A Place for Play

When the latest scores of our country's national reading test arrived this spring, they were as depressing as usual: Two-thirds of American fourth-graders, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, cannot read at grade level. Among Hispanic and African American children, it's even higher.

Considering the consequences of growing up as a struggling reader, you might assume that the solution is to help children build better reading skills as soon as possible. Research shows that the earlier specialists intervene, the more likely children will surmount reading difficulties. Surely, early -- literacy instruction is a good solution. What could be controversial about that?

Plenty. Debates over when to teach children to read -- and how to do it -- are now afire around the country. As reading skills are taught at younger ages, child-development experts increasingly worry about the new look and feel of classrooms for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old children. They see children memorizing flashcards and coloring in worksheets. They watch with trepidation as school districts around the country adapt curricula to introduce letters and their sounds to children as early as possible.

The parenting blogosphere is filled with mothers who worry over whether to enroll their children in schools that are replacing playtime with lessons on basic literacy skills. Parents of young 5-year-olds -- particularly those with boys -- agonize over whether to wait an extra year before sending their children to kindergarten classrooms that seem too academic for their boisterous kids. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine last year, cultural critic and mother Peggy Orenstein captured the angst as she wrote about her struggle to find a kindergarten for her daughter that didn't assign homework. As she put it, "How did 5 become the new 7, anyway?"

It doesn't have to be this way. Timothy Shanahan, a literacy researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has co-authored reports on the need for explicit instruction on basic skills, recently argued on his blog that "good teaching includes both didactic lessons and opportunities to practice and play." Child-development experts who plead for more child-centered classrooms are not at all averse to putting early-literacy skills front and center within the games and playtime that are essential to early childhood. Educators shouldn't have to choose between teaching literacy or encouraging play, says Patricia Cooper, an assistant professor of education at New York University. To her mind, it's a "false dichotomy."

But outside of academe -- on playgrounds and listservs, in superintendents' offices and teacher lounges -- -the dichotomy feels all too real. Well-intentioned school leaders want to ensure that poor, minority children get what they need to improve their reading scores and have been told that helping such students requires direct and explicit teaching of literacy skills. And so a new class-based divide is emerging over how children are taught to read. At one extreme are children in high-poverty schools with teachers who have been asked to drill them on letters, words, and sounds that they were never really exposed to before arriving at school. On the other end are middle-class children whose teachers read them elaborate stories and encourage playful re -- enactments and whose parents have been pointing out letters and reading them books since the year they were born. It's a chasm that shows no sign of narrowing. How do we get out of it?


It was a day in the middle of winter when Ed Miller first got a look at an early draft of the Common Core State Standards Initiative -- a 180-page document outlining what students across the nation would be expected to know, year by year, in language arts and mathematics from kindergarten to 12th grade. What he saw deeply worried him. Among the standards for kindergartners: "read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension."

Read fluently? In kindergarten?

Miller is a senior researcher and consultant for the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group based in College Park, Maryland, that has already become known for pushing back against what it sees as the over-commercialization of childhood, unfair standardized testing, and unnecessary technology in schools. Last year, the alliance published Crisis in the Kindergarten, a report bemoaning the academic nature of today's classrooms for 5-year-olds. The alliance had been waiting anxiously to see whether these standards would lead to even more academic work at the expense of recess, art, music, and make-believe play.

The document Miller reviewed was an early draft, leaked to Ed Week, of what experts were creating for the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The two organizations decided last summer to develop a set of national standards to replace today's uneven system of every state for itself. (Much of the criticism of No Child Left Behind stems from states keeping their standards low to fulfill the law's requirement of showing that children meet the state standards.) Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have signed on to support the common-standards initiative. President Barack Obama applauds it.

In March, as soon as the official draft was published for comment, the alliance distributed a letter calling for suspension of further work on the K-3 standards. Nearly 500 people signed it, including David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, and Vivian Gussin Paley, author and renowned kindergarten teacher at the Lab School at the University of Chicago. The letter argued that the standards would lead to "long hours of instruction" in literacy and math, inappropriate testing, and didactic instruction that would "[cut] off children's initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their later engagement in school and the workplace, not to mention responsible citizenship."

The specter of inappropriate testing and drill-based instruction has hovered over early education for decades, but it gained new haunting ground in the mid- to late 2000s as school districts attempted to fulfill or dodge NCLB requirements. To make "adequate yearly progress" under the law, schools must show that increasing numbers of students can meet state standards, no matter what their race or poverty level. In many high -- poverty school districts, that means zooming in on basic skills and getting children to practice, practice, practice.

Amy Katz, a first-grade teacher, knows the drill well. I called Katz after she had finished a 10-hour workday this spring. She sounded weary. Her workplace, the Mann School in west Philadelphia, had been labeled "chronically low-performing" under NCLB and will close this summer, reopening as a charter school in the fall. Katz, who has been teaching in the elementary grades for 17 years, will be looking for another job.

