Although becoming literate is a lengthy process that begins in babyhood, first grade is a most important year. First graders enter school expecting to learn how to read on their own. Their parents and teachers expect this as well.

Anyone who has witnessed good teaching can attest that it is nothing short of an art, requiring remarkable talent, skill, and devotion. Teaching this age group, in particular, presents major challenges. In just about every school in America, some kids enter the first grade reading on a third grade level, whereas others are not able to reliably recognize all the letters of the alphabet. Teachers, most of them faced with more than 20 children, have to find ways to make sure that each child makes progress each day.

How do successful teachers accommodate the individual learning of so many very different first graders?

Sometimes they team with each other, even across grade levels, for small-group instruction suited to the abilities and interests of their students. Sometimes they set up groups within a class: the children benefit from working together, and the teacher is able to move around, focusing on a single group or taking time for one-on-one instruction with a struggling child. Sometimes teachers bring in volunteers or specialists to help challenge more advanced students or give individual help. Or they use whole-class activities designed to be interesting and successful even in classes with the most diverse mix of abilities.

All of these approaches—and many others—can work, so long as teachers avoid turning groupings into self-fulfilling prophecies that limit children. Always, teachers must sensitively monitor students’ needs and progress to keep up the challenge and feed their students’ curiosity, while avoiding frustrations and labels that can cause them to give up on themselves.

First grade is the time when children bring together the many language and literacy skills they have been attaining—book and print awareness, phonemic awareness, letter and word knowledge, background information about different topics—and start getting comfortable and quick with the conventions of associating letters and sounds. Ultimately, teachers must ensure that each child will not only read well, but also will enjoy reading and rely on it to learn new things as they move on with their lives. This is the year most children become “real” conventional readers, and most children depend strongly—some entirely—on teachers to guide this transition.

As in the previous section on kindergarten, in the following section we present activities for first graders in order to illustrate for family and community members, concepts underlying reading instruction. Many of the activities presented are ones expected to take place in the first half of the year. We expect that the individual activities included will be helpful for most children; however, they are examples rather than comprehensive curricula in themselves.

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