Whether your first grader is still stumbling over beginning texts or sailing through books independently, there are nuances in first grade reading to pay attention to under the Common Core Standards. From decoding and fluency to building knowledge and hunting for evidence, here are the key reading skills your child should hone this year.
Those tricky vowels
Your first grader certainly doesn’t need to know this, but there are 18 vowel phonemes — or distinct sounds — in the English language. Why is this important? Because phonemic awareness is an important indicator of how well a child will read within the first two years of school.
This year, your child will be learning how to distinguish between what’s known as long and short vowel sounds in one-syllable words — an essential concept. (Here’s a way to explain the difference between long and short vowels: when a vowel sounds like its name, it’s a long sound: ape, feet, kite. Short vowels don’t sound like their letter: rat, dot, mug.) First graders will also learn some common vowel team conventions for long vowel sounds (e.g. play, tie, mean, and tail). They will become intimately familiar with that trickiest of vowels, the silent e — and how adding an e to the end of a word can transform a short vowel into a long one. Tip: play the silent e game with your child: What happens if you put an e on hop? It turns into hope!
Breaking the code
As your first grader becomes more familiar with how different letters combine to form sounds and words, you may hear a lot about decoding. Simply put, decoding is breaking down the sounds and using rules to make sense of words you read.
First graders learn to recognize the most basic sounds and sound blends (phonemes) they find in one-syllable words. In class, they will be asked to separate — or segment — letters (e.g. h/a/t) or common consonant blends (e.g. st in stop, pl in plate, tr in tree), so they really hear how individual sounds come together to make a word. They also need to learn some common diagraphs, two consonants that make one sound (e.g. sh in shape, th in this, wh in what). First graders will also leap into the world of decoding two-syllable words (e.g. ap/ple, mon/key) and learn that each syllable contains at least one vowel.
Related: Watch our Milestone video Does your 1st grader sound out words like this?
Finally, first graders are learning how to read familiars words with new endings, such as run becoming running, bird becoming birds, and play becoming played.
Building vocabulary and word sense
“May I have a pomegranate, Mom?” First grade is often when parents start noticing that, wonder of wonders, their child’s vocabulary starts to flourish. Suddenly, multisyllabic words may be bursting forth from your young reader. It’s also the year of reading challenges: children are expected to become familiar with one of the common bugaboos of the English language: irregularly spelled words (e.g. school, people, thought). Some kids learn these words readily, but many struggle with sounding out common but unfamiliar spellings. First graders will also be expected to correct their own decoding mistakes based on the context of the story. For example, your child might mispronounce porridge when reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, then look at the bowl, remember the familiar fairy tale, and correct himself.
First graders practice language categorization, such as sorting words that are types of food, colors, or clothing, and learn to define words by one or more key attributes (e.g. a duck is a bird that swims, a tiger is a large cat with stripes). They’ll learn to use their own experience to connect words to their use (e.g. berries, candy, and ice cream are all foods that are sweet) and understand shades of meaning among similar verbs (e.g. look, peek, glance, glare, scowl) and between adjectives that differ in intensity (e.g. large, huge, gigantic). Tip: ask your child to act out the difference between mean, fierce, and terrifying.
Your child’s teacher will also expect your child to use new words learned from conversations or reading, including employing frequently occurring conjunctions (e.g. and, or, so, because) in context. For example: “Let’s go to the park because I need to play!”
What makes a sentence?
First graders need to learn how to recognize the print features of one of the main building blocks of written language: the sentence. One: always capitalize the first letter of the first word in a sentence. Two: sentences always end with punctuation — a period for statements, a question mark for questions, and an exclamation point to convey excitement or urgency. Bonus points for first graders who know the meaning of the exclamation point. It’s ahead of the curve!
Exploring fiction and nonfiction
Don’t be surprised if your child’s teacher assigns more nonfiction this year. While fairy tales and picture books may dominate language arts and nonfiction may pop up more in social studies and other subjects, there’s clear directive under the Common Core Standards to get younger kids familiar with all types of text.
By the end of first grade, your child should have a clear understanding that there are different kinds of books: ones that tell stories and ones that give information about things that are (or were) true. And, since reading stories, poems, and segments on George Washington’s early years are each challenging in their own way, your child should practice reading each type of text. Keep in mind this is still first grade, so subjects should remain grade-appropriate (no Shakespeare yet!) — and reading together and getting help along the way is not just OK but an expected part of helping young readers tackle unfamiliar texts.
Building your child’s knowledge bank
Under Common Core, there’s a new emphasis on kids learning new ideas and information from every book they read and relating that learning to what they already know. Think of it like using reading comprehension skills to build a knowledge bank: with every poem, story, or passage read, there’s a main point, a message, or a key fact (or two) that your child learns. The emphasis here is on thoughtfully relating these new bits of knowledge to your child’s life, experiences, and prior knowledge.
The first step: building fluency, which just means your child learning to read with enough speed, accuracy, and expression to support understanding. Then, the key skills that’ll help your first grader build knowledge include, for example, knowing who’s telling a story, being able to identify feeling words, and describing how two characters, events, or facts are connected. After reading Frog and Toad Together a few times, for example, your first grader should be able to retell the highlights of the story, describing Toad’s list, one of Frog and Toad’s adventures, and how the characters are similar and different. When reading a nonfiction book about your child’s favorite animal, your first grader should be able to use a table of contents to look up specific information and the glossary to learn a new word. And, if you’re looking online, first graders should be able to use icons and navigation menus to find what they’re looking for. All of these skills — being able to remember storylines, recalling key details, and finding information — are positive signs that your child’s “banking” knowledge.
All about evidence
“Read like a detective, write like an investigative reporter” is how David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, explains the emphasis on evidence. For first graders, hunting for evidence means finding — and literally pointing to — answers to questions. To answer “What was Grandpa making for breakfast at the beginning of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?” your child may remember Grandpa was flipping pancakes, but showing evidence is pretty literal at this age: it means your child should flip through the pages and find the words — or the picture — to point out the answer.
Your child’s teacher will emphasize evidence in different ways this year, but the main skills your child should have include:
• Asking and answering questions about both the main point and key details in books and showing exactly where those answers show up in the text or illustrations.
• Using text or illustrations to describe characters, setting, and major events in a book.
• Figuring out a book’s one or two biggest ideas and using the text or images to show how the author conveys these ideas.
• Distinguishing between information that’s in text versus information that’s in pictures.
• Naming the reasons an author gives to support her points — and pointing those reasons out in the text or pictures.
Keep in mind that in first grade, hunting for evidence can be really fun. Play it up by having your first grader put on a police hat whenever you’re searching for evidence.