Contrary to what many people think, kindergarten is an essential grade. Kindergarten reading skills are foundational, and if kids miss out on these skills, they may struggle to learn to read.
Economists found that a great kindergarten teacher can bestow a lifetime economic advantage on kids’ future earning potential. Harvard economic researchers led by Ray Chetty studied 12,000 kids until adulthood. The subjects with excellent kindergarten teachers earned more throughout their lives. This held true even when the researchers controlled for other factors like peer effects and classroom size.
Why is Kindergarten so essential? In kindergarten, kids build foundational reading skills. If kids miss out on these critical skills, they may struggle with reading in later grades or even for their lifetime.
Reading researchers found that 1st grade word recognition skills predict 11th grade reading volume (Stanovich & Cunningham, 1998). If a child does not learn foundational reading skills, they will likely hate reading. Over time, these kids will read fewer books than their peers. They may always struggle with decoding.
There are very strong cultural assumptions that kindergarten is for learning to sit still, color in the lines, interact with peers and fold your hands in your lap. But kindergarten is critical because, in this grade level, kids build letter sound knowledge, phonemic awareness and decoding skills.
Many people argue that other cultures teach reading later. They highlight that in Sweden school starts at age 7. They say this without any recognition that other languages are much more transparent than English. Swedish is practically completely transparent; thus, kids can learn to read Swedish in a matter of months. In contrast, English-speaking kids benefit from starting school at age 5. English-speaking kids need to spend 4 years (k-3) learning to read.
Our step-by-step printable phonics books help kindergartners learn to read.
By the end of Kindergarten, kids should be able to read short vowel words like “let, sat, pen and Meg.” They should be able to read short vowel stories like the Reading Elephant excerpt sample above.
Kindergarten reading skills
School standards can vary. Generally, however, kids in kindergarten need to be able to:
- recognize letter sounds
- hold continuous sounds and clip stop sounds
- successfully complete phonemic awareness activities
- read and spell short vowel words
- read and spell consonant digraph words
- read and spell consonant blend words
- read a short vowel story like the following page excerpt:
Our printable short vowel stories allow beginners to practice sound-by-sound decoding skills.
For a more in-depth analysis of kindergarten reading skills, see each section below.
1. Recognize letter sounds
Unfortunately, in our culture, the emphasis is on letter names. When we read, we say letter sounds, not letter names. For example, when we read “Sam,” we say SSSS-aaaa-mmmm. We don’t say “es-ay-em.”
“Sometimes the child knows the names of letters (ay, bee, see, dee…). Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading. To know that “s” is pronounced ess, “k” kay, and “i” eye is useless when we try to read the word “ski.” Letter names cannot be assembled during reading—the hookup only concerns phonemes.” –Stanislas Dehaene (pp. 200) from Reading In The Brain, The New Science Of How We Read.
Teach your student to recognize letter sounds. When she sees the “b” symbol she should say /b/ as in bear, not “bee.” Teach one sound per letter. Yes, many letters make multiple sounds. However, in kindergarten, kids need to focus on learning one sound per letter. Here are the letter name sounds your kindergartner should know:
- a as in ham (the a in ham is short, this sound is called short a)
- b as in bear
- c as in cat
- d as in dog
- e as in hen (the e in hen is short, this sound is called short e)
- f as in fox
- g as in goat
- h as in hat
- i as in him (the i in him is short, this sound is called short i)
- j as in jog
- k as in kangaroo
- l as in lion
- m as in monkey
- n as in nail
- o as in hop (the o in hop is short, this sound is called short o)
- p as in pop
- q as in queen
- r as in rat
- s as in snake
- t as in turtle
- u as in rug (the u in rug is short, this sound is called short u)
- v as in van
- w as in west
- x as in fox
- y as in yes
- z as in zebra
Make sure your kindergartner knows the above letter sounds. If she masters these sounds, she’ll be more successful when she reads short vowel stories.
Your kindergarten should master letter sounds so she can crack the code in short vowel stories.
2. Hold continuous sounds and clip stop sounds
Continuous sounds are sounds you can say for a long time without any sound distortion. For example, /s/ is a continuous sound because you can hold “ssssss” without adding any additional sounds.
In contrast, /d/ is a stop sound, because if you try to hold /d/ you’ll add an /uh/.
