Volume 16 • Issue 44 | April 2 - 8, 2004


Reading, writing and kindergarten pressure

By Jane Flanagan

I feel funny admitting this, but I was challenged by kindergarten.

I only went for half-a-day, but, to me, it seemed like a lot to juggle. There was a coveted play kitchen to navigate with the other girls. I needed to flip something called a “smock” over my head and around my waist. And, of course, the spill factor: I was forever afraid of knocking over my juice and fingerpaints.

Kindergarten has been on my mind because that’s where my son is now. And once again I’m feeling challenged. That’s because these days it’s not easy being a kindergarten parent.

At least not for my husband and me.

Recently, we found ourselves soliciting advice about reading. Bob spoke to his cousin, Carol, a retired schoolteacher. The policy at Rusty’s school is not to teach reading to 5-year-olds and Bob wanted to know what Carol thought.

“Some kids are ready to read at 5 and some are not,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter, because by the time they are ten, they will all be in roughly the same place.”

I felt somewhat relieved. “Maybe we’ll be okay,” I thought.

For we had worked ourselves into a frenzy.

Back in the beginning, I was glad Rusty was not being taught to read. He’s a rambunctious boy who likes to move. And, while he’s long since committed the name of every subway line to memory — including those with letters – he was not interested in the alphabet.

He only recently started watching “Sesame Street.” I know kids who began watching when they were 2, but not Rusty. When he was a toddler he was too busy jumping off, well…….everything.

I feared teaching him to read in kindergarten would backfire. At 5, he would likely find it beyond him and it seemed like a bad way to begin.

But then I started touring private schools for next year.

Every kindergarten my husband and I visited was teaching reading to some degree. One school claimed to have everyone reading and writing by the end of the year.

I remember that school well. It was November, two months into the academic year, and Bob and I found ourselves standing in the kindergarten room, along with other prospective parents. The letters of the alphabet were streamed across the blackboard. Our parent tour guide drew our attention to a nearby wall. Sheets of loose-leaf paper with two and three-sentence, penciled paragraphs lined a bulletin board.

I stared.

“The kids wrote these,” I asked.

“Yes,” said the parent guide.

At the time, my son was still just managing to scrawl “R U S T Y” in wildly uneven letters. His name was also the only word he could recognize on a page.

Suddenly my husband and I began to fear that Rusty could be ineligible for first grade. At best, he’d make it into a school, only to find himself a year behind.

With my anxiety level high, I searched for a comforting thought. I recalled a visit I made a few years ago to a school Uptown. It had an unusual philosophy and I wanted to see it firsthand. When I arrived, there was a lecture for prospective kindergarten parents in progress and I sat down. The speaker, a German man who was a teacher, sprinkled his conversation with Shakes-pearean references. Then he added some historical ones. I found myself wishing I could start kindergarten over in his classroom. Next he mentioned reading.

“There is a popular program here in the U.S. called ‘Head Start’,” he said. “But this is wrong. It should not be ‘head start.’ Learning should be done at the proper time.”

He went on to explain that, in his view, children are generally not ready for reading until the first grade, sometimes even later than that. His own son, in fact, did not start learning to read until third grade, something that alarmed his teachers, but not him, he said. The kid, now a preteen, is an avid reader, he said.

“Children are generally not ready to start learning to read until the baby teeth begin to drop out,” he said. “Until then, they learn best by playing.”

I now realize just how radical a concept this is.

Luckily, we found a school for Rusty nearby that has a “junior first grade.” He doesn’t need to read going in. I’m glad. I remember first grade. I had to bring milk money and sit in a big desk. It seemed like a challenge.



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