Kindergarten certainly isn’t what it used to be. In decades past, kindergarten was mostly about socialization and learning through play. Now, we see learning through play happening mostly in pre-k.
Today’s public school kindergarteners are expected to be fluently reading sentences and short paragraphs by the end of the school year.
But what exactly is a normal kindergarten reading level? The answer to that question depends entirely on the time of year and what curriculum your school uses. Kindergarten students are expected to develop skills quickly and many students arrive in kindergarten not knowing their letters, sounds, numbers and even colors.
Therefore, we’ll break the year up into 3 parts, so you can understand roughly what is expected throughout the school year. Also, I’ve included reading samples from the two of the most common reading programs in the country.
Pre-Reading Skills (August – December)
Reading doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that starts slow and steady, and then rapidly gains steam as the year progresses.
In August or September, kindergarten teachers who are fully trained in the Science of Reading are laying the foundation for reading by focusing on phonemic awareness. This means they’re taking a “sounds first” approach to reading and training kids to listen for the parts of words. Phonemic awareness is considered an essential pre-reading skill.
Phonemic awareness training might mean students are listening to segmenting words and then being expected to blend what they hear. For example, the teachers calls “SH – I – P” and the students respond “SHIP.”
Then, the teacher may say a blended word and ask students to segment it. So she’ll say “SHIP!” and the students are expected to respond “SH – I – P!”
This process is called blending and segmenting, and it’s an important element of phonemic awareness.
They’ll also put syllables together. If the teacher says “SAL – SA,” kids should be able to yell “SALSA!” This is quite a bit easier than blending and segmenting phonemes, so it’s considered a good scaffold for kids who struggle with blending and segmenting.
Students will also begin drilling and practicing with letter sounds ONLY. If your child’s teacher is explicitly teaching letter names during this stage, they’re probably not current on phonics research. For some kids, it won’t be a problem at all, but others who struggle need a more thoughtful approach.
Kindergarteners should only be exposed to sounds until they are truly solid and kids are able to blend with them. Otherwise, when a kid is supposed to be blending the sounds in c-a-t, they’ll letter name call instead of producing sounds and blending. It’s a mess!
They will only roll out certain patterns in a particular order; for example, they will only teach short vowel sounds and the most common sound a consonant makes, rather than muddying the waters with multiple sounds or long vowels.
In the fall, teachers will also begin to work on some strategically chosen sight words that students will encounter frequently in their early readers. They will explicitly teach some common words that kids will encounter that don’t follow the predictable, decodable patterns in the English language. Some teachers will use Fry words and others will introduce Dolch words.
Many school districts require their teachers to follow a very scripted phonics curriculum. These teachers will teach the sight words (also called tricky words or heart words) that are included in the program. These words won’t necessarily be Fry or Dolch words but will instead be the ones that appear in their decodable readers. This allows students to be successful in their program.
Kindergarten Reading Levels in the Fall
Different school districts use various metrics to measure a child’s reading level.
Lexile Measures in Kindergarten
Using a Lexile measure is ineffective in kindergarten because Lexile can only measure texts’ difficulty beginning on a second grade level.
If you’re familiar with reading levels, you may know something about Lexile. The Lexile measure can be helpful in helping families and teachers choose books because it offers a way to assess text complexity and the difficulty of sentence structures within a book.
Lexile is not a valid or available measure until the texts have some degree of sentence structure variety and complexity. This is irrelevant when kids are reading “Spot can run,” for example.
Instead, if you’re interested in assessing reading level, you’ll have to use either a leveling system like Fountas and Pinnell or compare your child’s reading ability to the images selected from a popular phonics curriculum, shown below.
Guided Reading Levels from August – December
If you’re looking for a guided reading level, kids should be reading somewhere around a B by December. These independent readers will include repetitive words and short sentences with lots of pictures to support understanding. You’ll notice that it’s basically memorizational text. An adult will help the child read the first page, and they’ll talk about the picture.
Students will then move onto the next page, study the picture, and then feel like they’re actually reading when they’re truly just remembering the previous page and changing one word to match the picture.
Here is an example of a Level A book, where students will likely begin in August or September.
Below is a Level B text. Students should be successful with a Level B book around November or December. The big difference between a Level A and Level B book is really just the complexity of the vocabulary. It’s still memorizational text that relies heavily on pictures. There are not many new words on each page, yet they aren’t really simple words, either.
Decodable Texts from August – December
Across the country, 15 million students in all 50 states are using a curriculum called Amplify, which is a leading phonics program that relies heavily on decodable text.
My school uses Amplify, and as a K-2 instructional coach, I’m very familiar with the expectations for kindergarteners within this curriculum.
Amplify is a scripted program, so students and teachers who use Amplify are all expected to be within a week or two of one another in their instruction. Whether your kindergartener is in urban Connecticut or rural Alabama, they’ll be working on the same skills at the same time if they are using Amplify.
In the early fall, students aren’t reading at all yet. They’re simply learning the letter sounds, building fine motor skills, and focusing on phonemic awareness.
In late November or early December, students begin reading a book called Kit. It has VC, CVC, CVCC and CCVC spelling patterns and just a small handful of tricky words.
While each student will develop at their own pace, it’s important for a child’s foundation to be strong enough that they can successfully manage their first reader. Each book that follows gets progressively more difficult with increasing text complexity.
Below are pages from Kit, which should give you an idea of what a kindergartener should be able to read by Christmas.
Notice how the pictures aren’t very helpful. However, there are no complicated spelling patterns. They are only reading words with spelling patterns that have been explicitly taught within the program.