Teach kids to hold continuous sounds. Thus, when you show the letter “m,” the student should say mmmmmm. When you show “a,” the student should say aaaaaa. When you show “f,” the student should say fffffff. Make sure your student holds all continuous sounds. This will help the child link up and blend sounds when she reads. For example, she can read “Sam” as “SSSSSaaaaammmmm Sam.”
Teach your student to clip stop sounds. If you try to hold /g/ you’ll add an /uh/. Make sure your student does not add /uh/ to stop sounds. If she starts adding /uh/, this will prevent her from decoding accurately. For example, she’ll likely read “dog” as “duhoooguh… dug?” if you don’t teach her to clip stop sounds. If you do teach her to clip stop sounds, she’ll read “dog” accurately as “d-ooooo-g.”
3. Successfully complete phonemic awareness activities
A kindergartner should be able to do phonemic awareness activities. Phonemic awareness activities involve playing with sounds. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, if you want to break up “ship” into phonemes, you’d say “sh-i-p.” Although “sh” has two letters, /sh/ is one phoneme.
Kindergartners should be able to break up words into phonemes. So if you ask your student to say the sounds in “chip” in order, she should be able to say, “ch-iiii-p.”
During phonemic awareness activities, your student should hold continuous sounds and clip stop sounds (see above). For example, if you ask her to say the sounds in “Sam,” remember that this word is composed entirely of continuous sounds. Thus, she should say, “SSSS-aaaa-mmmm.” She should hold each sound.
During phonemic awareness activities, kids can ask your student to eliminate sounds and say the remaining sounds in the word. For example, you might ask your student to drop /b/ in “best.” The student has to say the remaining sounds: “est.”
Phonemic awareness activities should be simple. They involve playing with and manipulating sounds in words. Kids that are good at phonemic awareness activities also tend to be good at rhyming.
Why do we want kindergartners to practice phonemic awareness? Phonemic awareness is a skill that, like any skill, can be enhanced with practice. It’s also an essential skill in both decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling). To read, kids need to be able to blend (ex. what does “h-aaaa-t say? Hat!). To spell, kids need to be able to segment (ex. what sounds are in hat? h-aaaa-t!).
“… studies have identified phonemic awareness and letter knowledge as the two best school-entry predictors of how well children will learn to read…” (Report of the National Reading Report, 2000, p. 12).
4. Read and spell short vowel words
Kindergartners need to be able to read and spell short vowel words. Short vowel words are also called cvc words (consonant-vowel-consonant words). Short vowels are:
a_ as in apple (ex. hat, sat)
e_ as in elephant (ex. hen, pet)
i_ as in igloo (ex. sit, pig)
o_ as in octopus (ex. dog, pop)
u_ as in up (ex. cup, bug)
A kindergartner may not be able to read the mnemonic word “apple, elephant, igloo…etc.” However, a kindergartner should be able to read the example words in parenthesis “hat, sat, hen, pet, sit, pig… etc.”
For a printable list of cvc words at the kindergarten level, click here.
5. read and spell consonant digraph words
Kindergartners should be able to read and spell consonant digraph words with short vowels. A consonant digraph are 2 or more letters that make one sound. “Sh” is a consonant digraph. However, kindergartners are not ready to read every /sh/ word yet. For example, kindergartners should be able to read “ship” (because this is a short vowel word). However, they may NOT be able to read “sheep” (because /ee/ is a long vowel).
Here’s a list of consonant digraphs:
sh as in ship
th as in math
th as in then
ch as in chop
_tch as in match
_ck as in back
_ng as in long
_ing as in king
_ang as in sang
wh_ as in when
_ink as in pink
_ank as in tank
qu_ as in quick
6. Read and spell consonant blend words
Kindergartners should be able to read consonant blend words with short vowels. A consonant blend is 2 or more letter sounds in a row. For example, the “sp” in “spell” is a consonant blend. The “cr” in “crunch” is a consonant blend. Some consonant blend words at the kindergarten level include: land, sand, blend, pluck, bliss, plant, flap… etc. For a complete list of words, kindergartners should be able to read, check out the following printable list of k level words:
7. Read a short vowel story
Kindergartners should be able to read short vowel stories.
For the Reading Elephant printable short vowel book series, check out our shop.
Cunningham, Anne E. & Stanovich, Keith E. (1998) What Reading Does for the Mind. American Educator/American Federation of Teachers.
Dehaene, Stanislas. (2009). Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read.
Report of the National Reading Panel. (2000).