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Your first grader and math

Laying a strong foundation: First graders learn about money, time, and measurements -- and that's not all.

By GreatSchools Staff

Last fall results from national math exams stirred up a tempest in a standardized test. It turns out math scores rose more quickly before No Child Left Behind was implemented, and fourth-grade math scores haven’t improved since 2007. As reported in the New York Times, the achievement gap remains a chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

What does this mean for your child? While pundits and politicians battle over the big issues, it's up to parents to stay on top of the little ones: their own kids' academic development. Keep tabs on what your first-grader should learn in math this year with our grade-based milestones. Of course, math curricula still vary widely from state to state as school districts grapple with how to implement the Common Core Standards, so these are merely guidelines. For a better sense of how your child's schoolwork compares, look up your state's math standards, see what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics  recommends for preschool through high school, or read through the Common Core Standards for math.

In the classroom

What math concepts will your first-grader learn?

First-graders learn mathematics on many fronts, including computation, numbers and number sense, measurement, patterns, shapes, money, and telling time.

You will notice a dramatic shift in your child's development as he or she starts looking at the world more logically and understands cause and effect. When they are younger, children can't readily grasp an adult's perspective, but starting at age 6 or so, this changes.

"Math in first grade begins to connect the real world to the child's point of view," says Nicola Salvatico, the 2005 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. This shift will play a role in your child's growing knowledge of math as well as facilitate learning opportunities at home, such as measuring ingredients for a recipe, counting change, or estimating how much time it takes to get to a destination.

Getting a feel for patterns and shapes

First-graders learn to sort objects by color, shape, and function and to recognize patterns. Your child should be able to sort a mixed group of blocks so that all the red blocks are in one group and all the blue ones are in another. If the blocks are placed on a table in a pattern — for example, red block, blue block, red block, blue block — he or she should be able to predict which color comes next and create another pattern with similar features.

Students also learn to distinguish two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes such as triangles, squares, cones, and cylinders. They also identify the shapes of items in the classroom and at home.

Knowing numbers

By the end of first grade, your child should be able to count to 100 by ones, twos, fives, and tens and have a sense of how big the number 100 is. He or she should also be able to begin counting at any number you choose between 0 and 100 and write the words for the numbers 1 through 12.

Your child will also be introduced to the concepts of more and less and work with simple graphs.

Computation comprehension

First-graders learn addition and subtraction facts with numbers up to 20. Students start moving away from counting objects (or "math manipulatives," as they are called in school) to doing more mental math. Simple word problems are introduced, such as "If I have three marbles and give one to my friend, how many do I have left?"

Money matters

Your child may learn about coins and their value and how different combinations of coins can add up to the same amount. The classroom may even feature a play store with a toy cash register (see "Top-10 Educational Toys" for a popular model), play money, and objects with price tags so that your child can practice counting money and exchanging items for money. After all, it's never too early to introduce kids to financial literacy.

Mastering measurement

Standard measuring tools and units of measurement are common topics for first-grade math. Students may practice measuring using inches, cups, and quarts. They may also learn to read a clock face and tell time to the half-hour.

What to look for when you visit

  • Simple bar and pictorial graphs displayed on large pieces of paper
  • Students using math manipulatives — blocks, cards, and buttons for counting and sorting — and making the transition from counting and sorting objects to doing mental math
  • Clocks and calendars to help first-graders learn about time, days, and months and the concepts of before and after
  • Students measuring objects and amounts using rulers and measuring cups

