When to start, what really counts

Spend any time with parents of the 4- to 5-year-old set, and it won't be long before you're talking kindergarten and learning to read.

Both topics are a big draw - in part because both seem to demand as much art as science in answering the question, "When should they start?"

In a simpler time, as I understand it, parents' main obligation in starting a child's formal schooling was remembering when he or she turned 5. But in the past couple of decades, the concept of kindergarten "readiness" has made the process somewhat more subjective - and hence, in many cases, more unnecessarily competitive.

Many teachers will tell you that their concern is not so much whether children can count to 20 or discuss primary colors, but whether they can follow instructions (see article, page 14). That may come as a surprise to parents who sparkle at signs of early reading ability or enter children in academically oriented preschools.

Those adults may need help calming down. Others might benefit from learning that informal games - counting stop signs, say - can lay key foundations for kids.

Which is why a little information for parents is a powerful thing. Maybe it comes in the form of home visitors who bring families together over books and games (see story, page 14). Or for those with children in K-3, something like a new pamphlet from the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit that focuses on educational standards, can be helpful (www.ncee.org). "What Parents Need to Know About Reading & Writing Grade by Grade" gives tips for helping children, and suggests books for each grade level. And that can make school seem a bit less mysterious.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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