Your kindergartner’s reading under the Common Core Standards

Reading is all about developing knowledge, which is something kindergartners do all year long – even while they’re learning their ABCs.

By Jessica Kelmon , Leslie Crawford

If learning to read is like building a skyscraper, then kindergarten is the year to construct the most solid reading foundation possible. As part of that foundation, kindergartners will be working on the five pillars of reading: understanding the relationship between sounds and words (phonetics), reading fluently, understanding what they read, expanding vocabulary, and building knowledge.

Here is what your kindergartner will be learning this year to ensure the foundation is in place to become a successful reader and student.

All about the alphabet

Fortunately, kindergartners don't need to learn how to say the alphabet backwards, like Mary Poppins singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" in reverse. Even so, under the Common Core Standards kindergartners are being asked to master the alphabet far beyond singing the ABCs. They need to develop a deep understanding of what the alphabet does: that it's the code for so much of the communicating and comprehending they'll do for the rest of their lives.

This year they'll be launching into the world of what educators call "decoding," the double whammy of phonic awareness and word recognition. By the end of the school year, kindergartners are expected to come away with a solid understanding of alphabet basics — not only familiarity with each letter but knowing that these letters come together to make words.

Kindergartners need to recognize all 26 lowercase and uppercase letters — as well as their sounds. Your child also needs to understand the five major vowels' long sounds (the a in ape, or the e in feet) and short sounds (the a in apple, or the e in elephant). They should be able to identify which letters are different in similar words (e.g. map, lap, tap). They should also know that spoken words represent a sequence of letters.

Left to right, up to down, front to back

It all seems so obvious by the time you've learned to read, but to a new reader, some of the most basic reading rules — starting at the top of the page and going downwards, reading from left to right, and page by page — require explicit instructions and explanations.

Kindergartners even need to realize that words are separated by spaces. By the end of the year, students also need to become familiar with parts of a book, such as the front cover, the back cover, and the title page. Under the Common Core, this knowledge of book components gradually increases with each grade.

Word sense and rhymes

Phonological awareness. It sounds important, but what does it really mean? A predictor of later reading ability, phonological awareness is an understanding of what's referred to as the sound structure of spoken words. While this may sound like pretty dry stuff, it's actually where a lot of the fun in learning to read comes in. Either consciously or not, grown-ups help new readers master this serious skill with silly word play — be it with Mother Goose rhymes (e.g. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle…) or Dr. Seuss classics like The Cat in the Hat.

This kind of word play, including tongue twisters, helps a kindergartner understand how words are broken into individual syllables (e.g. Sim-ple Si-mon) and how words with similar endings rhyme (e.g. me, he, she; splat, cat, rat). The more exposure kindergartners get to how syllables and words work together in spoken and written language, the more they'll build their word knowledge. They’ll be able to ask and answer questions about unknown words, or presto!, figure them out from the context.

By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to read dozens of three-letter words, known in educational vernacular as "CVC" (consonant, vowel, consonant) words. Being able to read these basic, often rhyming, words (e.g. pen/hen, pot/hot, bed/red) will give your kindergartner the confidence to build up reading vocabulary in grades to come.

All year long, kindergartners are working on what's known as "decoding" skills — deciphering the meanings of words and phrases within the context of what they're reading. And when your child asks you to read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! over and over (and over) again? Take heart! Your clever kindergartner is practicing decoding without even knowing it! (To get your child hooked on another book, here are some other read aloud favorites.)

This year, student are being asked to figure out new meanings for familiar words (e.g. that duck is a bird, but that to duck means something different). Kindergartners are also becoming familiar with common inflections and affixes (small parts of words added to a root word, such as -s, re-, un-, -ed, pre-, -ful, -less) as clues to the meaning of new words. So by knowing, say, color, they can figure out how to read and understand colors and colorful.

Finally, with the help of adults, kindergartners are learning to make connections between words and their nuances, so they can sort them into categories (e.g. shapes and colors) and figure out antonyms, a fancy way of saying opposites (e.g. open/close, hot/cold). This year, they'll even be deciphering shades of meaning between words. Tip: Have your child act out similar words. What does it look like to march, strut, walk, and stroll? What does it look like to cry, sob, and howl?

Mastering common words

According to the Reading Teacher's Book of Lists, about half of all reading texts are made up of the same 100 words! Here's something even more remarkable about these wonder words: most kindergartners will know all of them by the end of the year. To that end, many kindergarten teachers will send their students home with lists of these high-frequency words (e.g. at, be, of, and to). Your child will also need to learn sight words - words that can't be easily sounded out or illustrated with a text (e.g. good, out). When it comes to sight words, memorization is key, since using phonics or decoding skills don't often work for these short, common, but often oddly spelled words. (How does one sound out “the” anyway?) Tip: Word lists are perfect for the refrigerator, where you can playfully quiz your kindergartner before dinnertime.

Exploring fiction and nonfiction

While reading with your child, start asking: is this real or imaginary? A priority under the Common Core Standards is to make sure children — even kindergartners — get equally comfortable reading fiction and nonfiction. This doesn’t mean kindergarten classics like Where the Wild Things Are and Curious George are being shelved, just that your child should encounter nonfiction, too.

According to the Common Core, the goal is for kindergartners to split their time between stories and information (think dinosaurs, trees, and starfish) while learning the differences between the two types of text. By the end of kindergarten, your child should be able to recognize stories and poems, and find the name of a book’s author and illustrator with the understanding that the author wrote the words and the illustrator drew the pictures — whether the book is a true story or a truly wonderful tale.

Building a knowledge bank

We read to spark our imaginations, to experience new adventures, to learn about the world. All are synonymous with reading to gain knowledge. Common Core emphasizes the idea that being a good reader is more than reading the text in front of them; even kindergartners need grow their understanding of the world by integrating new information into what they already know. Think of it as your kindergartner opening a knowledge bank account and filling it with accumulated information.

Key skills that will help your kindergartner build knowledge include being able to retell familiar stories; identify characters, setting, and major events in a story; compare and contrast characters and events in different stories; describe how two people, events, ideas, or facts are connected; talk about the similarities and differences between two books on the same topic; and engage in group reading activities by listening and asking and answering questions.

What does this sound like? It’s your 5-year-old explaining that Harold in Harold and the Purple Crayon had an amazing adventure because of what he imagined. It’s your T-rex lover understanding dinosaurs were real, but now don’t exist. The key is getting kindergartners understanding and thinking about the big ideas they learn when they read — and taking that information with them as they grow.

Show me the evidence!

“Read like a detective, write like an investigative reporter” is how David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, explains the emphasis on evidence. In kindergarten, this really just means finding — and literally pointing to — answers to questions. To answer "How did The Man with the Yellow Hat first spot Curious George?", your child could show evidence by flipping through the pages and finding the words — or the picture of the scene. (Tip: "Reading" pictures is a great sign of your kindergartner's reading progress).

Your child’s teacher will emphasize evidence in different ways this year, but the main skills are:

Asking and answering questions about details in books and showing exactly where those answers show up in the text or illustrations;
Being able to discern a book's main point and using the text or images to show how the author makes this point;
Connect a book's illustrations to the exact words they illustrate.

Want to make this kinder-friendly and fun? Put on a police officer hat when you and your child are searching for evidence.

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.