Going Deep into the Common Core Kindergarten ELA/Literacy Standards

The Common Core ELA/Literacy standards for kindergarten have become a flashpoint within the larger fight over our kind-of-but-not-really national standards. A recent report by Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood entitled Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Learn and Much to Lose (the DEY report) has advanced the debate. J. Richard Gentry offered a pro-Core response at Psychology Today, which was cross-posted at Common Core Watch.

Much of the concern over the kindergarten standards revolves around the question of whether they are “developmentally appropriate.” I would argue that in addition to this issue, the kindergarten standards are fatally difficult to interpret due to the flawed design of Common Core ELA/Literacy standards as a whole. It is a fundamental premise of the Common Core that we can think of learning in kindergarten as part of a single continuum of skills and tasks stretching backward from college.

In fact, the standards and assessment paradigm designed for secondary school breaks down when applied to six year olds. This is why all high performing countries, the ones we are supposedly trying to compete with, have separate curricular documents for primary and secondary schools, reflecting the goals and demands of each level.

The DEY report cited six examples of kindergarten standards for which “there is no evidence that mastering these standards in kindergarten rather than in first grade brings lasting gains.” Gentry defends each one in turn, and I shall point out how this discussion illuminates flaws in the design of the standards as a whole.


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.4
Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

Gentry writes:

At the end of kindergarten, a child is expected to have a repertoire of Level-C or D easy emergent-reader texts that he or she enjoys reading fluently, purposefully, and with understanding. These books are often mastered through memory reading in guided reading lessons for kindergarten developed by New Zealand educator Don Holdaway’s classic “for-with-by model” to simulate “lap reading” with babies and toddlers. This teaching method has been used successfully in kindergartens for decades. The emergent-reader text is first modeled by the teacher for the students, then joyfully read over and over with the students until eventually the easy book is independently read by the students with great joy and confidence.

The problem with this response is pointed out in the DEY report, “While other Common Core kindergarten literacy requirements begin with the words ‘With prompting and support…,’ this one does not.” I agree with DEY that the best reading of the standard is that it intends that students must read independently, without preparatory guided reading. This is consistent with reading expectations throughout the standards at other grade levels. All commentary from the authors of the standards emphasizes independent reading.

If kindergarten represented an exception, it should have been explicitly noted within the standard. I see no textual evidence to support Gentry’s interpretation, and must conclude his analysis is based on incorrect assumptions arising from the imprecision of the standards document itself.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.3.B
Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.

Gentry writes:

A byproduct of reading it is that kids learn a few sight words with the all-important Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) short vowel pattern, as in cat, sat, and mat; it’s arguably the most critical phonics pattern to be mastered for successfully negotiating the beginning reading of English. In best-practice classrooms, children may choose from hundreds of titles of books like this, including engaging fiction and delightful informational texts.
After a well-trained teacher sees that the kindergartner has mastered a repertoire of these Level-B books, she will move him into Level-C and sometimes D books such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Most of us remember the first lines: “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” These opening sentences, though simple, expose the reader to multiple CVC short-vowel phonics patterns and word recognition, moving well toward first-grade reading levels.

Gentry’s approach seems reasonable, but does it meet the standard as written? The standard does not tell teachers to simply “expose the reader to multiple CVC short-vowel phonics patterns and word recognition.” I do not believe the standard is worded clearly enough to evaluate its appropriateness. How should it be assessed? Have the teacher say each vowel sound and let the student select the correct grapheme for each?

The standard is frustrating in a way which is typical of the Common Core standards. It is not just that it is a general statement open to a range of professional opinion, as is somewhat inevitable in English/Language Arts standards. It gestures in the direction of a very precise standard, but seems to be missing an essential clause. There seem to be some unstated qualifiers delineating exactly which graphemes are “common” in this context. For example, does the kindergartener need to associate the long “e” sound with “ee,” “ea,” “ie,” “e,” and “ey,” or just some subset of those?

I am particularly puzzled by associated first and second grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.1.2.A
Distinguish long from short vowel sounds in spoken single-syllable words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.2.3.A
Distinguish long and short vowels when reading regularly spelled one-syllable words.

It seems to me that the kindergarten standard is at least as rigorous as and more abstract than the first and second grade standards. If someone can explain to me why it is not, I would love to know.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.1.D
Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.

Gentry:

At the end of kindergarten, a child is expected to have begun constructing meaningful emergent-writer texts independently. A byproduct of everyday writing is that, at the end of kindergarten, the kids will recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet — but in reality, they go way beyond that. Kindergarten pieces are largely done in invented spellings sprinkled with a growing repertoire of high-frequency words that the kindergartner learns to spell correctly.

Gentry’s response is puzzling, since the standards clearly do not require kindergarteners to write independently (but with “a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing”). He seems to have no interest at all in this alphabet standard, and tries to write about something else.

On the other hand, learning the alphabet in general does not seem “developmentally inappropriate” for kindergarten. The specific wording of the Common Core standard is more dubious, as it requires a six year old to explicitly identify 52 symbols to demonstrate mastery. The question is whether or not it is the best use of time in kindergarten to make sure all students can name a capital “Q” on command, or never confuse a “q” and a “g.” Or for that matter not mix up “X” and “x” on a worksheet.

