It's Completely Okay If Your Kindergartner Can't Read

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Nicole De Khors/Burst

There are so many reasons I’ve been looking forward to my twin daughters attending kindergarten this year. I mean, we aren’t paying daycare or preschool expenses any more. We are supporting our kids’ educational experiences by sending them off to school in-person (even in the day and age of COVID-19, which comes with its own set of worries). But here we are almost one month into their kindergarten year and I realize we are excited for another reason too — they will be taught how to read by their teachers.

We are a reading household. We read to our daughters every night; we can be found at our local library or Barnes and Noble (or both) every weekend; we love to introduce our kids to worlds outside of their own and they love exploring those worlds. I am eager for them to learn how to read on their own and the doors that will open for them — not only for their intellect, but how it will foster their curiosity.

But what if they don’t learn how to read in kindergarten, at least not on their own? I’m sure I will worry then too, but experts tell me otherwise. Here’s what we need to know not to worry (or maybe worry a little less) if our kids aren’t reading in kindergarten.

My daughters are very different, and have varied appetites when it comes to focus. Aviah is an introvert and an artist, so she loves to be alone in her own world with a paint brush; her sister, Lera, is more of an extrovert and loves exploring the world books take her to, and stories to get lost in. During one session of distance learning, I dealt with a 30-minute meltdown because their “Reading Stamina” session, as assigned by their kindergarten teacher, meant they needed to sit with a book in a corner for a set amount of time.

I made the announcement and set the timer for five minutes. Aviah chose to roll around on the couch for those five minutes, while Lera decided to read a bit longer: “Can I keep going, Mommy?” My heart jumped with joy — not only could I finish my work task, but my daughter didn’t want to let go of her book.

Aviah, on the other hand, worried me. Her lack of interest, her frustration with sitting for those five minutes — I mean, what was she doing in her classroom when she attended school in person each week? Worry is part of my job description as their mom, but when it comes to reading, science tells me not to worry.

Educational development and policy expert Jessica Smock shares, “[T]he average age that a child learns to be an independent reader is about six and a half. Some learn to read at four, and others at seven, and both extremes are developmentally normal. In fourth grade, kids who learned to read at four are typically not any better at reading than those who started at seven. Countries like Finland and Sweden, which outpace the United States in international testing, do not even start formal academic schooling until age seven.”

For some kids, the struggle to read is a real one – and should be explored on a deeper level, because there could be other issues going on like a speech delay, a history of issues within the family when it comes to reading, other impairments, or an array of other issues.

There are many students who struggle to read, as reported by the New York City based nonprofit Reading Partners, who says that “In fact, nationally more than 8.7 million low-income students in kindergarten through fifth grade are not proficient in reading — the equivalent of the entire populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta. If students do not receive effective interventions early by second grade, the less likely they are to ever become grade-level readers. With proper evidence-based interventions in the early grades, children can become strong, proficient readers.”

As parents, if you find that your child isn’t reading in kindergarten, don’t worry. However, pay attention as they progress during the year. If you notice something that seems off, talk to their teacher — see if they are noticing the same in school. Be your kids’ best advocate when it comes to reading. They don’t need to be early readers, and learning to read a little later than their peers doesn’t mean they’re destined to fall behind forever — especially if they’re just in Kindergarten. But if you notice less progress than you’d reasonably expect, the early grades are the time to intervene.

I am eager to see what this school year brings, for my daughters’ independent reading abilities and what it means for our future trips to the library. Neither of my five-year-olds can read on their own, but my wife and I will continue to read to them. We bond every night with a book or two, and they are thirsty for more — so there is hope that they will want to (soon, even) become independent readers.

But as the research shows, I shouldn’t place too much stock in whether they can read right now, and I won’t pressure them to do so.

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