A study by Sverdlov and Aram (2015) found a significant difference between kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about kindergarten and the expectations of parents and education officials. Kindergarten teachers firmly held fostering children’s positive self-esteem as the most important goal and promoting literacy and mathematics skills as the least important. At the same time, these teachers were certain that parents and education officials regarded children’s development in literacy and mathematics skills as the most important goal. This dichotomy is the subject of the book, Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? (Bassok, Latham & Rorem, 2016), in which the authors explain that academic pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades. Indeed, kindergarten today has a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play. They found that, in recent years, kindergarten teachers themselves had far greater academic expectations for children both prior to kindergarten entry and during the kindergarten year.
As a result, kindergarten teachers devoted more time to literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction and assessment, and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities. Not surprisingly, these kindergarten teachers often have starkly divergent perspectives about the appropriateness of this trend toward an increasingly academic kindergarten.
While the correct balance between academics and non-academics in kindergarten is vigorously debated, no one questions the critical role that kindergarten teachers can play in maximizing the potential future success of all students, especially those with dyslexia. This reality is underscored by the work of Landerl and Wimmer (2008) who found that 70% of the students who were below-average readers in first grade were still below-average readers in eighth grade. When struggling beginning readers are identified and receive intensive instruction, however, the clear majority of them reach the average range of reading ability (Torgesen, 2004). By identifying struggling readers, kindergarten teachers can help prevent the cascading, debilitating effects of not learning to read.
What Kindergarten Teachers Need to Know About Dyslexia
Reading problems and the multitude of negative consequences that result from them can be reduced by early intervention (National Reading Panel, 2000; Schatschneider & Torgesen, 2004). Longitudinal behavioral research and neuroimaging studies confirm that the early identification of dyslexia is possible before a downward spiral of poor reading, academic failure, and debilitating anxiety and depression set in.
As early as preschool, family history of dyslexia is a valuable predictor of literacy outcomes. Children of at-risk families experience language delays as infants and toddlers, and these delays manifest themselves as phonological lags in preschool (Snowling & Melby-Lervag, 2016). At primary school age, family risk of dyslexia is associated with significantly poor phonological awareness and literacy skills (Lyytinen, Eklund, & Lyytinen, 2005). Between 40% and 60% of children with a parent or sibling with reading difficulties will have reading problems themselves (Scarborough, 1990). More recent studies have provided additional evidence of the role genetics play in reading difficulties (Truong et al., 2017).
Kindergarten Teachers to the Rescue
When students are identified early and receive research-based instruction, the results are consistently positive (Blackman et al., 1999; Foorman et al., 1998). To benefit from the potential of early intervention success, however, the children must be recognized as soon as possible. Knowledgeable kindergarten teachers are uniquely positioned to timely identify the telltale signs that are accurate predictors of future reading problems and dyslexia.
Large-scale studies following children from age three have reported that early language skills predict individual differences in phonological awareness and letter knowledge, which, in turn, predict reading problems (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2005; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). Early signs of dyslexia include delays in speech and language development, with phonological memory (nonword repetition) and expressive language (naming) skills being particularly affected (Carroll, Mundy, & Cunningham, 2014). Phonological awareness, rapid naming, and verbal working memory are the strongest predictors of literacy acquisition that can be assessed when children start school in kindergarten (Fletcher et al., 2002; Fuchs et al., 2012).
Children who show persistent problems with speech and language at school entry are at high risk of difficulties with literacy, and they require systematic intervention (Rose, 2009). Late talkers frequently use only a few words by age two, and their speech often consists of monosyllabic words, even though their development in other areas is within normal range (Lyytinen & Lyytinen, 2004; Preston et al., 2010). Late talkers are almost four times more likely to be diagnosed with reading difficulties than those children who are not late talkers (Preston, 2010).
Before they will make a diagnosis of dyslexia, however, many school districts require that students experience reading problems after receiving what is deemed to be “adequate” reading instruction. Educators who ascribe to this inadequate construct of dyslexia still tell parents that dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until children have failed to learn to read. This usually means that students must struggle and experience failure through second or even third grade before they are identified for services that could remediate their reading challenges.
Decades of research substantiates that the “wait to fail” model is not only unnecessary for identifying students with reading disabilities but also unacceptably damaging to their social and emotional well-being. We at The Windward School know that the earlier students receive remediation, the more effective and less costly it is. Waiting until struggling readers and dyslexics go through prolonged failure before providing them with the instruction they need and deserve takes an academic, emotional, and economic toll.
Kindergarten teachers can readily observe difficulties with phonological awareness and the alphabetic principle. Similarly, students exhibiting expressive and receptive language issues frequently stand out among their peers. Kindergarten teachers who are aware of the correlation between these difficulties and future reading problems can alert parents and school administrators. Simply sharing these types of observations can facilitate early identification of dyslexia and prevent a downward spiral of poor reading, academic failure, and debilitating anxiety and depression for the student.
Parents in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have too often experienced an insidious resistance on the part of school officials to early identification of dyslexia. As a result, students endure years of failure before being found eligible for special education services. Failure to facilitate early identification of students with dyslexia is to deny them their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is not just unethical; it is illegal, and it must stop.
Whether the goal of a kindergarten program is to promote self-esteem or to develop academic skills, kindergarten teachers have the knowledge and opportunity to rescue students from a future of academic and self-esteem struggles simply by sharing their observations with parents and administrators. In fact, they have a professional obligation to do so.