It is during first grade that most children define themselves as good or poor readers. Unfortunately, it is also in first grade where common instructional practices are arguably most inconsistent with the research findings. This gap is reflected in the basal programs most commonly used in first-grade classrooms. The National Academy of Sciences report found that the more neglected instructional components of basal series are among those whose importance is most strongly supported by the research.
In this discussion, there are again certain caveats to keep in mind:
There is no replacing passionate teachers who are keenly aware of how their students are learning; research will never be able to tell teachers exactly what to do for a given child on a given day. What research can tell teachers, and what teachers are hungry to know, is what the evidence shows will work most often with most children and what will help specific groups of children.
To integrate research-based instructional practices into their daily work, teachers need the following:
Training in alphabetic basics
To read, children must know how to blend isolated sounds into words; to write, they must know how to break words into their component sounds. First-grade students who don’t yet know their letters and sounds will need special catch-up instruction. In addition to such phonemic awareness, beginning readers must know their letters and have a basic understanding of how the letters of words, going from left to right, represent their sounds. First-grade classrooms must be designed to ensure that all children have a firm grasp of these basics before formal reading and spelling instruction begins.
A proper balance between phonics and meaning in their instruction
In recent years, most educators have come to advocate a balanced approach to early reading instruction, promising attention to basic skills and exposure to rich literature. However, classroom practices of teachers, schools, and districts using balanced approaches vary widely.
Some teachers teach a little phonics on the side, perhaps using special materials for this purpose, while they primarily use basal reading programs that do not follow a strong sequence of phonics instruction. Others teach phonics in context, which means stopping from time to time during reading or writing instruction to point out, for example, a short a or an application of the silent e rule. These instructional strategies work with some children but are not consistent with evidence about how to help children, especially those who are most at risk, learn to read most effectively.
The National Academy of Sciences study, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, recommends first-grade instruction that provides explicit instruction and practice with sound structures that lead to familiarity with spelling-sound conventions and their use in identifying printed words. The bottom line is that all children have to learn to sound out words rather than relying on context and pictures as their primary strategies to determine meaning.
Does this mean that every child needs phonics instruction? Research shows that all proficient readers rely on deep and ready knowledge of spelling-sound correspondence while reading, whether this knowledge was specifically taught or simply inferred by students. Conversely, failure to learn to use spelling/sound correspondences to read and spell words is shown to be the most frequent and debilitating cause of reading difficulty. No one questions that many children do learn to read without any direct classroom instruction in phonics. But many children, especially children from homes that are not language rich or who potentially have learning disabilities, do need more systematic instruction in word-attack strategies.
Well-sequenced phonics instruction early in first grade has been shown to reduce the incidence of reading difficulty even as it accelerates the growth of the class as a whole. Given this, it is probably best to start all children, most especially in high-poverty areas, with explicit phonics instruction. Such an approach does require continually monitoring children’s progress both to allow those who are progressing quickly to move ahead before they become bored and to ensure that those who are having difficulties get the assistance they need.
Strong reading materials
Early in first grade, a child’s reading materials should feature a high proportion of new words that use the letter-sound relationships they have been taught. It makes no sense to teach decoding strategies and then have children read materials in which these strategies won’t work. While research does not specify the exact percentage of words children should be able to recognize or sound out, it is clear that most children will learn to read more effectively with books in which this percentage is high.
On this point, the National Academy of Sciences report recommends that students should read well-written and engaging texts that include words that children can decipher to give them the chance to apply their emerging skills. It further recommends that children practice reading independently with texts slightly below their frustration level and receive assistance with slightly more difficult texts.
If the books children read only give them rare opportunities to sound out words that are new to them, they are unlikely to use sounding out as a consistent strategy. A study comparing the achievement of two groups of average-ability first-graders being taught phonics explicitly provides evidence of this. The group of children who used texts with a high proportion of words they could sound out learned to read much better than the group who had texts in which they could rarely apply the phonics they were being taught.
None of this should be read to mean that children should be reading meaningless or boring material. There is no need to return to Dan can fan the man. It’s as important that children find joy and meaning in reading as it is that they develop the skills they need. Reading pleasure should always be as much a focus as reading skill. Research shows that the children who learn to read most effectively are the children who read the most and are most highly motivated to read.
The texts children read need to be as interesting and meaningful as possible. Still, at the very early stages, this is difficult. It isn’t possible to write gripping fiction with only five letter sounds. But a meaningful context can be created by embedding decodable text in stories that provide other supports to build meaning and pleasure. For example, some early first-grade texts use pictures to represent words that students cannot yet decode. Others include a teacher text on each page, read by the teacher, parent, or other reader, which tells part of the story. The students then read their portion, which uses words containing the spelling-sound relationships they know. Between the two types of texts, a meaningful and interesting story can be told.
