Missing the Boat: Children Who Fall Behind in Kindergarten Reading Instruction

The first time a child steps into a kindergarten classroom, he or she anticipates the excitement of the formal school experience: big kid's desks and chairs, the American flag hung on the wall, recess time on the big playground, and lunch in the cafeteria. New Kinders enter the classroom on their first day, dressed in their new school clothes, and toting their new school backpacks, proudly and with an expectation of success. The kindergarten experience holds an air of magical mystique relating to exploration, social experiences, and organized learning. But for some children, the magic quickly dissipates shortly after the mid-year period, because that is when formal reading instruction begins. For many children, formal reading instruction marks the beginning of a lifelong cycle of failure.

No one likes to think that a kindergarten child could actually fail during the kindergarten year. A mere five year old who still believes in the Tooth Fairy, and who cannot yet tie his own shoes, can't possibly be held to standards which would cause him to meet with failure in his very first year of elementary school. And yet, it happens every day, to far too many mere five year olds, in every single school district across America, year after year. And hardly anyone recognizes it. Many teachers don't know it is happening. Most parents don't see it, either. Principals and school boards overlook it, too - until that same child begins to show signs of a reading problem in first, second, or third grade. Usually, teachers and parents don't recognize that there is a problem until third grade.

I am a State Certified Reading Specialist and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner in private practice, and most of my students are - yes - they are in third grade. And most of my students don't know the sounds of the alphabet letters. Most of them have difficulty with phonemic awareness skills. Most of them have developed compensatory strategies that work some of the time, but not enough of the time. Most of them have trained their brains to be sight readers, and they do not understand the applications of phonics. And many of them struggle enormously during the brain re-training process of reading therapy, because the biological, critical period for learning to read has already passed.

Reading Specialists, Dyslexia Specialists, and Special Education Teachers know this to be true. They see these third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders struggling with literacy, and they observe their wavering self-esteem. These older students are assigned to compensatory class periods, such as "Study Skills" or "Reading Comprehension", but the real issue of reading mechanics is rarely addressed. The alphabet sounds and phonemic awareness were taught in kindergarten, and then were never revisited. And those children missed the boat.

I guess there is only one boat in our current education system. One boat, limited seating. Once it docks, the students have to get off. It's a one way ticket - either to the island of success, or the island of failure. There are no life boats. There are no life jackets. Only random ropes dangling in the water - not really anchored to anything substantial.

When students miss the critical mid-kindergarten developmental milestones (alphabet learning and phonemic awareness), they drift afloat forever. The English language is an alphabetic language, and its mastery requires those skills. A kindergarten screening at the mid-year point would identify those students who need immediate and targeted, scientifically-based instruction. No student should reach third grade with an unidentified reading disability!

A number of issues surrounding this epidemic need attention in our current educational system. I strongly believe that these current issues, listed below, are actually causing reading failure in our students:

  1. Kindergarten students are not screened for mastery of alphabet learning and phonemic awareness, at the mid-kindergarten year point
  2. Students who haven't mastered these skills are not being immediately provided with intense, targeted, evidence-based intervention.
  3. Students are not being held to the expectation of mastery, in regard to these basic skills.
  4. When schools fail to adequately teach the mechanics of reading to the point of mastery, students are left to their own devices to create compensatory strategies (such as memorization and guessing), which create negative habits that are nearly impossible to alter at a later time.
  5. Schools take a "wait and see" approach in the early grades, and wait for students to fail before instituting intervention.
  6. Schools use curriculums which are not evidence based in the science of reading.
  7. Most teachers are not trained in evidence-based curriculums.
  8. Schools are using Balanced Reading curriculums, which do not focus adequately on the foundational aspects of decoding, encoding, blending, and the alphabetic principle.
  9. Schools are teaching reading primarily as a sight word system, disregarding the alphabetic nature of the English language.
  10. Schools are focusing heavily on reading comprehension strategies and critical thinking skills in the early grades, while not focusing heavily enough on reading mechanics (decoding, encoding, blending, alphabetic principle).
  11. Mandatory state testing in the early grades tests advanced skills which require a strong basic phonic foundation; Mandatory state testing fails to assess the critical mechanical skills necessary to create strong readers.


  1. Research informs us that students who do not read on grade level rarely catch up to their same aged peers in literacy skills.
  2. The kindergarten year holds the most crucial developmental milestones for literacy development. The lifeboats need to be on hand during the kindergarten year, waiting to rescue children who are victims of poor instruction, delayed development, and poor curriculum choices (i.e.: Balanced Literacy). Rescuing students in kindergarten can change their future forever.

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this BLOG, is a State Certified Reading Specialist, a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, and a Certified Teacher of P-3 and Montessori. She is an avid advocate of students with reading issues, a presenter at educational conferences, a teacher trainer, and the Author of the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham curriculum.


Please view the Lil' Reading Scientists TM curriculum at