At the Mann School each morning, Katz asks her students to listen, watch the letters to which she points, and repeat after her: "C, U, P. Cuh-uh-puh. C-cuh. U-uh. P-puh. Now faster: c-uh-puh. Cup!" She has a script. Another sample lesson goes like this: "I'm going to say a word slowly. M-a-n. Now it's your turn. Say the word slowly. M-a-n. Man."

The routine is part of 45 minutes devoted to Reading Mastery, a set of teaching instructions designed by Scientific Research Associates, a McGraw-Hill company. Based on myriad studies about effective reading instruction, the program uses "direct instruction" to provide a systematic way of introducing children to words and their sounds. The Philadelphia School District has directed all teachers in "empowerment schools" -- the schools with poor test scores -- to use Reading Mastery for 45 minutes before starting on another literacy block, 75 minutes of students reading together, independently, or under the guidance of a teacher.

Earlier this year, just before the annual standardized tests, Katz says, all teachers were asked to double the time they spent on Reading Mastery, with one 45-minute chunk in the morning and another in the afternoon. Recess was minimized, and the kids got more and more restless.

"It's torture," she says.


Marcus Ceniceros is also a first-grade teacher. Like Katz's, his school, KIPP DREAM Prep, a charter elementary school in Houston, Texas, enrolls mostly minority children, 96 percent of whom qualify for subsidized lunch.

But if you had walked by his classroom on April 23, you would have seen something entirely different from Katz's lesson. First-graders were lying under tables with their heads up as they sketched and wrote on white paper taped to the tables' undersides. A few minutes before, they had picked up pretend shovels and air-shoveled a tunnel to enter their habitat. Their task was to draw or write what they saw, imagining themselves as "undergrounders" looking up at the world.

"It was fun, but it wasn't just an activity," Ceniceros says. "It was very structured and had objectives."

At KIPP DREAM, getting children reading -- -and starting instruction early -- is a top priority. Children enroll in pre-kindergarten at age 4, and this fall enrollment will be available for 3-year-olds. Every teacher strives to raise their students' reading level a full year and a half above where the students started at the beginning of the school year. First -- graders have a 90-minute "literacy block" in the morning and looser reading time throughout the day. Earlier that morning, for example, Ceniceros had taken on a more conventional teacher role, telling his students about compound words and how they work. He also typically dedicates at least an hour to reading and listening to books related to whatever the first grade happens to be studying that week. In this case, it was a science lesson on underground animal habitats. Children could choose from a basket of books on spiders, moles, snakes, and other tunnel-dwellers.

That integration between subject-matter content and reading lessons, many literacy experts say, is one of the pieces that gets left out when schools focus on basic skills. In his book, Reading Instruction: The Two Keys, reading expert Matthew Davis, a project director at the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, emphasizes the need for both basic skills and content knowledge. He writes: "Schools that ignore history, science and the arts are, in fact, increasing the likelihood that students will encounter problems in later grades."

But that April morning Ceniceros had another goal in mind, too. He wanted his students to demonstrate that they recognized how those readings changed their perspective on the world. According to midyear tests, nearly three-quarters of his students are reading at grade level, he says, but he wants to take them further.

As debate continues over the Common Core State Standards Initiative, many educators, even those in early childhood, stress that setting expectations for children and encouraging playful classrooms are not mutually exclusive. In fact, two large organizations with child-development specialists as members -- the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Child Development Specialists in State Departments of Education -- released statements generally in favor of the draft that has caused such a stir.

But does this mean that concerns over standardized expectations for all kindergartners are unfounded? Not necessarily. Rambunctious and contrary, brilliant and befuddling, children at ages 4, 5, and 6 are a squirrelly bunch. One day they don't even seem to notice the words around them. The next, they're recognizing -- and calling out -- every stop sign in the neighborhood. Aware that major leaps in cognitive development characterize these ages, early-childhood experts don't want to label a not-yet-reading 5-year-old as failing to measure up. They also fear misinterpretation of words such as "fluency," as used in the proposal for reading ability by kindergarten. The appendix to the March draft provided examples of the books that kindergarteners should be reading -- wordless books that children might "read" by describing what the pictures tell them. But as principals are faced with policies pegged to the standards, they might miss that nuance, interpreting "fluency" in the sense it is used in later grades, and ask teachers to do even more drill and practice.

National data does not exist on exactly what is happening in classrooms around the country, but anecdotal evidence and a few time-diary studies of kindergarten classrooms indicate that the KIPP DREAM classroom may be the exception, not the rule. Eva Phillips, early childhood consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, has been studying how kindergarten teachers use class time. She points to data from a program called FirstSchool that shows a wide gap between preschool and kindergarten, with kindergarteners getting much more teacher-led instruction than preschoolers, and the time during which children choose their activities shrinking from 136 minutes to 16. Fitting in moments of child-led activity is a struggle, Phillips says. "Teachers ask, 'How do we balance this with accountability and standards?'"


