Teachers Explain Things a 1st Grader Should Know at the Beginning of the Year

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It’s the beginning of the school year, and there are a flurry of emotions.

Whether you are schooling in person or at home, your soon-to-be 1st grader is likely thrilled to be going back to school and getting to learn new things.

You, however?

If you’re reading this article right now, you probably have mixed emotions about this!

Is your child ready for 1st grade? Have you done enough to get them prepared?

Don’t worry! Read on for some reassurance and expert advice from educators on what 1st graders should know at the beginning of the year.

Essential things most 1st graders should know coming into the year are:

  • Identify and Write All Letters
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Sight Words
  • Copying Short Sentences
  • Recognize Numbers
  • Subitize
  • Count to 20
  • Addition and Subtraction 0-10
  • Basic Social and Emotional Skills

Timothy Bellavia, an education professor at Touro College Graduate School, emphasizes that strong literacy and math skills are a predictor of future academic success, which is why these skills made most of the list. 

The skills should also be taught in a non-threatening way.

Prof. Bellavia adds, “By starting with music as well as playing with dolls and fun manipulatives early on in the learning process, teachers can create a less intimidating environment that is more accessible to all learners.” 

This means that learning should still be playful and fun at this age!

It seems like a big list of skills at first glance, but you’ll be surprised how simple these skills are and how many of them your child will already have.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each skill and figure out what the experts have to say.

Identify and Write Letters

Can your child point to the letters of the alphabet and tell you what each one is?

Then your 6-year-old is on his or her way to succeeding in 1st grade. 

“For language development, incoming first graders need to be able to identify all letters and their sounds with some degree of automaticity,” says Whitney Rancourt, an elementary teacher and blogger at Mama Manages.

Kristie Shelley, an M.Ed. and blogger at The Mom Advantage stresses the importance of having these basic skills down before 1st grade:

Little ones [in K and 1st grade] that don’t build a solid foundation of early literacy skills will struggle in reading without proper intervention.” 

“The statistics show a struggling 1st-grade reader becomes a struggling 2nd-grade reader. A struggling 2nd-grade reader becomes a struggling 3rd-grade reader. You can see the pattern.”

So, even though it may seem small to quiz your child on letters, don’t skip out on this!

These are the building blocks for literacy.

Kelly Rigg, an elementary teacher and blogger at Literacy Learn, adds that incoming 1st graders should also be able to write their own first and last name.

Your child will be expected to label each of their worksheets with their name, and possibly the date as well.

Some Phonological Awareness

Along with identifying letters, kids going into 1st grade should have some idea of what those letters sound like.

Shelley says, “To have phonological awareness means you can recognize and manipulate sounds and words in a language.” 

According to Shelley, knowing letter sounds comes before the student moves on to phonics.

She adds, “Alphabetic Knowledge + Phonemic Awareness= Phonics.”

This skill will later turn into your child being able to decode words that he or she has not come into contact with yet, something Rigg says starts in 1st grade.

According to Rancourt, one way you can practice this at home is simply by reading favorite books and by rhyming. 

“Continue reading picture books together that you love without regard for reading level,” she says.

“Enjoying books is paramount, even though the payoff is not always immediate! Read funny poetry to your child, because rhyming helps kids develop phonemic awareness.”

She goes on to say that you can play a game where you count together how many sounds there are in a certain word on your fingers, like “mom,” “mmm-ahhh-mmm,” that’s three sounds and three fingers.

Memorized Sight Words

By the time your child reaches 1st grade, he or she should have around 50 sight words in their back pocket.

(Sight words are short, building block words that kids should eventually be able to recognize automatically.)

50 sounds like a lot, but not when you think of how many short words there are that your child probably already knows, such as “a, is, I, you,” and “the.” See, there are 5 words already! 

Rigg says that she sees students “‘take off’ in reading” when they can spot sight words that they can easily recognize and write.

When you are going about your day and see a sight word that your child is practicing, point it out to them, or say “I see the word ‘stop.’ Do you see it?”

Able to Copy Short Sentences

Along with letter writing, your almost 1st-grader should also be able to copy short sentences, says Rancourt.

