Grade 1 is a year full of firsts. For some children, it’s their first experience with a long school day. It’s the year kids start writing stories, adding and subtracting, and even conducting small science experiments.

Most important, it’s the year they learn to read. Some children take to reading at a younger age and can read independently by the time they finish kindergarten. For others, it can be a struggle to learn to read by the time 1st grade ends. First-grade teachers work with students who have a range of reading skills, with a goal of getting everyone reading with confidence in time for 2nd grade.

“Reading comes almost naturally to kids if they get read to every day,” says Rhina Fernandes Williams, an assistant professor of multicultural education at Georgia State University. “Kids need to be motivated by the meaning of the story.”

Critical Thinking

Fernandes Williams, who taught 1st grade for seven years, encourages teachers and parents to impart a joy of reading to children by making reading together fun and choosing engaging stories. Students in 1st grade like to talk about the story before diving in. What’s on the book’s cover? What’s the title? What might this book be about?

Children in this age group also like to guess what’s coming next and how the story might end. Parents can seize on that to motivate their kids to read. “Talk about what they think is going to happen,” Fernandes Williams suggests.

Students also respond well to discussions about the type of story. Is it fiction? Is it an informational article? “Be explicit,” Fernandes Williams says. “It gets their young minds ready for the words.”

She says 1st graders like to make up new endings for stories and share their opinions about what characters should have done. After reading the classic fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, Fernandes Williams would ask, “Should Goldilocks have gone into the house?” Such strategies help children learn to be critical thinkers, she says, noting that while it’s important to figure out the words on the paper, it’s even more important to process what they mean.

In 1st grade, teachers often assign short homework tasks to be completed with help from a parent. This is a great opportunity to work on critical thinking skills, and it helps the child get used to a homework routine and ready for the day when homework becomes a more solitary endeavor.

Phonics and Whole Language

The reading curriculum will vary depending on the state, school district, principal, and teacher, but most 1st graders will be taught to break down words by learning the sounds each letter and combination of letters makes. This method, known as phonics, enables kids to figure out a word when there are no context clues.

Students may also learn to look for clues in the illustrations and elsewhere in the passage to figure out unfamiliar words, a method called whole language. Many 1st graders will also be taught to recognize dozens of familiar words just by sight.

Today’s 1st grade students employ different strategies based on their learning style, but the goal is for them to become proud, confident, and happy readers. Writing is also important as students learn to put together complete sentences and even full paragraphs, though their handwriting may be sloppy and spelling may be...creative.

Science, Social Studies, and Recess

Kim Madison, a teacher at Oak Grove Elementary in Peachtree City, Ga., loves teaching 1st graders because they are so thrilled when they catch on to something abstract. “Those light bulbs just come on,” she says.

At Oak Grove, 1st grade teachers spend the bulk of the morning on intense reading instruction. But teachers also make time for math, science, and social studies. In math class, children learn symbols for addition and subtraction, and from there tackle a worksheet of problems in no time. Science lessons often center around nature and building observational skills, while social studies units may focus on maps, calendars, and simple timelines.

Despite a busy school day, Madison always makes time for recess as well as giving students time to move around in the classroom. “Kids at this age need to run around and get dirty and be healthy,” she says. “We make sure they’re not constantly sitting [at] a desk.”

It’s important for teachers to communicate their academic and behavioral expectations for 1st grade to both kids and parents, Madison says. “This is a big change from kindergarten.”

For more information, read “1st Grade Social Changes: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.