Early-literacy instruction today consists of at least two basic approaches. There is decoding -- the skill of being able to see a squiggly line, immediately identify it as the letter S, hear its sound in your head ("sss"), and blend or attach it to the sound made by the next squiggly line. There is also comprehension, often understood as using the words and pictures in a text to help you grasp what a sentence, chapter, or book is trying to tell you. If you can decode and comprehend, the wisdom goes, you're on your way.

The tricky balancing act between teaching these skills and giving children play-based learning is better understood today than it was when the movement toward standards began in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather, the focus -- then as now -- was simply on figuring out how to help poor and minority children learn to read. In 1997, Congress called for a group of experts to analyze the scientific studies about how to get the job done. The National Reading Panel's 2000 report concluded that systematic teaching of letters and sounds was highly effective. A 2009 report from the National Early Literacy Panel took a similar emphasis. After reviewing approximately 500 studies on the literacy skills that correlate with later achievement, it pointed to the importance of six abilities: knowing letters; being aware of the sounds within words; being able to rapidly name letters, digits, objects, and colors when they are presented; writing one's name; and remembering what sounds go with what patterns of letters.

Both panels confirmed the need for what was once thought optional: decoding instruction in the early years. Their reports have been influential. No longer are most educators relying solely on "whole language" methods as many did in the 1970s. Instead schools of all types -- from the Mann School to KIPP DREAM -- ensure that letters and phonemic awareness are systematically taught. There's some evidence that the shift is working. As low as today's national reading scores are, they were even worse in the early 1990s, before the recent trend toward directly teaching these basic skills. In 1992, nine out of 10 black students were not reading at grade level, compared to four out of five today.

But as the authors of both reports acknowledge, they reviewed only a small fraction of all studies on reading instruction. Many studies of teaching methods or other indicators of strong reading skills were not deemed rigorous enough to assure that results were not due to outside variables. Some literacy researchers felt the omissions were a shame. "Code is what has been studied," wrote Susan Neuman, education professor at the University of Michigan, in a review of the 2009 report, "but what we know is that code alone is not going to solve our educational problems."

What else do we need? The ideas of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are starting to percolate among educators. Many of his theories center on make-believe play. A child who says to a peer, "OK, I'll be the mom. Let's pretend we're going to the store," is stretching herself cognitively more than we might think. She has to stay in character, construct dialogue, and imagine a sequence of events. She would grow even further if a teacher or adult snuck in some reading or writing practice: "Do you want to make a shopping list? Here, use this notepad."

A 2007 study in Science explored the impact of this kind of play by collecting data on children who were taught using Tools of the Mind, a Vygotskian method. The study, which followed 147 preschoolers in 21 settings, showed that children taught using the Tools method scored significantly higher than did their counterparts on tests of "executive function skills," such as the ability to keep their behavior in check, control their impulses, and focus -- skills that certainly don't hurt when it comes to learning to read.

Make-believe play may foster other foundational skills, too, like symbolic understanding. By pretending to punch numbers on a cash register, for example, a child is symbolizing what a cashier does. This ability to comprehend and manipulate symbols is a skill that should serve her well, since letters symbolize sounds, and words symbolize objects or actions or ideas. Several recent books -- Children's Play: The Roots of Reading; Play=Learning; and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool -- make that case.

Patricia Cooper of New York University has added another title to the genre with her 2009 book, The Classrooms All Young Children Need. She says she knew people wouldn't take the idea of play-based learning seriously until she had some pre- and post-test data on how well children performed in such a setting. So in the mid-2000s, she helped design a study comparing two groups of young children -- those encouraged to act out stories they invented and to dictate them to a teacher and those who only followed the conventional curriculum. The results, published in 2007 in the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, showed that the storytelling students scored significantly better on vocabulary and reading "readiness" tests than the control group.


What are the essential ingredients for truly integrating playful learning and early-literacy instruction? Surely they will evolve, but the experiences of Amy Katz and Marcus Ceniceros are instructive: The amount of time spent on decoding skills and "repeat after me" lessons should be calibrated to avoid overkill and yet still provide the explicit teaching of letters and their sounds that children need. Teachers should be given the time and flexibility to plan and carry out creative projects as well as continuous training on methods that recognize the curious, developing minds of young kids. The school day should be long enough to allow for intensive literacy blocks that don't feel intensive. Educators need to have high expectations for what their students can achieve, while still recognizing that children's cognitive skills develop at different rates. And high-quality pre-kindergarten should be the norm.

In short, all children -- but especially the poor who grow up without the language and book exposure to help them succeed -- should be getting early-literacy instruction that balances basic skills with playful, content-rich language experiences. We cannot let the latest literacy debates lead to another case of the haves and have-nots. We cannot afford a battle that pits play against literacy. But we need to go further than simply adding playtime to the day. We have to recognize that play and literacy learning can be one and the same. It does an injustice to children in poor and struggling schools if they never get the chance to experience that connection.