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Help your child exceed the Common Core standards with the revised and updated What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know
Designed for use by parents and teachers, this groundbreaking first volume in the Core Knowledge Series provides kindergartners with the fundamentals they need to prepare them for a lifetime of learning. It sets out the elements a parent or educator should look for in a good kindergarten program and introduces activities that help a child take the first steps in learning to read and write. Featuring a new Introduction and filled with age-appropriate questions and suggestions that stimulate thinking and build vocabulary, this revised and updated edition of What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know also includes
• Favorite poems—read and recite together from Mother Goose, A. A. Milne, Langston Hughes, and more, all beautifully illustrated
• Beloved stories and fables—read aloud from “The Three Little Pigs,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Cinderella,” Winnie-the-Pooh, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and many more, including multicultural folktales from African, Japanese, and Native American traditions
• Familiar sayings and phrases—impart traditional wisdom such as “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” and “Better safe than sorry”
• History and geography—a friendly introduction to our world, complete with simple questions and fun activities
• Visual arts—painting, drawing, cutting, and pasting go hand in hand with learning about color and helping a child look at and talk about great works of art
• Music—many musical experiences for parents and children to participate in, along with dozens of songs to sing and dance to
• Math—lively and interesting exposure to concepts and operations that provide a springboard to later mastery
• Science—activities that let children observe, experience, and get their hands dirty while exploring the wonders of nature
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Reading, Writing, and Your Kindergartner
Acquiring the Skill of Reading
Literate adults are constantly interacting with text in one form or another. Think about the reading and writing you do on any given day. Perhaps you start the morning with a glance at a newspaper or headlines on your iPad. You might hastily scribble a note for your daughter’s lunch bag. Billboards and road signs compete for your attention as you drive around town. At work there are memos, reports, and emails to read and write. Your child’s knapsack carries home forms to fill out and announcements from his school or teacher. There are recipes to be read, bills to be paid, and account statements to be examined. When time allows, perhaps you end the day with a novel, a magazine, or Facebook posts from friends and family.
Each of these activities, and countless others, involves reading and writing. But we rarely think about our ability to make or make sense of printed words. It feels like something we do without thinking about it at all. In reality, our ability to make sense of the printed word is one of our greatest intellectual achievements. Most of us learn to speak and listen naturally, without formal instruction. But reading and writing are different. There’s nothing at all natural about acquiring these abilities.
Reading Is Not a Skill
Most of us think learning to read is like learning to ride a bike. It’s a skill we acquire as children and never lose. Moreover, riding a bike is also a transferable skill. Once you learn how, you can safely ride almost any bike. Surely it’s the same with reading: some of us may read faster or slower than others, but reading is reading is reading. Once you learn how to read, you can read anything, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Your ability to translate written symbols into sounds—what reading experts call “decoding”—is a transferable skill. This explains why you can “read” nonsense words, even if you’ve never seen them before, such as those found in the famous Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky.”
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Few of us would disagree on how to pronounce words such as “brillig” and “mimsy,” even though they don’t exist. But there’s more to reading than simply decoding the words on a page. Reading is about comprehension—your ability to make meaning from written words. If we can’t make sense of the words on the page, we really cannot be said to be “reading.” Unlike decoding, reading comprehension is not a transferable skill at all. It’s the result of years and years of vocabulary growth, and of building up a store of knowledge about the world that helps you make sense of what you read. Reading about a subject that you know little about can be awkward and disorienting. For example, in his book The Making of Americans, Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch describes reading this account of a cricket match in a British newspaper:
Thus, as the final day dawned and a near capacity crowd lustily cheered every run Australia mustered, much depended on Ponting and the new wizard of Oz, Mike Hussey, the two overnight batsmen. But this duo perished either side of lunch—the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before—and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket.
You probably know nearly all the words in this passage, but it’s nearly impossible to understand what the writer is trying to say. Even common words such as “lunch” and “overnight” suddenly seem awkward and strange. Knowing that this is an account of a cricket match played by a team from Australia doesn’t help. Your lack of knowledge about how the game is played keeps you from understanding what the words mean. This might strike you as an extreme example, but think of how it feels when you try to make sense of directions for installing an operating system on your computer, or struggle to understand a product warranty. Your rate of reading slows. You read and reread, struggling to understand.
