In first grade, reading is huge. Kids are starting to notice written words everywhere, and may drive parents crazy by reading anything and everything out loud. They sense (rightly) that reading is important and powerful, and learning to break that code is heady stuff.
Reading is complex and multi-layered, but luckily it can be broken down into separate skills that kids can practice. Looking separately at different areas of reading can help us see what kids are struggling with and find the most appropriate activities and learning games to help them improve. Here are some areas to address when teaching reading:
For first graders, reading is like a code to be deciphered. Kids may know what sounds individual letters make, but it takes skill to sound out the letters accurately and quickly enough to make the text resolve itself into an understandable word.
Phonics is the skill of picking words apart by sound to decipher the individual pieces. Phonics skills include such things as consonant sounds, beginning and ending sounds of words, long and short vowels, and letter combinations. Letter combinations include blends, which put several sounds next to each other as in "str" or "pl", and diagraphs, which combine to make just one sound as in "ph" or "igh".
If kids had to endlessly pick apart every word they read, reading would be quite tedious. Luckily, letter groupings often come in patterns that kids can come to recognize. These are called word families. Word families help create a bridge between knowing individual sounds, and sounding out bigger clumps of sounds. Here are some examples of word families:
Phonics patterns are great; but unfortunately, many common English words seem to make up their own rules. "Know" doesn't have a "k" sound, nor does it rhyme with "now". "Could" doesn't pronounce the "l", and "put" doesn't rhyme with "but".
These irregular words are learned separately, as first grade sight words, and will need to be memorized. The good news is that because kids come across these words so often, learning them means kids will know many of the "little words" as they read, which can be a real confidence booster. For the complete list of first grade sight words, click here.
The development of certain of foundational language skills, called phonemic awareness, can make first grade reading much easier for children. Phonemic awareness includes rhyming and other various types of sound games (changing "cat" to "can", or separating out the sounds "k-a-t" when given the spoken word "cat"). Rhyming ability is a great asset when children are learning word families, and sound games are the first step in learning to decipher written words.
Some children may have weak phonemic awareness skills when they enter into first grade reading. In spite of the rather intimidating name, phonemic awareness activities and games are easy to incorporate into your daily routine, and are a fun way to help kids develop the language skills they need for reading.
Sometimes you will come across a child who does an amazing job sounding out words on a page, but looks at you blankly when you ask any questions about what happened on that page. This child has strong phonics skills, but her reading comprehension is not so great. Being able to sound out words does not automatically translate into knowing what those words mean; these are separate skills and must be approached in different ways.
Reading isn't just about deciphering words. Children (and adults) use a variety of reading strategies to make sense of the text, beyond the individual meanings of the words. Readers make predictions, tap into prior knowledge, look at pictures, and engage in several other reading strategies to make reading meaningful. First grade reading can and should be a vibrant, communicative, interactive experience.
Fluency is one of the ultimate goals of first grade reading. Kids with good reading fluency flow from word to word; their words move smoothly from one word to the next. They give some words more emphasis than others, read with emotion, and show feelings through the sound of their voice. Their sentences are clear, not choppy. For many new readers, fluency does not just happen automatically. It needs to be taught, like any other reading skill.
Think of these as the building blocks of first grade reading. In truth, none of these can ever be completely separated out from the rest. Good reading comprehension will help kids read more fluently, strong phonics skills will be more important as kids learn word families, and so on.
Learning to read can feel overwhelming to kids as they learn to coordinate so many different skills. Giving them a chance to practice each "building block" separately can be a big help in helping kids become better readers.