Updated January 2010

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

10/13/2010:
"My daughter just entered first grade in a public school and I appreciate this article. Like most parents that commented, I feel my daughter isn't being challenged. No, she is not gifted or advanced. However, she grasps new concepts quickly and effectively. I have been questioning the quality of the academics she is receiving and had to be honest with myself. She is only 6 years old and I have pressured her to excel since PreK3! What was I thinking?!?!?! After a LONG talk with administration, she is NOT skipping a grade and I am happy with that decision. Her social skills are that of a 6 year old and being in school is as much a social education as it is an academic education. Can she do all the things listed here...ABSOLUTELY! But first grade will teach her HOW to get to those answers, not just to KNOW the answers. This logical sense of thinking will help her in every aspect of her life."
01/15/2010:
"well, my daughter was doing these things in preschool. except, subtraction, and first few multiplication tables in kindergarten. I can see how we have a serious problem with this kind of expectations. "
01/13/2010:
"This information on first-graders and math is very helpful to me. My daughter is half-way through first grade and she absolutely HATES math! LOL... I'm trying to find fun ways to incorporate math in our home so she won't feel so overwhelmed and insecure about numbers and math. I see her facial expressions and she looks so miserable! I'd like to make her better prepared so that way at school she'll have more confidence. I've done this with the other subjects, but needed more math ideas. Thanks so much for the advice! Great article :-)"
04/7/2009:
"do 1st graders learn about time on circle clocks"
12/23/2008:
"To the person who made the comment on 10/1, are you really that insecure in your own parenting that you feel the need to attack others who post honest opinions about their frustration with the current school system in this country, or are you a member of the current 'anti' intellectual administration that is in the White House. Look around you, America has lost it's smartest kids from public school. Most of the people who are seeking information about alternative education have children who don't fit into the 'No Child Gets Ahead' agenda. I doubt that anyone found your comment helpful, while I believe that many will find the other comments back their own experiences. I would suggest that if you do not have anything nice to say, please don't say anything at all!"
11/20/2008:
"it can be frustrating when you see that your child is capable of, and interested in, working on material far above what they are given at school. we had this same issue (my daughter began reading at 26 months of age, multiplying double digit numbers in her head at the age of 5, and more, all without prompting), and i'll never forget the second week of first grade, as we walked home, she said, in frustration, 'i don't even have to think in there!' i felt i had to do something, so i chose to supplement her public school experience with curriculum (at that time, a 4th grade level curriculum). that worked for a while. then we moved, and the next school was very insistent that she needed to be skipped up 'at least' one grade. we were conflicted, but knew that a positive outcome was likely, so we agreed. and it WAS a positive outcome...for the first couple of years only, though. she skipped 3rd grade, and 4th and 5th grade went pretty well. the kids were more mature, she was interested in the schoolwork, etc. but you know, i would never do it again. and i'll tell you why. as she got older, into middle school, the age gap became a very negative thing. it wasn't that she was left out due to being younger, it was instead that she became very popular and was expected by her peers to behave in ways that were too old for her (and them too, in my opinion). think about it...many school districts begin middle school at 6th grade. to a child who has skipped a grade, that means starting at 10 years old. is it really in your child's best interest to be exposed to the drug use, violence, and sex that is so prevalent among a middle school student body? my daughter is a senior in high school this year, and attends a public school. it has been HELL trying to keep her on the right track. the two years where she was at her most popular were the worst (the popular kids are not necessarily good influences, or even good kids, just so you know...these kids were a terrible influence on her. they have a lot of money and a lot of freedom, the lack of parental involvement has been astounding to me, personally. you always think it's the disenfranchised kids who are the neglected ones..not so! what i've found is that a large percentage of the affluent families just hand their kids a car and a credit card, and basically let them live their own lives...no supervision, and the means to purchase drugs and alcohol. oh, and throw in a car. not the best combination, obviously.) anyway, i would seriously, SERIOUSLY reconsider any desire to skip a child up a grade. my 3 younger children are all academically advanced as well, and we have gone back and forth between public school and homeschooling with them. at the beginning of last school year, they asked to homeschool indefinitely, so that's what we do now, and it is working out beautifully. they still see their friends often, and i love that our social life is completely separate from our academic life. take it from someone who has nearly 17 years experience raising academically advanced children....think long and hard before agreeing or advocating for them to skip a grade. in the long run, it can be the worst decision ever. for them, and you. for those who feel their children are not challenged enough academically, it doesn't take much to remedy that. the amount of workbooks, websites, and other resources are endless. the best knowledge comes from experiences, not worksheets. get them out in the world as much as possible, to really DO and SEE. buy an annual pass for the zoo and museums and science