there is a mismatch between the instruction and what they need. In November at one school, a kindergarten child was being referred to special education because she did not know enough letter sounds and was “so far behind.” Yet a tutor worked with this child for only nine hours and she learned 75 percent of the alphabet! In another classroom, a student reading on a third-grade level was not “allowed” to read in school because it was not developmentally appropriate. What could be more developmentally inappropriate than this child sitting on the rug singing the alphabet song? In fact, a recent study found that kindergartners can differ in their literacy and mathematical knowledge by as much as one standard deviation (Reardon, 2013). Even English language learners are not a homogeneous group (Ford et al., 2013).

The problem is not literacy instruction but a one-size-fits-all approach.

Because kindergarteners are so different, literacy instruction must be different, for both the child reading Junie B. Jones and the one who does not know his letters (Tomlinson, 2000). To differentiate, teachers must know what children need to learn and must have a time and a place to teach them. This means they must use formative assessments to create small instructional groups — both pivotal in improving literacy outcomes for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Taylor et al. 2003; Walpole et al. 2004).

5. Myth: More testing OR no testing.

Fact: High-quality literacy instruction is driven by certain types of literacy tests.

Teachers in the United States are legitimately concerned that testing is squeezing out instruction. However, certain types of measures, formative and screening, must not be eliminated. Formative or diagnostic tests are those that guide instruction by telling teachers what children need to be taught. For example, almost all teachers start the year by finding out which letters and letter sounds children know. This information supports targeted instruction so time is not wasted teaching information a child already knows.

We must reduce superfluous assessments, but abandoning best assessment practices — formative and screening tests — would be detrimental to the nation’s most at-risk children.

In the late 1990s into the 2000s, we made huge leaps as a nation in the area of early literacy. In essence, we discovered early intervention is key to preventing reading failure (Clay 1985; Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1994; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Torgesen, 2004). If a young, at-risk learner can be identified early in kindergarten, then additional targeted instruction can prevent the child from experiencing reading failure later (Torgesen 2004; Vellutino et al. 1996). To identify children, almost all states use a literacy screening test, a simple measure given at the beginning, middle, and end of the year to identify children who need extra help (Foorman, Fletcher, and Francis 2004; Invernizzi et al. 2004). It works (Invernizzi et al. 2004)!

6. Myth: Other countries are doing kindergarten more effectively than the United States.

Fact: Literacy instruction in the United States is challenging for a number of reasons.

Many times we have heard people compare literacy in the United States to other countries. We like to remind them to be careful about unexamined international comparisons. They might say, “Children in the Netherlands play in kindergarten and learn to read in first grade and they have one of the highest literacy rates around.” But this misses the point. In the Netherlands, for example, children go to “kindergarten” the day they turn four years old and they stay for two years (Toll & Van Luit 2014)! The point is that teaching children to “read” is not an isolated, one-year event but the accumulation of much broader literacy instruction that takes place across many years in homes, schools, childcare settings, and communities.

Another factor that impacts literacy learning is the nature of the language. Children who are learning to read simple languages with one-to-one correspondences (e.g., Greek, Finnish) reach levels of almost 100 percent accuracy on word reading as early as mid–first grade (Zeigler & Goswami 2005). In comparison, children learning English only reach levels of 40 percent accuracy by the same point (Ziegler & Goswami 2005). This is not because they are lazy, come from bad homes, have bad teachers, or a poor educational system. It’s because they are learning a more complex orthography (spelling system).

What is potentially damaging and inappropriate is an exclusive focus on skill instruction and assessments to the detriment of social-emotional development.

In short, literacy instruction in kindergarten is not damaging or inappropriate. We must provide research-based, preparatory instruction that will support children in becoming literate as soon as they can but not at a sacrifice to psychological or emotional well-being. What is potentially damaging and inappropriate is an exclusive focus on skill instruction and assessments to the detriment of social-emotional development. Also potentially damaging would be the elimination formative and screening assessment practices or adherence to a “readiness” model. We can do it better, but we simply cannot reverse the trend toward providing high-quality literacy instruction in kindergarten. To do so would be devastating to children who depend on public schools for their education.

Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Literacy at Virginia Tech. A former third grade teacher, she has held tenure-earning positions for over 17 years and has been with Virginia Tech since 2007. Dr. Mesmer has studied beginning reading materials and text difficulty for her entire career. Her research has appeared Reading Research Quarterly, The Educational Researcher, Reading Teacher, Elementary School Journal, Journal of Literacy Research, and Early Childhood Research Quarterly. She has written and directed 8 grants aimed at improving reading instruction in K-5 classrooms. Her upcoming book, Teaching skills for complex text: Deepening close reading in the Classroom, will be published by Teacher’s College Press (2017).

Dr. Mesmer’s research was supported by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, and an American Educational Research Association/Institute of Education Sciences grant. She is the recipient of the Outreach Award, from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (2012), the P-12 Outreach Award, School of Education, Virginia Tech (2011), and the Promising Scholar Award, School of Education, Virginia Tech (2009). In 2014 she delivered The George Graham Lecture in Reading for Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Marcia Invernizzi is the coauthor, with Jennifer Palmer, of No More Phonics and Spelling Worksheets. The book is a part of Heinemann’s Not This But Series, edited by Nell K. Duke and Ellin Oliver Keene. In addition to her Heinemann title, Marcia is a coauthor of Words Their Way and twelve other books related to word study. She is the creator and primary author of PALS, the Phonologial Awareness Literacy Screening tool used in many states and a founder of Book Buddies, a tutoring framework for struggling readers in the first and second grades.

The Henderson Professor of Reading Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Marcia teaches graduate classes for the program areas of reading and teacher education in the department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education. Marcia’s research focuses on the role of written word knowledge in literacy development, on reading difficulties, and on formative and diagnostic literacy assessments that can inform instruction. She has received many awards for her teaching and research, including the Curry School of Education’s Outstanding Professor Award, and the University of Virginia’s Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year Award.


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