Reading in First Grade

Reading is a process of getting meaning from print. Early reading includes the direct teaching of words and sounds. Children must be able to distinguish between different sounds of oral language to achieve understanding. They also need basic knowledge about the written alphabet, sound-symbol relationships, and concepts of print because these are the basis for decoding and reading comprehension skills.

How reading relates to ELLs

For English language learners (ELLs), success in learning to read in English in the first grade depends on several factors:

  1. In kindergarten, were they exposed to reading in English or in their primary language?
  2. Did that exposure include ample vocabulary development? In which language?
  3. Were they exposed to the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness), the alphabet, sound-letter relationships (phonological awareness), decoding, and comprehension skills? In which language?

Here is some additional information on how to assess your ELL students.

If the level of oral language proficiency in English or Spanish is high, and decoding skills have been taught, learning to read first grade texts will be easier. If the student did not attend kindergarten or was not exposed to a rich language development program and pre-reading skills, a first grade teacher will need to begin with building these kindergarten skills.

The good news is that research has shown that students can develop oral language and reading skills simultaneously. In fact, the more students read, the more language they learn. And when they are regularly taught vocabulary, they will become more fluent readers and have better comprehension skills.

In addition, the basic skills that serve as the base for reading, such as phonetic recognition, transfer from one language to another. If a student who is learning English has already acquired these skills in their first language, it is not necessary to learn them again in English. It is always a good idea to find out if the child knows these skills in their first language before beginning to teach them in English.

Classroom strategies: For teacher read alouds

Oral language activities

Before, during, or after reading a story in class, teach vocabulary words. This is a must in order for students to understand what they are reading. Students need to know at least 90 - 95 percent of the words they are reading in order to comprehend the text. You can pre-teach vocabulary by using English as a second language (ESL) strategies such as:

  • Role playing or pantomiming
  • Using gestures
  • Showing real objects
  • Pointing to pictures
  • Doing quick drawings on the board
  • Using the Spanish equivalent and then asking students to say the word in English

Listening comprehension

Listening to stories read aloud by the teacher is one effective way for students to enrich vocabulary. It is also an easier way for you to introduce comprehension skills such as the main idea and cause and effect because the students are not having to do the arduous work of decoding, learning new words, and trying to comprehend the story while also attempting to think about elements of the story.

You can do this through discussions with students or by thinking aloud about what might be the main idea or the cause and effect in a section you just finished reading. When reading aloud to ELLs:

  • Show and read the front and back pages of the book, as well as the dedication or table of contents page.
  • Use pictures, maps, objects, or drawings on the board.
  • Provide background knowledge on concepts that students will need to comprehend the story.
  • Introduce the characteristics/elements of the story (characters, setting, problem, solution, plot).
  • Pre-teach five to six key words they will encounter frequently and will need to use for the discussions.
  • Model how a reader self-corrects when making a mistake.
  • Think aloud about what you are reading; stop every once in a while and summarize what you have read so far.
  • Provide opportunities for students to summarize or retell the story through dramatic retellings; or use picture cards to put the story's events in sequence.

Classroom strategies: For student reading

Decoding and comprehension

ELLs benefit when they are introduced to reading through sequenced decodable books that build on previously learned letters, sounds, and words. These books start out combining only a few consonants and vowels. Simple decodable books allow ELLs to read engaging and interesting stories even though they may only know a few letter sounds. Fast-paced lessons can include activities for hearing sounds in words, identifying the sounds associated with specific letters, and blending letter sounds into words. You can conduct these phonics activities through games and chants in which the whole-class responds.

After you review the sounds that students will encounter in their decodable books, conduct guided reading so that students follow along in their books as you model fluency. Read the selection again, stopping frequently to help student comprehension by clarifying concepts, teaching unknown words, asking questions about the story, and letting children connect these stories to their own experiences.

After the guided reading, have students reread their decodable books with a partner. They can take turns reading by alternating sentences. This helps them focus on what they are reading because each student only reads a small chunk. Reading with a partner also creates a safety zone where they can feel comfortable reading aloud.

Finally, conclude the activities with a class debate or an essay based on the reading.

Other ideas

Here are some other things you can do:

  • Use thematic units such as "communities" or "dinosaurs" or "the environment." This helps children learn vocabulary faster because they hear the same words in the stories the teacher reads, in what they read, and in their learning centers and other activities.
  • Use cooperative learning activities to provide more opportunities for ELLs and all students to develop oral language and social skills. Even if all the students in a classroom or group are limited in English, they will still benefit from practicing with their peers.


Adapted from: Slavin R. & Calderón, M. (2001). Effective programs for Latino students. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

And from: Slavin R. & Madden, N. (2001). One million children. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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