Most adults have only hazy memories of the early grades in school. So when parents and grandparents watch their little ones march off to join America’s education system, a natural question arises: What should a first grader know?
Education experts have a solid answer. If kindergarten is about transitioning away from the play-based learning of preschool, then first grade is about stepping fully into the world of academics.
“The overall goal of first grade is the mastery of skills across all domains — social, emotional, cognitive, language and physical,” Rashi Sharma, a relationship implementation specialist at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, wrote in an email. “It is key for a first grader to graduate feeling (confident) in their school life.”
Of course, there still is plenty of time for fun, and the best first-grade teachers make learning engaging. But by the end of the year, experts say there are a series of academic milestones contained in state and federal learning standards that a first grader generally should have mastered.
“If students are not proficient and confident in their foundational skills then they will be building a wobbly house,” Allison Blass, who has taught first grade for 12 years in Queens, New York, wrote in an email.
Reading in First Grade
While classroom experience can vary depending on where students live, whether they attend public or private schools and other factors, education experts say first graders should be able to read at least 150 high-frequency words by the end of the year. They should also be able to read grade-level books fluently and understand them.
More broadly, a first grader typically ends the school year as an independent reader, with improved phonics and reading comprehension skills. They also learn basic grammar skills, like capitalization and punctuation.
“First grade is typically the year where students build on and consolidate cognitive skills,” Sara Leman, a literacy specialist at Reading Eggs, an online reading program, wrote in an email.
Leman says that, by the end of first grade, a student should be able to:
— Read with greater fluency and accuracy.
— Retell a familiar story.
— Describe and compare characters and events from different texts.
— Distinguish between narrative and nonfiction texts.
[Read: When Do Kids Learn to Read?]
Writing in First Grade
Children in first grade learn to spell three- and four-letter words and write in clear sentences that make sense. By the year’s end, students will form short paragraphs with three or four sentences or more. They can also write basic short stories.
In addition, they learn handwriting skills, such as how to write their name, and basic words and sentences. Leman says the following skills should be mastered by the end of first grade:
— Write a range of texts, including narratives, informative texts and opinion pieces.
— Structure their writing according to the assignment.
— Write full sentences using capital letters and ending punctuation.
— Spell several high-frequency words correctly.
Math in First Grade
Education experts say that, by the end of first grade, a student can count, read, write and sequence numbers up to 100. They also learn how to compare numbers using the symbols for greater than, less than and equal.
First graders also add and subtract small numbers, and they are introduced to the idea of place value as they learn to add and subtract two-digit numbers. As part of that math learning, students in first grade are also taught about measurements and very basic geometry. They compare the length, weight and volume of objects. They measure length using small tools, such as a paper clip or a pencil. Teachers also explain how to identify, compare and describe basic shapes.
Leman says basic math skills acquired by the end of first grade also include:
— Counting to at least 100, from any starting point.
— Representing and interpreting simple data.
— Recognizing and composing simple two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional objects.
— Partitioning a shape into equal halves and quarters.
[Read: 10 Fun STEM Activities for Kids.]
Telling Time and Reading a Calendar
First graders also learn how numbers and basic math are useful in their everyday lives. They learn how to tell time and read a clock face to the nearest half-hour. They learn to understand concepts such as “an hour from now,” and how to name the days of the week and months of the year.
In addition, first graders learn how to identify different coins, understand the value of each and combine the value of each one. For example, they may learn that four quarters equal a dollar.
Basic counting skills and math can be demonstrated as practical skills, Sharma says. An example of a lesson: “I had seven apples. I went to the store, and now I have nine. How many apples did I get at the store?”
Science and Social Studies in First Grade
In first grade, children also learn the basic fundamentals of science, such as collecting data and recording observations in writing, pictures and graphs.
As part of this basic understanding of science, students are taught about the difference between living and nonliving things, and the importance of the sun and Earth. By the end of first grade, education experts say that children will have a better understanding of:
— Weather patterns.
— Natural cycles such as ocean tides and the moon.
— The life cycles of plants.
— The characteristics of animals and living things.
— The properties of solids and gases.
As with science, students in first grade also learn some of the basic building blocks of a social studies curriculum. They learn about symbols representing the United States and important events in U.S. history.
Sharma says that first graders are increasingly gaining an awareness of current news events and “knowledge of traditions and values from American and diverse cultures.” She says first graders are also learning basic geography such as the ability to read a map and to locate the seven continents, the United States and the city where they live.
Social Skills in First Grade
In addition to all these academic gains, first graders significantly grow throughout the year both emotionally and socially, Leman says. By the end of the year, it is common for first graders to:
— Tackle tasks with increasing independence and better concentration.
— Seek validation and approval from peers and adults.
— Make friends regularly.
— Be increasingly aware of other people’s feelings.
— Start to understand that people have different points of view.
“The overall goal of first grade is to create independent, responsible and confident humans,” Blass says.
Resources for First-Grade Parents
There are abundant resources for those who want to learn more about what a first grader should know. Here’s a sample:
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
More from U.S. News