As states around the country are implementing legislation surrounding improving third grade reading proficiency, the Common Core State Standards will be changing the way P-3 teachers approach reading instruction. States such as Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin have drafted or passed bills recently aimed at getting more third graders reading on grade level. Included in the Common Core is an emphasis on text, and building background knowledge. Additionally, all students will be expected to master the same texts, necessitating strong scaffolding abilities from teachers who must help children build the skills they need to reach Common Core benchmarks. Aligning early education with the early grades is increasingly important as well, as children must not simply be Kindergarten-ready, but Common Core Kindergarten-ready.
Discourse surrounding implementation of the Common Core has emphasized helping teachers understand the new standards and what to teach. However, after a discussion with Susan B. Neuman, a Professor in Educational Studies from the University of Michigan specializing in early literacy development, it became clear that, especially with regards to early reading skills, we must also help teachers reconfigure how they teach in addition to what they teach. Mrs. Neuman asserted that in the early grades, teachers must provide content-rich instruction in order to prepare children for the rigorous K-12 Common Core curriculum. Additionally, she pointed out that we must train K-3 teachers to pinpoint the critical features of information text, how to teach it, and the critical questions to ask of students. Especially relevant in the early years is the issue of how to engage students in developmentally appropriate ways in order to build content knowledge “without them knowing it.”
Luckily, there are educators and policymakers out there who recognize the need for teacher training around Common Core early reading standards, such as Neuman herself, who is authoring a book on the topic. The University of Michigan, together with the Albert Shanker Institute, is offering a Summer Institute for early childhood educators and administrators to help them understand how best to teach in a Common Core environment, and how to train other teachers to do so as well. The workshop will focus on areas such as: building content knowledge, accelerating oral vocabulary building, and teaching students to be independent learners. The workshop will also include a discussion of how to translate kindergarten readiness into a set of observational tests: what to look for in a classroom, and how to take guidelines from the Common Core to make an environmental checklist for the early years.
Another pressing issue surrounding Common Core and the early years is Kindergarten attendance. While common Standards will be implemented nationwide, states vary widely in the number of hours of Kindergarten they fund (i.e. half- vs. full-day programs) as well as if Kindergarten attendance is optional or mandatory. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has taken on this issue, as mastery of Kindergarten standards is likely to be more difficult for children who are offered 2.5 hours of instruction per day (approximately 450 hours/year) than for those receiving 6 hours per day, or about 1,080 hours annually. As illustrated on CDF’s national map, 10 states and the District of Columbia currently provide Full-day Kindergarten at no charge to all children per state statute and funding (AL, AR, DE, LA, MD, MS, NC, NM, SC, WV). Of these, attendance is mandatory in six states and DC. Additionally, some states charge tuition for the second half of full-day Kindergarten programs, and others are cutting back hours or even eliminating programs.
As the nation is preparing to implement the Common Core, and focusing on third grade reading initiatives, early education advocates must begin to think about the way reading is taught, as well as providing adequate time and resources to children to meet new Common Core benchmarks.