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What Kids Should Know Before Entering First Grade

By: Learning First Alliance
The foundations for reading success are formed long before a child reaches first grade.

Parents and other care providers can give children, starting at infancy, a strong base of language concepts, cognitive skills related to print, and a love of books. Research on instruction in prekindergarten and kindergarten identifies the concepts and skills that are the foundation of success in early reading and the instructional strategies that best help children to learn these concepts and skills.

Quality preschool experiences increase cognitive skills at entry to first grade. While these improved cognitive skills do not directly result in improved reading, they do prepare children to profit from high-quality reading instruction. Similarly, full-day kindergarten programs can increase children's cognitive skills and their readiness to profit from high-quality first-grade instruction.

Early diagnostic assessments, beginning as soon as kindergarten, can be a useful tool to ensure immediate intervention for the children who are identified as being at risk of reading failure.

During pre-K and kindergarten, students should develop:

  • Language skills

    At entry to first grade, students will need to have had a broad array of language experiences. Oral language, vocabulary, and other language concepts are crucial foundations for success in reading, especially reading comprehension. In particular, children need to be able to use language to describe their experiences, to predict what will happen in the future, and to talk about events that happened in the past.

    Early childhood programs can develop children's language by giving them many opportunities to discuss their experiences, make predictions, and discuss past events in small groups. Many children also benefit from instruction in key language concepts, such as colors and shapes, prepositions (e.g., under/over, before/after), sequence (e.g., small to large), and classification (e.g., animals, containers, and plants).

  • Background knowledge

    A key predictor of successful reading comprehension is background knowledge. Children need knowledge and understanding of their own world in order to make sense of what they read. In addition, children need to be exposed to content in science, history, and geography from an early age to give them a context for understanding what they read.

  • Appreciation of stories and books

    Children need a great deal of experience with literature, as active listeners and as active participants. Storybook reading is a typical activity in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Research shows that the details of storybook reading matter.

    In reading to children, teachers should stop to let children discuss how the characters feel and what they want to do, and make predictions about how stories will end. Teachers should help children to actively explore the meaning of new words and concepts. They should give children opportunities to retell the text after hearing it, giving them a chance to use the story's new words and language and to put pictures of the story's events in the right order. Book reading should include nonfiction as well as fiction selections.

  • Concepts of print

    Children need to know that stories and other texts are written from left to right, that spaces between words matter, and that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words on a page and the words the reader says.

  • Phonemic awareness

    One of the most important foundations of reading success is phonemic awareness. Phonemes are the basic speech sounds that are represented by the letters of the alphabet, and phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are sequences of phonemes. Phonemic awareness is demonstrated by the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds within spoken words. Children can be taught to hear that cat is composed of three sounds: /k/, /a/, /t/. Children can learn to assemble phonemes into words as well as break words into their phonemes even before they are writing letters or words.

    Giving children experience with rhyming words in the preschool years is an effective first step toward building phonemic awareness. Hearing rhymes, and then producing rhymes for given words, requires children to focus on the sounds inside words. Later, more direct instruction on the individual sounds that make up words is needed. The goal is to have children start their more formal instruction in reading with a comfortable familiarity with the sounds that letters represent and with hearing those sounds within words.

  • Alphabet and letter sounds

    One of the best foundations for early reading success is familiarity with the letters of the alphabet. Children can learn alphabet songs, match pictures or objects with initial letters, play games with letters and sounds, and so on. They can learn to recognize and print their names, the names of their classmates, and names of familiar objects in the classroom or home. As they gain command of letters and sounds, kindergartners can begin to write simple stories. By the end of kindergarten, children should be able to recognize, name, and print letters, and know the sounds they represent.


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Excerpted from: Prekindergarten and Kindergarten Programs. (June, 1998). Every Child Reading: An Action Plan. Learning First Alliance. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 1998 by the Learning First Alliance. Learning First Alliance member organizations include: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, National School Boards Association. For more information, see


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