First know one another Incorporation of music, poetry,

First graders can be great fun to teach, but they can also be challenging! First grade is the introduction to structured academics for many students, and normal variations in literacy development make it tricky to find strategies that work for all learners. This lesson provides some ideas about how to teach first graders well.

The Mysterious First Grader

Who is this creature we call a first grader? Most first graders are six or seven years old and have attended kindergarten. First graders vary a great deal in academic, social and emotional development. Some are already fluent, independent readers, and others, still within the typical range of development, are just beginning to sound out words. Some first graders belong to complicated social worlds, while others have few experiences outside of their families.

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First graders tend to be interested in rules, playing, and forming peer group relationships. They are often very concrete thinkers, meaning that they work with what is directly in front of them without forming abstractions. They are achieving new levels of self-regulation, or ability to control impulses and instincts, but they can still be very emotional. Knowing as much as you can about their developmental needs will help you be a better teacher to first graders.

Community Building

One of the most important things you can do as a first grade teacher is work hard to build a strong community.

First graders are new to the world of structured academics and need to feel that they are safe taking risks, that they are working alongside supportive peers and adults, and that school is also a place where they can have fun. The following community-building strategies are especially effective for first graders:

  • Collaborative games that de-emphasize competition and give children a chance to play with and get to know one another
  • Incorporation of music, poetry, and movement into daily classroom routines
  • Regular read-alouds with opportunities for discussion and making connections to children’s personal lives and families
  • Potlucks and other events that bring families into the school and give them opportunities to share home culture
  • Field trips and other hands-on learning experiences
  • Open community meetings and conversations about social issues that arise in the classroom

Literacy Strategies

One of the biggest tasks for first graders is learning to read and write. First grade teachers might feel overwhelmed by the tremendous range of literacy skills that is completely normal at this age. In general, the most effective way to get first graders reading and writing more independently and fluently is by using a balanced literacy approach – a combination of shared reading, read-alouds, guided reading and independent reading – over the course of the school day. Students who begin first grade as readers should be encouraged to choose increasingly challenging texts and work on complex comprehension skills.

Emergent readers should be supported in their developing phonological awareness and should be helped to feel safe and confident in spite of their temporary lack of independence. Regular opportunities to write using inventive spelling will also help first graders find their voice as literate people and understand the authentic purpose that can be involved in reading and writing.

Math Strategies

For some students, first grade is their first experience with math as a dedicated subject. In first grade, math should focus on number sense and computation. Give students many chances to play games and work with manipulatives and other hands-on materials. Incorporate miniature math problems and experiences into daily classroom routines, and make sure to help students learn to draw math problems or find other ways to represent numbers visually. One of the biggest challenges in teaching math to first graders is separating math concepts from the reading skills that sometimes go hand in hand with math worksheets.

The more authentic opportunities students have to engage with math concepts separate from written language, the more accessible and exciting math will become.

Science and Social Studies Strategies

Though there has been a great push toward reading and math emphases in recent years, first graders still need a chance to engage with concepts and ideas in science and social studies. When it comes to science, first graders can be keen observers and love hands-on activities pertaining to nature, animals, and even rudimentary aspects of physics. Incorporating art into science is another way to maximize students’ interest. In social studies, first graders often benefit from getting out into the neighborhood and community. Teaching students interviewing skills and concepts that have to do with making a community work will help them feel safe in their environment, and will prime them for future study in history and geography.

Lesson Summary

First graders can be full of energy and motivation, but it takes a strong teacher to meet their range of needs and help them learn all that they need to learn.

Try to focus on understanding your first graders’ developmental needs and help them build a strong community. Make literacy central in your classroom, and be patient and open as students explore new math concepts and skills. Don’t forget about science and social studies, which can be incredibly motivating and exciting areas of study for this age group.


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