Kindergarten Reading Levels in the Winter
When students return from winter break, they’ll be increasingly exposed to more complicated texts. While the fall is mostly about laying the foundation for reading, winter is when kids begin to add more and more spelling patterns to their repertoire.
Guided Reading Levels from January until Mid-March
Kindergarteners are expected to finish the year reading at a guided reading level D. This will allow them to be prepared for the remaining years of elementary school.
Some kids during the winter will still be reading at a Level B, whereas others will begin to be successful on a Level C.
Here is an example of a Level C reader.
A key feature of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system is the early focus on comprehension. With stories like the one above, teachers will have guided reading lessons where they discuss comprehension questions with the students at their table.
Kindergarteners are ability-grouped according to their reading level using a “running record” process, and then given books on that level. At the end of their reading time together, teachers will spot check kids’ understanding of the text. They will not move students up to the next level until they can be successful with accurately reading the texts and also answer questions logically.
Decodable Texts from January until Mid-March
In mid-January, kids are exposed to the next reader, which rolls out digraphs like /sh/ /th/ (voiced and unvoiced) and /ch/. Kids also learn about /qu/ and /ng/ in this text.
Here is an example of the unit 7 reader, called Seth.
In this text, sentences gradually get longer, and there are words that require kids to blend 5 sounds, as in the word “stomp.”
You might be surprised to see this text, because in previous generations, kids really learned to read in 1st grade. A kindergarten teacher nowadays has her work cut out for her!
From mid-February until mid-March, kindergarteners will be reading the Unit 8 reader, which is called Sam. In this book, kids learn about double consonants and /ck/.
Here are some photos of the Sam reader. You can see that if kids are struggling to blend, they’ll begin to have trouble with stamina, as the number of words and sentences on the page continue to increase. These longer sentences will frustrate kids who don’t have pretty strong automaticity with their letter sounds and blending.
Kindergarten Reading Levels in the Spring
During the spring, students will continue to be exposed to increasingly difficult texts. They should also be able to read independently for up to 10 minutes.
Guided Reading Levels from March until May/June
By the end of the year, young readers should be reading on a Guided Reading Level D, and a few will be able to read Level E readers.
Students who can read at at a Guided Reading Level D will be meeting grade-level expectations, and they can expect to have success in first grade, even without much intervention or practice over the summer.
Here is an example of a Level D text. You can see that less of this text is able to be memorized from one page to the next.
Students should be able to read these texts and discuss story elements and answer basic comprehension questions, too.
Advanced early readers will finish kindergarten reading on a Level E or beyond. Here is a sample text written on a Level E.
Decodable Texts from March until May/June
Beginning in late March, students are tackling a text called Zach and Ann from Unit 9 of the Amplify curriculum.
In this book, there are no new spelling patterns taught, and it’s instead a review of all previous spelling patterns.
Plus, 15 new tricky words are rolled out, so students are focusing on building fluency with basic phonics skills.
It’s a simple text, but there are more words and sentences on the page in order to build stamina, one of the most important literacy skills for late kindergarten.
Here are example pages from Zach and Ann.
In May and June, the all-important “sneaky” or “magic” e gets taught with every vowel except e in Unit 10. Students also learn the /ee/ sound and spelling pattern.
This will be reviewed again at the beginning of first grade.
The reader that corresponds with Unit 10 is called Scott. Notice the increasing complexity of the text below, and how the sentences are now arranged into fuller paragraphs.
Students who can successfully decode all short vowels, tackle the “magic” or “sneaky” e, as well as the /ee/ pattern, and blend three consonants in a row will likely be ready to be first graders.
Is guided reading backed by the science of reading?
Guided reading is now considered an outdated practice that is misaligned with brain research and the science of reading. To learn more about the history of balanced literacy and whole language in the United States, see this helpful post from Lexia.
One criticism of using guided reading and the Fountas and Pinnell leveled readers is that the texts are largely memorizable, especially in kindergarten. You’ll see helpful pictures, a few sight words, and lots of repeated phrases that allow kids to remember previously told words as they go.
The levels are basically arbitrary and are more tied to vocabulary than actual spelling patterns.
These readers typically work well for kids with large vocabularies who get lots of support at home.
However, you’ll find that they include spelling patterns that are rolled out in an illogical order. In fact, they don’t explicitly teach common spelling patterns at all, because it’s not a system that is overly concerned with phonics. They’re merely expecting kids to learn to read from lots of exposure.
Kids can use pictures and their own strong vocabulary to guess at words based on initial sounds. This is called “balanced literacy,” and scientists have discovered through brain research that it simply doesn’t work.
If you use a guided reading program, you’ll notice that kids have varying levels of success based on their interest in the topic.
For example, a little boy who loves animals may be able to read a Level D book about alligators but struggle with a Level C book about dolls. This is because those pictures on the page, degree of interest, and surrounding vocabulary play such a strong role in guided reading.
Conversely, when you’re using a phonics-heavy program like Amplify, students are only trying to read words that include familiar spelling patterns that have been explicitly taught. They can look at the pictures, but it will be for their own enjoyment and not because it will help them guess at unknown words.
While we are collectively moving away from balanced literacy, it’s still really helpful to have a common language around the difficulty of a text and how well students can read it.
In this case, scripted phonics curricula with increasingly difficult texts (like Amplify) can be really useful.
Kindergarten is becoming the new first grade; it’s when children are expected to learn to read. For kids who did not attend pre-k, this can feel like a very heavy load to bear. However, we know that little brains are malleable, and introducing core reading concepts and solid phonics instruction at this young age may very well pay off.