The Benefits of Putting More Emphasis on Literacy Skills, Beginning in Early Grades


“There is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning,” or that rigorous, consistent education standards “are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards,” Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, argues in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

Higher academic expectations, Krashen suggests, discourage students from developing reading habits, especially in early grades. “Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car in order to ‘master’ 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind.”

As states implement more challenging education standards, educators have put more emphasis on literacy skills, beginning in early grades. The shift is to help students build the foundational skills they need to succeed at higher levels of learning and to develop a passion and capability for reading. That’s a far cry from the so-called “kindgergrind” Krashen alleges.

There’s no reason to think that higher literacy standards are too difficult for kindergarten students based on the evidence, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote previously. In fact, one of the strongest arguments in favor of ensuring students begin building reading skills in early grades is to ensure “children – especially the disadvantaged among them – don’t get sucked into the vortex of academic distress associated with early reading failure.”

Nearly 90 percent of first-graders who struggle with reading comprehension continue to struggle in fourth grade, Pondiscio notes. Three out of four struggling third-graders still struggle in ninth grade, and one in six students who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate high school on time.

Nothing in states’ efforts to build literacy skills in early grades prohibits teachers from incorporating creativity or activity into their instruction. And, in fact, many educators say that higher standards have helped them incorporate more creativity and flexibility into their classrooms.

Sarah Inendino, a music teacher in Illinois, says high, comparable standards coupled with new technologies have created greater opportunity to integrate traditional topics, like math and reading, with the arts and physical education. Collaboration with other teachers, she adds, is now nearly “seamless.”

Eric Slifstein, a physical education teacher in New York, adds that high, comparable standards create an opportunity to reinforce learning through hands-on activities and play:

“Within schools, educators are encouraging students to apply skills across subjects and helping to reinforce foundational skills by integrating concepts from one class to the next… What’s more, for many students who struggle with concepts on paper, applying them to physical activity often helps make it ‘click.’”

In Ohio’s Lakewood High School teachers partnered with a local theater group to have students reenact scenes from literature as part of a program aligned with the state’s education standards. Although the program is intended for older students, there is no reason educators couldn’t apply the “fun, hands-on” approach to earlier grades.

Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, says that claims higher standards take the joy out of reading or squeeze out literature are “total baloney.” He notes, “The ‘plain language’ of [states’] standards says that the early grades should focus primarily on literary texts.”

As states raise academic expectations at all grade levels, students are developing the foundational skills they need to succeed later in life starting early. But that in no way means kindergarten has become a joyless learning factory, as Krashen suggest. In fact, educators are developing innovative, engaging ways to cultivate the literacy skills children need to become competent, life-long readers.

“We’re not talking about six-year-olds reading Proust or Of Mice and Men,” Pondiscio adds. Instead, teachers are focused on practical learning goals that help put students on a path to reading readiness before they fall behind. That is the kind of early-grade learning parents should want and expect for their children.