This helps your little one get used to sentence patterns normal in speaking and writing. 

One fun way you can practice this at home is by starting to send letters to a pen pal.

This could be a distant cousin or a friend down the street.

You can either dictate the letters or words to them or write out a letter they have dictated for them to copy themselves.

Recognize and Count Numbers

Now that we’ve finished covering literacy skills your 6-year-old should know after kindergarten, let’s talk about math.

As we’ve mentioned before, basic mathematical skills are an important pillar in future academic success for kids.

The first math skill that your child should have down by the beginning of 1st grade is recognizing numbers and what they symbolize.

Along with this, your child will be expected to be able to count up to 20.

Rancourt’s ideas for practicing this at home are easy. “If the rising first-grader wants a snack,” she says, “simply counting out [some] goldfish crackers, or counting while jumping rope can make a big difference!”

Subitize Numbers

Along with recognizing and counting the numbers up to 20, your child should also be able to subitize up to that amount as well.

Subitizing numbers means being able to state, without counting, how much of something there is.

For example, if there are 3 circles on a piece of paper, your child should be able to tell you there are 3 circles without counting them individually.

Practicing subitizing can be made into a fun game at home.

“If the child has a large collection of toy cars, drop 7 onto the floor and see how quickly he can state the number without pointing and counting aloud,” says Rancourt.

“These things take practice but help tremendously.”

Addition and Subtraction 0-10

Basic addition and subtraction are included in Heather Keita’s list of what a child should know after completing kindergarten.

She is a former 1st-grade teacher and a blogger at grubbycat.com.

She also says that in 1st grade, students learn to add and subtract simple numbers up to 100 (no carrying-over numbers, though).

So, a basic understanding of adding and subtracting numbers up to 10 is foundational.

This can be practiced at home with hands-on activities like adding or taking away snacks.

There are several free apps to help your budding learner in math as well, and Khan Academy is among the best.

Basic (But Important!) Social and Emotional Skills

Kids at age 6 still do a lot of learning through play, and many experts agree that this is still essential.

Learning through play can include literacy and math skills, but it’s also important for social and emotional skills. 

One important SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) skill a first grader should know is basic manners.

This includes saying please and thank you, being respectful to others, and taking turns. This is something Keita says is becoming more and more important.

“This is something lacking in society as a whole,” she explains. “It’s to the point we [teachers] are now teaching what our school counselors use to because so much more of our population needs basic, very direct instruction for everyday life.”

A way to practice empathy and thought for others can happen when you are reading to your child.

Ask your son or daughter what certain characters are feeling in certain situations (if they are happy, sad, scared, etc).

What Children Learn in 1st Grade

In general, 1st grade builds on all the skills learned in Kindergarten.

We asked our experts to weigh in on what specific things children learn in 1st grade, and here’s a quick list of them:

  • They learn more phonemic awareness, or ‘playing with words.’ Rigg gives us an example: “Children should learn to orally determine what is ‘slime’ with the /s/ = lime. Research tells us that these skills are directly connected to a child’s success in reading.”
  • They deepen their oral language skills and vocabulary.
  • They write more sentences, and they are learning and practicing more about proper punctuation, spacing, and capitalization.
  • By the end of 1st grade, they can read basic chapter books.
  • They learn more complex and practical math. This kind of math we are talking about is like the math involved in calculating money and time.
  • They learn more about science and social studies.

Of course, this list is not all-inclusive, but hopefully, it gives you a better idea of what your 6-year-old will be learning in school this year!

Wrapping Up

Every school, teacher, and curriculum is a little different.

But the above list is fairly representative of what an incoming 1st grader will be expected to know at the beginning of the year.

If you feel your child may be behind, don’t worry. Kids at this age operate at all sorts of different levels, and a little at-home instruction using the drills and games above can go a long way.

If you still have questions or concerns about your child’s progress, be sure to reach out to your child’s past or future teachers or counselors for help.

There’s a whole community of people ready to help your child succeed, but they need your partnership to do it!

Early intervention for learning issues is the key to future academic success. Your child will thank you later!

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Hope this helps!