center in your area; head out to the beach or river or lake as much as possible to dig and watch the water and animals; build things together; visit the library as much as you can; teach them how to use public transportation and read schedules, etc. by doing that together; teach them about money by letting them utilize it themselves; dig; cook; observe....these are the kinds of activities that truly enrich a child's mind and soul. a 5 year old who can do 6th grade math is still at a disadvantage if he doesn't regularly get to feel sand pour through his fingers, fly a kite, dig in the dirt, pet animals, build with a! ge appropriate materials, and learn about others in our world who can benefit from their help and caring, etc. what i've learned about raising academically advanced children (i have 4 of them) is that experiencing life is far more valuable than mastering academic concepts at a fast pace. they need to LIVE life, embrace it, touch it, really FEEL it. not just read about it in books. "
10/1/2008:
"Some of you people are hilarious with your 'my child is the best and the brightest and hates school because he's so smart and is so bored in class' comments. Don't think that's quite the feedback they are looking for, but if it makes you feel good to blab on and on about your 'genius' child then by all means blab away."
09/30/2008:
"I don't know what to do with my first grade son who master's all of the above and find his work to be too easy. He doesn't want to go to school because he feels the other kids are babies because they can't read, add or analyze things like he does. I have requested a meeting with the teacher. I had the same problem in kindergarten and then he would get himself in trouble. What can I do to help the situation?"
09/17/2008:
"VERY INFORMATIVE. THIS IS WHAT MY DAUGHTER IS LEARNING IN MATH, GREATER THAN AND LESS THAN AND COUNTING AND ADDING/SUBTRACTION UP TO 20. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!"
09/16/2008:
"I think this site is great. I am a stepmom who wants to be active in my stepson's education but often find myself staying in the shadows for fear of stepping on toes. The information you provide is just enough to help me understand what we can do at home to help reinforce what he is learning in class."
09/16/2008:
"Love this website, very educative to me and many other parents. I always get ideas from you guys. Thank you"
09/16/2008:
"As a former teacher, I think these articles are WONDERFUL! Most parents have no idea what to expect from their child's teacher, nor do they know how to assess how well/poor their child is doing....these articles provide concrete information that is actually useful. I love GreatSchools!"
04/28/2008:
"First-graders learn about coins and their value. "
02/25/2008:
"Because of No Child Left Behind, teachers are forced to focus primarily on struggling students, rather than those that can master the material. Teachers now teach to the average student and the struggling, because their job depends upon these actions. Public schools are full of students that have no support at home. Teachers become both home and school support for these students. I agree, that it is not fair. Unfortunately, our government has taken the focus off the child as an individual and replaced it with the child as a peice of data to analyze."
02/19/2008:
"IT SEEMS AS IF MY SON DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO DO HIS HOMEWORK WHEN HE COMES HOME FROM SCHOOL WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP HIM REMEMBER AND ALSO ENCOURGE HIM TO DO IT. HE ALSO HAS A PROMBLEM WITH STAYING FOCUS ON DOING HIS HOMEWORK. I WENT TO SIT IN HIS CLASS TO SEE HOW HIS PROFORMS WAS IN SCHOOL AND HE WASN'T EVEN PAYING ATTENTION TO HIS TEACHER WHAT CAN I DO? HELP HELP!!!!!!!"
01/31/2008:
"My daughter too is an early reader. At not quite five and a half, she reads at a second grade level and her math skills are considered first/second grade. She also has interests that are considered very sophisticated for her age (scientific inquiry is her passion). I consulted with some very wise teachers at her public school kindergarten readiness testing and decided that I would go ahead and enter her at kindergarten level rather than skip a grade. Smartest decision I ever made... Her academic skills may be off the charts, but her social skills are right where they should be for the rest of the group. She complained about the work being 'too easy' in the beginning, so I talked with her teacher who, it turned out, was already on it and was placing her for accelerated learning sessions while still allowing her to interact with kids her age. It was a great solution. I also teach her at home - I know that there are many things she isn't going to be exposed to in a public school setting - but I would never, ever consider home schooling. The opportunity she has to make friends her own age and to see how the rest of the world really works is just too valuable to miss. I attended private schools as a child, and, while they certainly can afford to be more academically oriented, will still recommend that children be given the opportunity to explore their childhoods in a positive, social-skill building manner. Don't worry so much about what is happening at this age in the classroom. Speak to your child's teacher if you are concerned that he/she is disengaged. I'm sure they will work with you to help your little one find something great about school, while recognizing that your kid has special talents that need to be nurtured."
10/2/2007:
"I am facing the same challenge as some of the other parents comments I have read. My daughter could read, write, and do 'first-grade' math prior to entering kindergarten. This is her first year in a public school and she is very bored and is tired of what she calls 'baby work.' I am concerned that the school system is going to hault her progression in academics or at least bring her down to their level. I have considered skipping her ahead, but have no real faith that the school system will urge her to be an 'A' student rather than an average one. They want all children to be on the same level, not recognizing that all children don't learn at the same pace. For now I continue her excelled studies at home in addition to her regular schoolwork, but do you have any other suggestions? "