Strategies for teaching comprehension
Learning to read is not a linear process. Students do not need to learn to decode before they can learn to comprehend. Both skills should be taught at the same time from the earliest stages of reading instruction. Comprehension strategies can be taught using material that is read to children, as well as using material the children read themselves.
Before reading, teachers can establish the purpose for the reading, review vocabulary, activate background knowledge, and encourage children to predict what the story will be about. During reading, teachers can direct children’s attention to difficult or subtle dimensions of the text, point out difficult words and ideas, and ask children to identify problems and solutions. After reading, children may be asked to retell or summarize stories, to create graphic organizers (such as webs, cause-and-effect charts, or outlines), to put pictures of story events in order, and so on. Children can be taught specific metacognitive strategies, such as asking themselves on a regular basis whether what they are reading makes sense or whether there is a one-to-one match between the words they read and the words on the page.
Creative and expository writing instruction should begin in kindergarten and continue during first grade and beyond. Writing, in addition to being valuable in its own right, gives children opportunities to use their new reading competence. Research shows invented spelling to be a powerful means of leading students to internalize phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle. Still, while research shows that using invented spelling is not in conflict with teaching correct spelling, the National Academy of Sciences report does recommend that conventionally correct spelling be developed through focused instruction and practice at the same time students use invented spelling. The Academy report further recommends that primary grade children should be expected to spell previously studied words and spelling patterns correctly in final writing products.
Smaller class size
Class size makes a difference in early reading performance. Studies comparing class sizes of approximately 15 to those of around 25 in the early elementary grades reveal that class size has a significant impact on reading achievement, especially if teachers are also using more effective instructional strategies. Reductions of this magnitude are expensive, of course, if used all day. An alternative is to reduce class size just during the time set aside for reading, either by providing additional reading teachers during reading periods or by having certified teachers who have other functions most of the day (e.g., tutors, librarians, or special education teachers) teach a reading class during a common reading period.
In first grade and beyond, regular curriculum-based assessments are needed to guide decisions about such things as grouping, the pace of instruction, and individual needs for assistance (such as tutoring). The purpose of curriculum-based assessment is to determine how children are doing in the particular curriculum being used in the classroom or school, not to indicate how children are doing on national norms. In first grade, assessments should focus on all of the major components of early reading: decoding of phonetically regular words, recognition of sight words, comprehension, writing, and so on.
Informal assessments can be conducted every day. Anything children do in class gives information to the teacher that can be used to adjust instruction for individuals or for the entire class. Regular schoolwide assessments based on students’ current reading groups can be given every six to 10 weeks. These might combine material read to children, material to which children respond on their own, and material the child reads to the teacher individually. These school assessments should be aligned as much as possible with any district or state assessments students will have to take.
Effective grouping strategies
Children enter first grade at very different points in their reading development. Some already read, while others lack even the most basic knowledge of letters and sounds. Recognizing this, schools have long used a variety of methods to group children for instruction appropriate to their needs. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The most common method is to divide children within their own class into three or more reading groups, which take turns working with the teacher. The main problem with this strategy is that it requires follow-up time activities children can do on their own while the teacher is working with another group. Studies of follow-up time find that, all too often, it translates to busywork. Follow-up time spent in partner reading, writing, working with a well-trained paraprofessional, or other activities closely linked to instructional objectives may be beneficial; but teachers must carefully review workbook, computer, or other activities to be sure they are productive.
Another strategy is grouping within the same grade. For example, during reading time there might be a high, middle, and low second-grade group. The problem with this type of grouping is that it creates a low group with few positive models.
Alternatively, children in all grades can be grouped in reading according to their reading level and without regard to age. A second-grade-level reading class might include some first-graders, many second-graders, and a few third-graders. An advantage of this approach is that it mostly eliminates the low group problem, and gives each teacher one reading group. The risk is that some older children will be embarrassed by being grouped with children from a lower grade level. Classroom management and organization for reading instruction are areas that deserve further research and attention.
Most children can learn to read by the end of first grade with good-quality reading instruction alone. In every school, however, there are children who need more assistance. Small-group remedial methods, such as those typical of Title I or special education resource room programs, have not generally been found to be effective in increasing the achievement of these children. One-to-one tutoring, closely aligned with classroom instruction, has been effective for struggling first-graders. While it is often best to have certified teachers working with children with the most serious difficulties, well-trained paraprofessionals can develop a valuable expertise for working with these children. Trained volunteers who are placed in well-structured, well-supervised programs also can be a valuable resource.
Children should be spending more time on reading than is available at school. They should read at home on a regular basis, usually 20 to 30 minutes each evening. Parents can be asked to send in signed forms indicating that children have done their home reading. Many teachers ask that children read aloud with their parents, siblings, or others in first grade and then read silently thereafter. The books the children read should be of interest to them and should match their reading proficiency.