Special Report

The Tough Task Ahead for 1st Grade Teachers

A case study on providing math and literacy foundations
By Madeline Will — June 22, 2021 10 min read
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Author Robert Fulghum famously wrote, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” But the pandemic meant that many students missed that pivotal school year or experienced a more disrupted version. And now, 1st grade teachers will have to fill in the gaps.

Kindergarten is typically where 5- and 6-year-olds learn how to be students. They learn how to regulate their own behavior and their emotions; how to raise their hands and listen to the teacher’s instructions; and how to take turns, share, and work together with their classmates.

They also learn the building blocks of reading, writing, and math. While standards vary by state, kindergartners are typically expected to learn how to count and compare sets of objects, how to write letters and punctuation, and how to read and write typical consonant-vowel-consonant words, like dog or cat. Kindergartners also begin to develop a more academic vocabulary—for example, being able to refer to a story’s characters, title, main idea, and author.

But the past school year was different. Kindergarten was among the toughest grades to teach remotely, educators said, since those students aren’t used to working independently or navigating the computer. And so much of kindergarten is rooted in hands-on instruction, including phonics lessons, where teachers demonstrate pronouncing specific sounds, and writing practice, where teachers monitor how kids are forming their letters and holding their pencils.

Also, kindergarten enrollment was down nationally. An EdWeek analysis found that almost 20 states lost 10 percent or more of their kindergartners during the pandemic, compared to the 2019-20 school year. While some of those children who stayed home may be in a kindergarten classroom in the fall, others will skip it entirely and head straight to 1st grade. Kindergarten is optional for children in 31 states.

That means 1st grade teachers will have a wide range of academic and social-emotional experiences to manage in the fall. Here’s what a typical class might look like. (The students named are not real—they are composites based on interviews with 1st grade teachers, instructional coaches, and teacher-educators.)

  • Noah is coming into 1st grade after spending most of kindergarten learning remotely. His parents were cautious about social distancing, and the only child he interacted with on a regular basis was his older sister. Noah developed strong computer skills, but he struggled learning how to read. His internet connection at home was unstable, so he occasionally had a hard time understanding his teacher during phonics lessons. As a result, he knows some letter sounds but not all.
  • Emma also spent most of the year learning remotely, but her parents organized a kindergarten pod with two other families. The parents took turns supervising the children’s learning and did the best they could to keep them on track. Emma made friends with the two other children in her pod, but she struggled to follow “school rules” at home.
  • Jayden attended in-person school all year. He did well academically, but over the summer, his grandmother died of COVID-19. He’s now grieving and withdrawn going into 1st grade.
  • Sofia’s parents didn’t feel like they would be able to monitor remote instruction and decided not to enroll her in kindergarten. Sofia is going straight to 1st grade without having experienced formal schooling.

“Teachers in 1st grade and kindergarten, we’ve always differentiated [instruction], but we’re going to have to differentiate next year like never before,” said Laura Chang, an elementary interventionist in the Vicksburg school district in southwest Michigan.

While teachers and experts stress that a year of disrupted kindergarten—or no kindergarten at all—isn’t going to irreparably harm children’s development or academic trajectory, educators will still have to catch kids up on the foundational and social-emotional skills that are typically taught in kindergarten. And they’ll have to do it with a class of disparate groups of learners.

“The hardest part will be the variability,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford University who studies early childhood education. “Some of the kids will be gung-ho and ready for 1st grade curriculum as planned, and others, both academically and socially, are going to be clueless. … We’ve got a huge gap in what children’s experiences have been this year.”

What 1st grade teachers can do

Education Week spoke to almost a dozen experts—scholars, researchers, instructional coaches, teachers, and parents—about how 1st grade teachers can prepare for an influx of students with a wide range of academic and social-development needs. Here’s what they suggested teachers do next year:

Make sure students feel safe and supported. The past year and a half has been difficult for children, and they might have experienced trauma—economic hardships, family violence, the sickness or death of a loved one. Experts say that children learn better when they feel secure, and teachers should start the year with trauma-informed teaching strategies.

“You can’t assess the brain without first passing through the heart of a student,” Chang said.

And strong teacher-student relationships can foster academic development, said Nell Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan School of Education. “We don’t want to be so caught up in catching up that we don’t take the time to develop those supportive relationships, which kids probably need more than ever,” she said.

Spend time building interpersonal and non-academic skills. Experts are expecting many 1st graders to be a little behind when it comes to classroom social skills. Behavioral expectations normally taught in kindergarten, like sharing, working in groups, taking turns, and raising hands, weren’t always a priority in remote learning.

Jolie Brouttier, a 1st grade teacher at Downtown Elementary in Bakersfield, Calif., said she’s planning to spend the first couple weeks in the fall getting students accustomed to being in a physical classroom. After learning remotely for most or all of this year, students might come to 1st grade not knowing how to work with manipulatives for math lessons, handle scissors safely, or even properly hold a pencil.

