What They Learn in First Grade
First grade marks an important milestone for young children who finally feel like part of a “big” school. They may eat in the cafeteria for the first time or play outside during recess without the direct supervision of their own teacher, experiences that help first graders feel more independent. First graders now have to use the social skills they developed in preschool and kindergarten in more mature ways. But the true magic of first grade happens as children develop the ability to understand what letters and numbers really mean. When they’re ready, they’ll be able to “crack the code” and read words.
Language & Literacy
First grade is traditionally thought of as the level where children learn to read. Not all children become fluent readers by the end of the first grade, but most take their first solid steps toward fluid reading. Their reading material varies from simple rhymes, to classroom news, to patterned stories and beginner non-fiction books. By the end of the year, most are reading grade-level chapter books and some are reading at even more advanced levels. First graders love true stories of long ago, even though their sense of time isn’t well developed. Some good historical books include “The Man Who Walked Between Two Towers” by Mordicai Gerstein, “My Brother Martin” by Christine King, and “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles.
First-grade teachers help children listen for sounds in words, write the sounds they hear, and discover parts of written language, like the –at in cat that they can then use to figure out the words hat, mat, and sat.
Writing, like reading, takes a variety of forms in the first-grade classroom. Children “invent” their spellings as they work out their understandings of written language. Writing activities include journal writing, writing creative stories, or documenting their work in other subject areas. Teachers frequently ask children to sound out the words they write to introduce the sounds that letters make.
First graders begin to grasp more abstract mathematical concepts. Children are introduced to time, money, and the meaning of numbers greater than those they can count. Because first graders still learn best by working with physical objects, teachers give children materials to use during math lessons such as number cubes, pattern blocks, and color rods.
First graders start to do simple addition and subtraction problems. They learn to count by 2s, 5s, and 10s, which will help them later when doing math equations. They also work with 2- and 3-dimensional geometric shapes.
Teachers encourage first graders to find their own answers to questions about the natural world, and to learn to find patterns in that world. They may be introduced to concepts that require them to understand more than they can explore concretely, such as living things being made up of small parts. Common science explorations include water and weather, the parts of the human body, and identifying characteristics of plants and animals. Children may also experiment with motion and with how pushing and pulling affects an object.
First-grade social studies is framed by the concrete world of family, school, and neighborhood. First graders can tell the difference between events that happen in the past, present, and future, although they are not ready to match real meanings to different time intervals. Events that happened 20 years ago and 100 years ago are all part of the same “past” time period to a first grader, unless they’re related to things that children are familiar with, like “That was when your grandmother was a baby.”
Socially, first graders are much more independent and responsible for their own actions than they were in kindergarten. Therefore, knowing how to follow rules and take care of themselves becomes important. Becoming self-sufficient enough to navigate through a school’s routine (like finding the classroom or bathroom by themselves) is an important part of first grade.
How Kids Learn in First Grade
Understanding an Abstract World
First graders move slowly from a world of play into a world of symbols and concepts (with a lot of backtracking along the way). This doesn’t mean that play is not still important, but it does mean that learning in first grade becomes more organized and routine-based, with a lot of room for children’s explorations.
The First Steps
To get a handle on the way your first grader’s brain is developing, think back to her first baby steps. Your child was probably a master crawler before taking those initial wobbly steps. First graders take those same baby steps away from the familiar information that they are comfortable with into a bigger, abstract world that is more difficult to understand. During those early toddling days, your child probably reverted to crawling in order to get somewhere quickly. Similarly, your child will still be more comfortable gaining knowledge through exploration and play. A first grader’s brain is just beginning to grasp a few concepts at the same time, and then to make connections between those concepts.
You can see this in a first grader’s writing. Children use “invented spelling” by writing in ways that make sense to them. They use what they know about sound and spelling relationships to get their ideas onto the page. They haven’t mastered all the letter sounds or spelling rules that they need to be fluent writers, but they’re willing to use what they know to work out the puzzle of written language.
Learning From Mistakes
First graders learn by doing and by making mistakes. These mistakes can be frustrating, so they need positive reminders of the many ways that they are powerful learners.
Until now, most of their learning and growth have been part of a natural progression that took place in the comfortable worlds of play and home. They may have worked hard to learn how to slide down the fire pole in the playground, but no one gave them a grade on how well they did, or how long it took them to accomplish the task.
In first grade, children begin to acquire skills in areas they may not be completely comfortable in — and they may be graded on them. First graders are asked to work with more difficult material and may feel like they are struggling for the first time in their lives. These new situations can sometimes lead normally confident children to feel unsure about their abilities. Previously, they have been “masters” at whatever they did. But now they may feel pressure to learn to read and to grasp more complicated math and science concepts. Therefore, first graders need to be surrounded with excitement and encouragement, and given examples of how we learn from mistakes.