For most kids, first grade is thrilling.  Rarely, in fact, will school include so many “firsts”: the first time most kids attend full-day school; the first time they manage a page of math problems; and especially, the first time they read a book independently, cover to cover.  

Of course, your child may have started these tasks in kindergarten, but first grade teachers expect that developmental levels and learning styles will vary widely.  They use a variety of approaches, and they know that kids’ speeds vary.  One day, you may see nothing; the next day, “Got it!”  As one teacher I know says, “First graders are like popcorn!”

So what exactly is taught in first grade?   Here are some key areas to look for:

Reading: Early on, the teacher will assess your child’s level and work from there.  In most classrooms, expect a balance of phonics and “whole language”; teachers want kids to develop solid problem-solving strategies for “decoding” (connecting letters to sounds) and “comprehending” (making meaning).   The best way to help at home is to read, read, read with your child and keep the tone fun, fun, fun.  Do you like picture books?  Kids use pictures to build understanding; this is a perfect time to indulge.  

Writing: By first grade, teachers will guide your child to write complete sentences with capitals and punctuation, and to create simple stories.  Be aware, though: spelling will be fearless, and that’s fine;  and an early story can be a three-sentence masterpiece.

Math: The number 100 takes on huge importance in first grade.  Expect your child to learn place value;  to read and write numbers up to 100; and learn early addition, focusing on sums between 1 and 10.  Kids will also work with concepts like more, less, same; and will learn basics of telling time.  At home, this is a great time to count everything in sight, and try to point to traditional clocks, not just rely on digital time.

Science and Social Studies: For all children, nature beckons.  In first grade, expect units that build science skills by making observations, categorizing same and different, and knowing what’s dead and alive.  This all connects to social studies lessons with maps, globes, and simple timelines and graphs showing birthdays, calendars, and school events.

Do be aware: while this is a general list, specific units and requirements may vary somewhat by state, and local districts and schools may have somewhat different approaches to the same topics.  So in addition to working with the list above, be sure to consult your state’s Department of Education for a complete list of academic standards.  

Still, explains Amy James, award-winning author of the Knowledge Essentials series (Jossey Bass, 2005), what’s common across every state is the fact that kids in each grade are around the same developmental age and stage. After analyzing standards across the country, James promises that there are “fundamental similarities…across all fifty states.”  In other words, says James,  when it comes to the basics, “first grade is first grade.”  And, with good teamwork between teachers, parents, and kids, first grade is also a whopping good time.