09/24/2007:
"After reading the comments of several parents it appears all have the same though.. They all want their child to excell.My child as well was with Montessori for his pre-school and was in kindergarten with the public school system. There is surely a vast difference in the academic quality of a public school and private schools. The Public school keeps in mind the overall students learning skills and hence is found to be below the standard for kids like mine as well who had exposure to better education in Montessori school. I believe it all comes to the teachers which can increase the quality of education in public schools. "
09/20/2007:
"For those considering skipping a grade or attending private school: My daughter is in first grade and has also learned all of this already. She attends a small, public school in NJ. The school does not allow any child to skip grades. Instead, they provide advanced curriculum on a case-by-case basis. I believe they are able to do this because the classes are small (less than 15 children) and the parents are required to participate. It's working beautifully for my daughter. She is happy and progressing, and my husband and I are very pleased with this arrangement. Talk to the teacher and/or principal before you decide to enter private school or skip a grade. They may accomodate your advanced child, especially if you convey that you will do a little extra to help. Good luck."
09/20/2007:
"For those considering skipping a grade or attending private school: My daughter is in first grade and has also learned all of this already. She attends a small, public school in NJ. The school does not allow any child to skip grades. Instead, they provide advanced curriculum on a case-by-case basis. I believe they are able to do this because the classes are small (less than 15 children) and the parents are required to participate. It's working beautifully for my daughter. She is happy and progressing, and my husband and I are very pleased with this arrangement. Talk to the teacher and/or principal before you decide to enter private school or skip a grade. They may accomodate your advanced child, especially if you convey that you will do a little extra to help. Good luck."
09/18/2007:
"We have a grandson who turned six in August. He is in the first grade. The school wanted him to repeat kindergarten but we fought for him to go on to first grade. He is slightly behind due to extensive hospitalizations in the past. He is struggling a litle but is still borderline. We had heard that most children will equal out by third grade. Is this true and should we continue to work with him? We don't want him to get frustrated, but we also don't want him to repeat just so that the work is easier for him. We want him to be challenged and he is so proud to be a first grader. Any comments, please?"
09/18/2007:
"My son knows all of the stuff described above. He does have problems with staying inside the lines with writing. But that something we work on. Should he be in first grade. I am scared he is getting bored. What should I do. "
09/18/2007:
"Excellent articles and I appreciate the help and guidance. A very useful tool."
09/18/2007:
"The information regarding our children's education at school is greatly appreciated. You are doing a wonderful job. Thank you."
09/12/2007:
"My son entered 1st grade this year in the public school system. He also attended Kindergarten at the same public school for gifted & talented kids. He previously attended Montessori school through 5 years old. He mastered the skills mentioned in the article before Kindergarten. We were concerned that Kindergarten might be too slow for him, but yielded for social growth. Now I am more concerned that 1st grade will slow him down even more. While Kindergarten helped socially, I am now concerned academically. I would appreciate your advice on skipping a grade (or 2). All that I read on the topic states that if they are ready academically, then it is best skip grades. Comments?"
09/12/2007:
"Thank you for this very pertinent information, I was just talking to my wife about we need to make sure Eddie can tell time on a clock, know his money, to include coins and math in genral looks like he is on his way this year in 1st grade, thx again."
09/12/2007:
"It was so much fun to read this email and make a connection to all of the recent questions my 1st grader is asking. Mommy, how long we're we here. Was it 60 minutes? How long is 60 minutes? It's wonderful and I'm so excited that he is taken it all in and asking questions at home. Thanks for this website!"
09/12/2007:
"My child is currently in Montessori as well as Kumon. Comparing the work she currently has to the first grade level work-she is definetly advanced. She is currently in Pre-K , missed the cut off date for Kindergarten, will be 5 this month. This article is great to more about the public school systems and their process. I do not think I will put her in public school because she may get bored. My daughter craves the learning and I am not pushing her in any way. I dont want to come across like one of those pushy moms. Thanks ...."
09/11/2007:
"good tips. Some of these skills my first grader all ready knows. such as the patterns and sorting. Others however sounds just like what he is now learning. The teacher does have a 'store' with all the things noted above."
09/11/2007:
"I loved your article. Although I did see a program on Ch. 7 or 9 here in CA, where a math genius showed how to do math in a fun and easy way. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name, but he is now a math teacher I think in New York. It would be just wonderful to incorporate this kind of teaching in all US schools. This math teacher shows students and adults alike how to do multiplation and other complicated math problems IN THEIR HEAD. Imagine maybe this way, in the long run, our country would not have to outsource jobs to other countries. "
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