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You ask, we answer: Who decided when students should learn to read?

When should students be able to read? And who decided that? That was commenter Joanne Roll’s response to an article last week on a new teacher who faced overwhelming odds in getting her students to grade-level.

“When did the standard come into use that children should be reading by 1st grade? It would seem to me that sets up many children to be behind before they even begin school.”

It’s an interesting question and one we didn’t know the answer to, despite its importance in current state and local education policy.

Until the adoption of the Colorado Academic Standards in 2010, the state only had a single set of standards for kindergarten through fourth grade. The current standards cover every grade until 12th grade individually. Preschool is now included and grouped with kindergarten.

And those early education standards have contributed to an increased focus on early childhood literacy. Statewide, teachers will soon be rolling out kindergarten assessments intended to measure students’ readiness for grade school — of which literacy is a large part. In Denver, the push for more pre-K, which goes before voters this fall, is in part a focus on early literacy. And the state’s literacy push reaches its peak in third grade, when students who are not reading at grade level are targeted for additional support.

So we reached out to early literacy experts to get their thoughts on the subject of when, exactly, students can read.

Here’s one response from Ounce of Prevention, which advocates for early childhood education, especially for students in poverty:

Children learn to read when they are ready to. It is just like any other developmental milestone (walking, talking, etc.). Every child will have his/her own time frame and educational trajectory. So while we might be able to make some generalizations about children’s average learning age or development, it is imperative that we remember that no child, individually, is “average” and all children learn at their own rate.

That said, first, we must define what “reading” really is. It is different things at different ages. There are many stages to reading, and these stages happen at different ages.

An average Pre-K child will be “reading” environmental print. That means these children will recognize “McDonalds” “Starbucks” “Stop” (if on the red, octagonal sign). A Pre-K child might start “reading” words as they relate to “context cues” (e.g., relating words to pictures a page).

An average kindergarten child will be starting to develop letter identification skills, phonemic awareness, and concepts of print. This means that they are identifying letters, putting letters with sounds, and understanding what words, spaces, and sentences are. By the end of kindergarten, they should be identifying anywhere between 15-50 sight words. [Editor’s note: these are words that students can read without having to decode. Common examples for kindergarteners might be “at” or “be.”]

First grade is when children generally “learn to read,” or when most literacy curricula teach reading. Children in first grade are generally taught to “crack the code.” They can sound out words because the letters and the sounds are now connected into words. However, because they are only at the very early stages putting meaning to what they read, many children are really only “word calling.”

Second grade is generally when we say children “read to learn.” This is when most curricula begin to teach these skills. Some children will develop faster and some slower. When a child is reading to learn, he/she is no longer just calling words, but he/she is making meaning of the words they are calling. When a child has cracked the code AND is making meaning (comprehending), then a child is reading. It is important to watch for those kids that become really good at cracking the code/word calling but are not understanding because they appear to be reading. These are the children that hit third grade and fail the high-stakes tests and to many it is a mystery as to why because they can “read” (in this case, word call) anything.

Third grade is when the majority of comprehension skills are taught and reading becomes a much deeper and more meaningful activity. This is why high-stakes tests are usually started in third grade.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the state did have standards for kindergarten through third grade, but that they were grouped.

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