Why is this so hard? Isn’t reading like riding a bike?
Your ability to make sense of what you read depends heavily on your prior knowledge—the stuff you already know. “Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information,” notes University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Suppose you read, “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” According to Willingham, you easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you have prior knowledge of puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them), and landlords (they are protective of their property). But what if you didn’t know those things? You would be confused, and comprehension breaks down.
In short, it’s deeply misleading to think of reading as a “skill” at all. Reading is really a two-part process. The first part is decoding, which is a skill. The second part is comprehension, which depends almost entirely on vocabulary and background knowledge—you need to know all the words. But critically, you also need to know the things to which those words refer. And comprehension is most certainly not a skill. It’s the product of years and years of language growth and knowledge acquisition. The work of acquiring that knowledge begins in earnest the day your child sets foot in kindergarten.
The Knowledge Connection
When we use this lens, it becomes clear that “knowing stuff” is critical to reading comprehension. Broad general knowledge is not merely nice to have; it’s essential if we want our children to be able to read widely with understanding. When children struggle with comprehension, it is usually not because they cannot “read.” More often it’s because they lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to understand what the writer is trying to say.
The Core Knowledge approach to reading is built on this essential understanding: broad general reading ability correlates with broad general knowledge. If we want our children to become literate adults, they first must be explicitly taught to decode writing at a very early age. But their education must also furnish the broad, rich knowledge that educated Americans take for granted and assume that others have as well. Without that background knowledge, children will struggle to be fully literate and read fluently and with comprehension.
Kindergarten and Your Child
Most of us do not take on the task of teaching our children how to read and write. We send our children off to school and encourage them to work hard and pay attention, and we assume their teachers are caring and competent. But you would not be holding this book in your hand if you were not deeply concerned about your child’s education. Thus, it’s useful to know what a good kindergarten language arts program should look like. It’s worth paying careful attention, since the first days of a child’s formal education are critical to the goal of helping your child become a proficient reader.
Listening and Learning
We tend to think of the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic—as the foundations of a good, skills-based early childhood education. But to build this foundation, a good kindergarten classroom should probably be equally focused on the two L’s—listening and learning.
Think of the way language develops. Oral language development (speaking and listening) precedes written language development (reading and writing). Nearly all children learn to listen and speak long before they can read and write. Science confirms what we know from common sense: children must be able to understand words before they can produce and use them independently—attention paid to listening and speaking will provide a solid foundation for later reading and writing.
Listening comprehension also develops faster than reading comprehension and remains more advanced for far longer than you might expect: your child’s ability to independently comprehend material on the printed page probably won’t catch up to his or her ability to listen and understand the same material read out loud until the end of middle school. Our brains can only do so much at one time. When a child is learning to read, a significant amount of mental energy is devoted to decoding and reading with fluency. When she listens to text read out loud, attention is freed up to focus on the material itself. Thus, a good kindergarten classroom is one in which children are given lots of opportunities to be exposed to rich language by being read aloud to often.
Most kindergarten teachers read to their students. They know that small children love a good story. But the wisest teachers understand the importance of building vocabulary and background knowledge. They read nonfiction picture books and take advantage of a child’s curiosity to begin building background knowledge of the world around us—knowledge that is critical to mature reading comprehension.
Read-alouds—both fiction and nonfiction—yield another important benefit: the language of books is richer and more formal than spoken English. By listening to stories or nonfiction selections read aloud, children can experience the complexities of written language without expending cognitive energy on decoding.
Helping young children develop the ability to listen to and understand written texts read aloud must be an integral part of any initiative designed to build literacy. A good kindergarten takes advantage not just of the natural benefits of listening and learning but also of the nuanced benefits provided when read-alouds are done in a coherent, systematic fashion. To achieve this, careful consideration should first be given to the selection of text read aloud, to ensure that the vocabulary and syntax presented are rich and complex. Furthermore, to make efficient use of instructional time, read-alouds must build a broad knowledge base while simultaneously building listening comprehension and language skills. To do this, the selection of read-alouds within a given grade level and across grade levels should not be random but rather should be guided by a coherent, sequenced approach to building knowledge.