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Teacher question: We place children in different kindergarten (or prekindergarten) tracks based upon their performances on a readiness screener — and in consultation with parents. However, our state now has a “Read by Grade Three” law, which requires retention in third grade for students who don’t meet that standard.

We have several students who are very young, meaning they are barely 5, who scored rather high on our placement test. We also have a group of students that are older and scored low on the same test. We are concerned about both groups. We would really like to know the research behind kindergarten placement and what the best practice is to help us make the best decision. 

Shanahan’s response:

Many years ago, I was working with two states who were in the throes of school reform. Both worried about boys and girls who start kindergarten underprepared to do well in the primary grades.

To make sure the kids were ready, State A raised the age of kindergarten enrollment by three months — sending a quarter of that year’s cohort home for an extra year.

State B took another approach. They moved the age of entry in the other direction to get the lower achievers into schooling earlier so that they could maximize academic experience.

Which approach is better for kids?

One of my many jobs in education over the years was to do screening for my school district’s kindergarten roundup. We’d test the kids and then recommend whether they were ready to start kindergarten. If kids scored too low, we’d recommend delaying entry until the following year.  

Good idea?

Back in the 1930s researchers and school leaders struggled with these questions, too. Morphett and Washburne (1931) recommended that kids with lower than average mental ages be held back from Grade 1 entry for a year (kindergarten was uncommon in those days). The idea was to avoid teaching kids before they were ready to benefit.

In response, Arthur Gates (1937) challenged that widely accepted delaying scheme. He identified children with even lower mental ages (M&G screened out those who scored below 6.5, while Gates intervened with kids whose mental ages were only 3.5). Gates then proceeded to teach those children to read. His novel idea was to adjust the instruction rather than who got instructed.

How about that?

Over the past couple of decades parents have gotten into the delaying act, too. In fear that their younger or less mature kids will lag behind their norm groups intellectually and socially, have been holding kids out; sending them to kindergarten when they are six instead of five.

And, finally, I’ve been involved in some research on California’s Transitional Pre-Kindergarten program that sounds somewhat similar to what you guys seem to be doing.

What does all that research and experience have to say?

There is no question that there are big differences among 5-year-olds. Research shows that even 2-3-month differences in age can make significant differences in their academic achievement. Throughout kindergarten the relatively older kids tend to score higher in reading and math (though, just like at your school, there are exceptions to this “rule” in both directions — age is only one important variable in differentiating the performance of young children).

These age-based differences tend to persist as late as grade 3, too (Datar, 2006; Lin, Freeman, & Chu, 2009; Oshima & Domaleski, 2006; Yesil-Doyle, 2006). And some studies have found even longer lasting differences; for example, the older students within an age cohort are more likely to enroll in college or to be included on elite teams!

And, there is no question that the kids who are “red-shirted” — that is who start kindergarten later than their age cohort — tend to do better relatively to the age-group they go through school with, at least for a while.

However, that approach still might not make such good educational policy. Someone will always be the youngest or oldest in any cohort. If you hold back your kids for a year to make them older than my kids, then what will keep me from raising your bid, holding my kids back, too. Who will blink first?

Despite those data, it isn’t even clear that the red-shirting works, since almost all the kids who are held back in this way are higher SES kids. In such cases, one suspects more is being done than just delaying kindergarten enrollment. When high SES parents become aware that their kids are behind, they tend to take action. Just holding kids back in a low SES district might not have the same benefits, since those kids would be much less likely to get any special tutoring or other supports while they waited.

Studies of kindergarten delay are not all positive either. One of the better studies (Dagli & Jones, 2013) found no benefit — apart from the kids’ demographic advantages. Other studies have reported similar results (Mendez, Kim, Ferron, & Woods, 2015).

It seems clear to me that delaying schooling so that kids will be more mature and more academically accomplished is not a particularly good idea. Like Arthur Gates, I think the key is teaching — not deferring teaching.

Of course, in your case, you are not asking about delaying school entry — but about whether some kids should go into an academic track kindergarten and others should go into a slower kindergarten environment — more matched to their readiness status. There are examples of making such programs work for children (California’s Transitional Pre-K (opens in a new window), for instance).

But in those instances, the low kids don’t just get a slower initial school experience, but usually receive two years of pre-first-grade instruction (and, with positive results). I certainly can’t oppose that approach — more teaching is almost always better than less teaching, and if you monitor kids’ progress and make it easy for them to move from one of these tracks to the other based on changing needs and situations, then you would be giving more teaching to whomever seemed to need it.

I think It would be wise to consider a very different possibility (though keeping that extra year option open is still attractive). If I tested a bunch of kids and found that they were lagging behind their age-level peers, instead of “softening” or “reducing the academic demands” of their kindergarten year, I’d go in the other direction.

I’d ask how can we best intensify and increase these children’s academic experience? — not how could we provide instruction that would best their match their lack of pre-admission academic progress.

If it is a choice, those lower-performing kids would definitely be tracked into full-day kindergarten rather than half-day kindergarten.

And I would not proceed into reading instruction more slowly either. I’d start this teaching as soon as possible (certainly by the first day of their kindergarten experience). Develop their phonemic awareness and knowledge of letters and sounds, build their language, engage in activities like finger-point reading and invented writing.

The idea of going more slowly with the laggards is based on an unfounded belief that these kids are necessarily lower intellectually or linguistically than their age-matched peers. This is sometimes the case.

However, it is not infrequent that the relatively lower achievers on kindergarten screeners simply haven’t had the environmental support or opportunities to develop literacy skills. (Those opportunities may even be lacking in households that seem to lack for nothing else. When I was doing screenings, I often found advantaged, loving, college educated parents who never taught their kids the letters — “he’s too little”, nor allowed them to work with crayons, scissors, or paste — “too messy.”)

We all want parent involvement, but I’d make it a priority with these late bloomers. What can mom and dad do before Junior starts kindergarten? Do they have books at home? Do they read to their kids? How often? Have they tried teaching their kids to write their names or their ABCs? Would they be willing to? Let’s stimulate and support some action there.

I don’t know what your resource situation looks like, but Frederick Morrison and colleagues did a really cool study here in Chicago a while back. They increased the kindergarten school year by 6 weeks (3 weeks at the beginning of the year and 3 weeks at the end) with amazing reading and math outcomes for the kids — gains so big that I wouldn’t worry about third-grade retention.

If you want the largest number of kids to do well on that third-grade retention test, then resort to the only thing that has consistently improved student achievement. It is not moving kids into a less ambitious instructional track or delaying the onset of academic experience. The only thing that works is teaching.

Use your screeners, parent advice, kids’ ages, and whatever else you have to identify those kids who either are slow to develop language and literacy skills by constitution or from living in a non-supportive environment. Then teach the hell out of them. Make sure they get more instruction and more intense instruction than the kids that you aren’t as worried about.

Put kids in the track most appropriate to the amounts of time you think kids might need, and then provide them with so much teaching that they don’t need as much time as you thought they might need.

Teaching beats tracking every time.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 9, 2019