What is “inappropriate” about the CC version is that it requires specific assessment of each student on each letter form — a time consuming process, which, as child development experts fear, will lead to “long hours of drill and worksheets” in kindergarten.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.K.9
With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).

Gentry:

At the end of kindergarten, a child is expected to be able to identify basic similarities in the differences between two texts, such as Cat on the Mat by Brian Wildsmith and The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Kindergartens compare and contrast the pictures and stories, then tell you which one they like best and why. One kindergartner told me that both books had a cat, but he liked the Dr. Seuss book best because it reminded him of a time he had to find something to do on a rainy day. (“Like I could read my favorite books!” he said.)

That’s the entirety of Gentry’s support for this standard, and he’s obviously just trying to run out the clock and find some way to stretch his response to a full paragraph, despite having nothing to say on the matter. The problem is that nobody knows what meeting, or failing to meet, this standard — with prompting and support—looks like in kindergarten.

Perhaps, as Gentry suggests, it is sufficient for the child to note that two stories with “cat” in the title have cats, but that seems so trivial as to be not worth teaching and assessing. Perhaps, as Gentry suggests, what it is really asking for is for the student to make connections to the text and express preferences, although that flies in the face of commentary from David Coleman and other authors of the standards.

Again, this is not necessarily something that would be inappropriate in kindergarten instruction — asking students to think about how one story is similar or different than another, for example—but once you make it a standard which must be assessed for mastery at this level, it stops making sense.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.K.7
Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of books by a favorite author and express opinions about them).

Gentry:

At the end of kindergarten, a child is expected to have participated in many shared research and writing projects. For example, your child might plant seeds and keep records of tending them by drawing and labeling. He might watch and record in pictures and labels the cycle of tadpoles turning into frogs, the metamorphosis of butterflies, the hatching of baby chicks, or the goings-on in an ant farm. She might tend to a live bunny in the classroom and report on the everyday happenings with the pet…

The problem with this standard is that it is inconsistent with the design of the Common Core standards as a whole. As a “participate” standard, it dictates coverage in the curriculum, not demonstration of student learning. It is the sole reading and writing standard in the document that only requires participation.

Some different standards documents do embrace participation standards that do not necessarily require student assessment — for example, there could (should!) be a standard requiring that all elementary students attend in person a professional dramatic performance and participate in a dramatic performance themselves before the end of third grade—but the Common Core as a whole very clearly does not address such participation standards by design.

As a “participate” standard this is not necessarily inappropriate for kindergarteners, but its inclusion in the Common Core is further evidence of the inconsistency and lack of editorial control which is pervasive throughout the standards document.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.K.4.B
Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.

Gentry:

At the end of kindergarten, your child should acquire many new words and use them in his or her speech. Most of us who spend a lot of time listening and talking to kindergarteners know that they communicate quite effectively using the inflections and affixes listed above in everyday vernacular, regardless of their dialects. They use them for varying verb tenses and making words plural (though, depending on their dialect, they may not yet use all with conventional Standard English usage and spelling). We make reasonable accommodations for bilingual children. At the end of kindergarten, and with the exception of some bilinguals who have had too little experience with English, most can use word parts such as the ones listed above in their speech. They express what they are thankful for at Thanksgiving, how to unscrew the jar of peanut butter, recap the apple juice; alternatively, they can show you that the art-center floor is spotless after they cleaned it up. At the end of kindergarten, they can still tell you about their experiences in preschool, if they were fortunate enough to attend one.

Again, Gentry dodges the clear meaning of the standard, which does not simply ask that students use words with these prefixes correctly, but lays out a specific, challenging assessment task.

  1. Find a word with a prefix or suffix that a student does not know.
  2. Observe that the student can use the prefix or suffix as a “clue to the meaning of the word.”

I am not an expert on childhood development, but I can see that there is a major difference between a child correctly using the terms “zip” and “unzip” and being able to apply the rule that “un-” as a prefix denotes “not,” the opposite or reverse process (while still not getting too hung up on “under,” “unless,” etc).


Common Core supporters will object that I am willfully mis-reading the standards, or not reading them correctly. I am simply reading them as written.

Gentry’s reading suggests that specific assessment and explicit instruction on the standards as written is not necessary. This is not consistent with the standards which state in the introduction to the Foundational Skills standards:

These foundational skills… are necessary and important components of an effective, comprehensive reading program designed to develop proficient readers with the capacity to comprehend texts across a range of types and disciplines. Instruction should be differentiated: good readers will need much less practice with these concepts than struggling readers will. The point is to teach students what they need to learn and not what they already know — to discern when particular children or activities warrant more or less attention.

That is, the standards require differentiation based on assessment-directed practice, especially for “struggling readers.” Not just exposure, colloquial use, or participation. That is why they dictate specific changes in curriculum. That is why they are inappropriate for kindergarten. That is the point.