Your first grader and reading

First graders learn new ways to sound out words and decode their meanings.

By GreatSchools Staff

Are your kids reading at grade level?

Are your kids reading at grade level? Are there any gaps in their phonics or comprehension? Since learning to read is a long and complex process, some students hit college only to discover their skills aren't where they should be.

How do you know if your children are on track? Our grade-by-grade guidelines give you all the details you need to assess their aptitude.

Independent readers

First-graders are just beginning to become independent readers, learning strategies to decode unknown words. Children typically have many opportunities to read — independently, in groups, or with a partner, and parents can also use audiobooks to pique their childrens' interest in books. By re-reading stories, first-graders can increase their reading speed and comprehension of the material. In first grade, students should also learn about the variety of purposes for reading — for pleasure, for research, or for practical reasons like getting directions from a sign.

Books and print

First-graders should be exposed to many different kinds of reading materials — including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and songs, materials that help foster a lifelong love of reading, while immersing your child in the rhythms of language. You can also expect first-graders to be able to identify the title, author and illustrator of a book. They should be able to recognize the parts of a book, like the cover, title page, and table of contents, and recognize that sentences begin with capital letters and end with punctuation.

The letter-sound relationship

First-graders will get practice working with letters and their sounds, learning how to decode new words by applying the letter-sound relationship for single letters, pairs of letters, such as sh or er, and short and long vowel patterns, including the ever-intriguing silent e. Children might sort objects and pictures using their knowledge of sounds and practice blending sounds together to make words, perhaps by playing a game to blend s-a-t to make the word sat. They'll practice breaking words into separate sounds, say, breaking hop into h-o-p and will replace sounds in words by a variety of methods; they might substitute the s in sat with c to make cat. Many teachers help kids study syllables by having them clap at each syllable. First-graders read books that include the letter-sound relationship they are learning as well as frequently used words that they have been taught.

Reading for meaning

Children in first grade are just beginning to find meaning in what they read; you can expect them to recognize the sequence of events in a story, understand cause and effect, and anticipate possible outcomes for an ending. First-graders should learn to retell familiar stories, summarizing the main ideas and plot and identifying the characters and settings. Students should learn to put the pieces together, combining a text's illustrations with their own store of knowledge to put the story in context and understand its main points.

Your first-graders will likely be using diagrams or pictures to organize and show understanding of the information she has read. They may fill in a diagram that sequences the main events from a story. A Venn diagram, made up of two overlapping circles, may be used to compare similarities and differences in characters and stories.

Reading aloud

Listening to books read aloud gives first-graders models of fluent reading and helps them develop a positive attitude toward books. It also helps them understand vocabulary and language patterns in texts. Books read aloud are often discussed before, during, and after the reading to increase involvement and understanding. Your children should also have opportunities to read aloud in a group or with a partner to help build their reading fluency.

Shared reading

Expect first-graders to participate in shared reading, or storytime. Some teachers use an oversized book with words the whole class can see. Kids can get actively engaged in the reading experience and teachers often pause, teaching vocabulary, reading skills, or encouraging the students to predict what might come next. Classes often read a book several times over the course of a few days.

Guided reading groups

Children in first grade often take part in guided reading, where teachers interact with small groups of students as they read. The teacher will introduce reading strategies, tailoring the instruction to the needs of students. As students read, teachers provide support as needed. "At all grade levels, teachers should use flexible grouping rather than fixed reading groups," says reading specialist Jennifer Thompson. "This allows each child to progress when ready, in developmentally appropriate material."

By the end of first grade, you can expect your kids to:

  • Name and recognize all the letters of the alphabet in order
  • Identify beginning, middle, and ending sounds
  • Take the initiative by using reading and writing strategies (re-reading, predicting, questioning, making connections) to overcome obstacles with comprehension
  • Read and retell familiar stories
  • Read out loud with reasonable fluency
  • Use letter-sound associations, word parts, and context to identify new words
  • Identify short vowel and long vowel sounds
  • Match consonant sounds to their appropriate letters
  • Recognize and produce rhyming words
  • Read simple one- and two-syllable words, like cat
  • Read high-frequency words such as was and the
  • Recognize that words are separated by spaces
  • Read aloud first-grade books with accuracy and understanding
  • Begin to read aloud with expression and pausing at appropriate spots in the text
  • Use two-letter consonant blends to decode and spell single-syllable words such as sh and bl
  • Use word patterns to decode unfamiliar words
  • Identify characters, setting and events of a story

What to look for when you visit

  • Decodable books, with the phonics elements and high-frequency words that your child has been taught in class.
  • Leveled books, books organized in levels of difficulty from the easy ones for a beginning reader to longer, more complex books for advanced readers. (The leveling of texts allows teachers to match books with an individual student's reading ability.)
  • A reading area with a class library of books and a place for students to sit comfortably and read.
  • A listening center with a tape recorder, earphones, tapes of stories and multiple copies of the accompanying text. Listening to the tapes provides a model for fluent reading.
  • A word wall, or list of words displayed in alphabetical order on a bulletin board and used for reference and to reinforce vocabulary words.
Reading Magic

Recommended books

Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, by Mem Fox (Harvest Books, 2001).

The Read Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 5th edition, 2001).

Read to Me 2000: Raising Kids Who Love to Read, by Bernice E. Cullinan (Cartwheel, 2000).