“I’m expecting to have to teach them the how-to before I can teach them the lesson,” Brouttier said. “These kids are so used to having a parent or guardian right next to them to help them. They’ve kind of had a crutch [this past year].”

Find out what students know, and what they don’t know. Teachers will need to take stock of what gaps students have coming into 1st grade. For reading, teachers can administer an informal decoding inventory, which will tell them which phonics skills and sequences students have mastered and which ones they still need to practice. They should also assess the strength of students’ number sense, meaning to what extent they understand quantities and recognize numerals.

See also

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Sevans/Education Week

Teachers should not assume that students didn’t learn valuable skills over the past year, even if they weren’t enrolled in kindergarten, the educators stressed. Students might have done more cooking with their parents this year, and learned about numbers that way. They might have learned about the world around them through family walks or outside play. Or they might have learned vocabulary or other skills from watching educational TV programs, like “Sesame Street.”

“There’s an opportunity to build on what kids did learn last year and to build on the interests that they may have developed that are not necessarily part of school learning,” Duke said.

Create lessons that serve a dual purpose. Teachers should “take every opportunity to build world knowledge and build vocabulary,” Duke said. For instance, when students practice reading, they should be looking at texts that connect to what students are learning about in science or social studies.

And experts recommend creating as many opportunities as possible for students to work and talk through their thinking with their peers. That’s especially important for English-language learners, said Martha Hernandez, the executive director of the advocacy group Californians Together. They might not have heard much English during the pandemic, so language-rich activities should be woven into the school day, she said.

Monitor for any disabilities. It has been a “missed year” of intervention for many students with disabilities, experts warn. If a student was learning remotely or not enrolled in kindergarten, a learning disability or other condition might have gone undetected. And this has likely led to an equity gap, Stipek at Stanford said: More affluent, educated parents are more likely to have noticed any problems and have had their child screened.

If teachers suspect a disability, they should work with counselors, special education teachers, specialists, and parents to get the “clearest picture possible,” said Carrie Gillispie, a senior P-12 research associate at the Education Trust, a national nonprofit. It’s important to differentiate a true delay or disability from a child coping with trauma or stress, she said.

Also, Gillispie warned that teachers should be careful not to misinterpret behavioral challenges with a need for special education. Students may be acting out because they aren’t yet used to sitting still and listening for large periods of time. Already, children of color—particularly Black boys—are disproportionately identified for special education services.

How districts can help their 1st graders

First grade teachers have a daunting task ahead of them, but they shouldn’t have to do this work on their own, experts said. Districts should use their federal relief money to provide support for all students and teachers next year, including incoming 1st graders and their teachers. Here are some of the interventions experts suggested:

  • Offer robust summer school programming. Summer school could help address some of the biggest gaps in students’ learning, and also help students acclimate to a physical classroom.
  • Beef up teacher professional development. First grade teachers may need more training on teaching concepts that are typically taught in kindergarten, formatively assessing students, and practicing trauma-informed teaching. Instructional coaching might be a particularly helpful form of PD, since the coaches can be teammates to teachers as they analyze student data and plan differentiated lessons.
  • Give teachers time to collaborate. Schools should offer teachers release time from their classroom responsibilities so they can collaborate with other teachers in their grade level. Schools could also create opportunities for 1st grade teachers to work with and learn from kindergarten teachers.
  • Provide intensive tutoring. High-dosage tutoring is generally defined as one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in small groups at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester. Research shows that it’s an effective way to help address content or skills gaps, and it can also boost students’ confidence.
  • Shrink class sizes. Smaller class sizes will make it easier for teachers to differentiate instruction for a wide range of skill levels. Still, class size reduction is expensive, and research shows that any effects on student achievement are usually small. Experts say this tactic is less of a priority than professional development and time for collaboration.

If done right, educators say, this year will be an opportunity to engage young children who have had an unusual start to their schooling career. In Chicago, Adam Arents said his 5-year-old son has learned and progressed over a year of mostly virtual kindergarten, but he’s gotten in the habit of “passively observing information” through a computer screen. He’s hopeful that in-person 1st grade will be more active and creative.

“I’m looking forward to him having a little more joy in his learning and not being so stuck with the limitations he’s been under,” Arents said.

Education Week spoke to the following sources for this article:
Adam Arents, the parent of a kindergartner in Chicago; W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research; Jolie Brouttier, a 1st grade teacher at Downtown Elementary in Bakersfield, Calif.; Laura Chang, an interventionist at Vicksburg Community Schools in Vicksburg, Mich.; Nell Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan School of Education; Carrie Gillispie, a senior P-12 research associate at the Education Trust; Martha Hernandez, the executive director of Californians Together; Donna Housman, the founder of the early childhood teacher-training and research organization, the Housman Institute; Carrie Johnson, a mathematics coach for the Salt Lake City school district; Michael Levine, the senior vice president for learning and impact at Noggin, Nickelodeon’s mobile subscription service for preschoolers; Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford University.


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