In our recent blog about the Common Core Standards and reading, we discussed why pushing reading in kindergarten isn't required. Most parents and teachers alike accept this, but some still ask: Isn't the Common Core just a basic standard? Don't we want to go above and beyond? Isn't it better to make kindergarteners spend time working with harder books? Can't I help my child get ahead by having her read in kindergarten?
We ask the following parallel question: Is it better to ask a 6 month old to walk?
Of course not! It is easy to recognize the absurdity of such an expectation. It's easy to see that most babies' muscles and overall coordination skills are not yet ready for walking at this age.
Unlike precursor skills necessary for walking, reading skills are not as easily observed as they happen in our brain. In order to show why pushing reading in kindergarten is akin to pushing walking in babies, let's review brain development and structures needed for reading success.
Good readers predominately use their left hemisphere to access reading. The three basic systems needed for reading are shown above: Broca's area (green), Wernicke's area (red), and the occipital temporal word form area (yellow). It is important to note that when children first encounter text, they process it through the right hemisphere, which makes a gestalt or overall picture of the experience. Through text practice, phoneme awareness training, and language enrichment, teachers literally change the brain to bring the print processing to the left hemisphere, which is more adept at processing language and other rule governed information. In kindergarten, our goal is to build neuronal connections in Broca's area, Wernicke's area, and the Occipital Word Form areas. This does require teacher directed skill work for most children.
Inside the brain, specific regions are not as discrete and observable at the picture above shows. The brain is actually composed of individual neurons, as pictured below.
Neurons have small gaps between them, and they use chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to communicate with one another. In order to communicate more effectively, our bodies cover the long axonal tails of neurons with myelin. Myelin is a fatty sheath that acts like pavement on a highway or a superconducter. It allows the neurotransmitters to flow more quickly and easily.
When we are born, we have more neurons than we actually need. Our brain goes through a process of pruning excess neurons, and re-organizing the neurons in order to become more efficient.
Early brain re-organization related to reading development includes the increase of myelin connections between the three main areas related to reading, and the pruning of excess neurons to make the connections more directional. In the brain, the myelin looks white, thus it's called the "white matter."
Two main brain connection pathways have been identified in good readers: the arcuate fasiculus (shown in blue below) and the Inferior Longitudinal Fasciculus (ILF) (shown in yellow below).
The arcuate fasiculus connects Broca's area (word forms, phonological awareness, phonics) to Wernicke's area (language comprehension). The ILF connects both these areas to the occipital lobe, which is used to process visual information. As you can see in the picture below, these white matter connections literally look like a road connecting the front and back areas of the brain.
As children age, research shows the arcuate fasiculus and IFL become more directional. Increasing directionality is akin to paving a straight road, rather than having an unpaved dirt road that spills out in some places and wanders in others. Researchers measure these changes through looking at fractional anisotropy (FA), which is a technique that measures the fiber density of neurons, the diameter of the neuronal axons, and the myelination of the neurons.
As shown above, the fractional anistrophy of the arcuate fasciulus and IFL increase with age for both above average readers (shown in black ) and below average readers (shown in grey). Furthermore, the connections for above average readers increase in a linear fashion, while poor readers have more ups and downs in their development. For both groups, development is approximately linear from ages 7-15 years old.
What happens for most children around ages 7-15? They become fluent readers!
Academic training has an impact on neurological development. As teachers, we do need to train our kindergarteners brains to develop. However, pushing reading fluency work on young children is akin to asking a baby to run. The brain areas needed for success are simply not ready. If we asked a baby to walk all the time, we'd probably see this:
Similarly, when we require our kindergartners to read fluently and spend too much time on reading fluency drill work, we're going to see an increase in behavioral outbursts and child anxiety.
In this blog and our past post on this topic, we've discussed why pushing fluent reading at kindergarten is unnecessary. We recommend only a small portion of time should be spent engaging students with emergent reader books, as defined in the Common Core post, because true emergent reader books are boring!
In our next blog series, we'll be looking at what Kindergarten teachers should do to target Common Core Reading Foundational Skills. At Speech Language Literacy Lab, we believe that the best learning happens when kids are engaged and having fun. We'll be sharing ideas for how to engage kindergarteners when teaching each of the Common Core Reading Foundation areas (without worksheets!). We'll also be sharing our favorite curriculum choices to meet The Reading Foundation Standards. Stay tuned.