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Feb 25

Word Gap, Play Gap

Posted by Steve Evangelista in The Alumni Blog on Feb 25, 2015
nullSteve Evangelista

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”

The report raises a real, pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped upon us not only by Common Core, but by the reality of the college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we want to have children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills, but we feel the tension of putting the blocks away and taking the pencils out. While talkative experts are ready to pounce on Little to Gain to attack Common Core, the esteemed authors and critics alike are pointing out a tension we will never solve while ignoring the root of the problem.

Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: children from higher economic classes and with a higher level of parental education enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot, and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.

The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each individual child brings to the school setting. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age three, children from lower-income families typically hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers. 

Taken to its logical conclusion, the authors’ report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t prepared for college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?” 

On the other hand, on many longitudinal metrics society is saying, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by college, you’ll be looking for a job instead of thriving in school, and you won’t be qualified for the ones you want.”

So behind the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we the people—educators and policymakers—do about the massive word gap experienced by lower vs. upper income children, before they enter kindergarten?
  2. What do we do for the children who enter kindergarten “unprepared” and “unready” for reading?

As I stated above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know; I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.

But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem and break the cycle of poverty. 

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families proving that a low family income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?).

There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. We partner with Reach Out and Read, which has pediatricians providing books and training to new parents, as part of our new Start to Finish program. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured home visits to low-income families to teach literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is a central part of all of our work. We must work together to ensure that no community is consigned to being labeled, “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”

When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

tagged common core, developmental readiness, kindergarten
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