Teaching First Grade - A Good Year


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Robert Jackson

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Table of Contents:
Section I - The Basics
Section II - Whole Class Projects
Section III - Observing and Recording
Section IV - Reading
Section V - Math
Section VI - Writing
Section VII - Art
Section VIII - Play in the Classroom
Section IX - Games and Physical Education
Section X - Music

Section I - The Basics

First grade can be wonderful - stories, art, music, play, friends, science, social studies, reading, writing, math, and a kind and conscientious teacher - how could life be better?

The idea of children's growing or unfolding is never more important than in first grade.
What's the hurry? With a good attitude, all first graders will learn in time. There is no need to force them.
The world is full of unexplained occurrences, both for children and for adults. Children's curiosity needs to be nurtured, but we cannot expect to answer every question.
The teacher's wisdom

Section II - Whole Class Projects

Pets from Home. An alternative to having a class pet is developing a schedule of visits of pets from home. As a final step of the visit (after learning about the pet - its diet, its need for exercise, its place to sleep, its health, etc.), children can observe and record characteristics of the animals.

Do pets have eyebrows? Have a REALLY GOOD LOOK at pets brought from home. Observe the following in the pet:
Dogs and cats: paws, toes, nose, front leg (joints?), hind leg (joints?), eyes, forehead, eyebrows (?), mouth, lips, tongue, teeth
Birds: beak, wings, feet, toes, mouth, eyes, lips, nose, forehead, eyebrows (?), tongue, teeth(?)
Etc. with other animals
Follow-up: A Book of Noses, A Book of Ears
Children can be taught how to develop a book of noses (and/or ears) of various mammals:
Dog (various kinds)
Human being
The trouble with cooking is that the teacher has to do most of the work. However, if the recipes are kept simple, the children can participate well and can learn about prices, quantities, neatness, and hand washing.

Snowy Treats
Banana Pops
Fancy Sandwiches
Hors D'Oeuvres
Ants in Sand

Children can learn a lot from the teacher's reading aloud to the whole class. A children's encyclopedia is especially useful. Children can then become involved in the project and create a booklet with illustrations.
What can you discover about a tangerine? (segments, skin, pulp, stem, seeds)
Which television programs are the most popular in this class?
Find pictures of people's faces - faces that are decorated - in the National Geographic. Make a booklet: How People Decorate Their Faces.
Use a compass to find in what direction the front of the school faces? Classroom? etc.

Keeping a Diary of Fall Visits to a Favorite Tree
Holding a Harvest Festival
Saving Seeds from Outdoors for Planting
Setting up a Terrarium
Setting up an Aquarium
Finding What Foods the Birds Like Best
Watching the Changing Day
Discovering Signs of Spring
Keeping a Spring Diary of a Tree
Running a Plant-Growing Race
Any season:
What can you discover about your hand? (Observe (or feel) joints (thumb has only one joint plus the knuckle joint where the thumb meets the hand), feel the back of the hand for the bones for each finger, notice folds in the palm, veins, thumbnails, lengths of fingers and thumb)
Your eye? (Look at a partner's eye - shape, color, iris, pupil, changes with light, movement, how far to the side an object can be seen)
A piece of wood? (variations in growth rings, hardness, weight)
Soil? (composition of soils and sands from several locations)
A leaf? (veins, stem, shape - various kinds of leaves)
How is our school heated? (tour with a custodian)
Fabrics that are used to make clothes (cotton, linen, wool, polyester, etc. - samples of each - observe under a magnifying glass)
What does a doctor (or . . .) do? (speakers, with preparation beforehand, such as the teacher's reading aloud an article in a children's encyclopedia - carpenter, plumber, minister, etc.)
Famous Scientist of the Month (Louis Pasteur, Rachel Carson, Thomas Edison, Edward Jenner, et al.)
United States President of the Month
Recommendation: develop a plan for the year, month by month, and send the plan home to the parents. Sometimes, when given the plan for the year, parents can make contributions to class studies.

Section III - Observing and Recording

Children can be taught to observe something and then record what they see (or hear) individually on sheets of paper that are combined into a booklet.

(Children often want to know WHY something happens. Often, the reason is beyond their level of understanding. When this happens, the teacher can explain that the "why" will be explained later in school. There is no shame in not knowing. All of us live with it.)

To show initially how to observe and record (illustrate and label), the teacher can choose an experiment that the whole class engages in together. Once children understand how to observe and to illustrate and label and to bind together the individual sheets, they are ready to work independently on an experiment laid out by the teacher.

Whole Class - showing the class how to observe and illustrate and label - click for description.
Example #1 - Looking Closely at Myself [or partner]
Example #2 - Hearing Sounds
Example #3 - Seeds in a Dish

"Try it yourself" - examples of experiments that children can do themselves, once the teacher has demonstrated how to do them - click for description.
Strengths of Magnets
Materials Under Magnification
Evaporation of Water
Things That Can and Can't Be Blown Off a Table
Mixes of Colors
High Notes, Medium Notes, Low Notes
How Much Can You See Through a Hole?
Where Does a Tennis Ball Go After Hitting a Wall?
What Conducts Electricity?
Hair Styles in Classroom and at Home
Listen to the Heart
How Many Cups in a Pint?
Changes in Nature
What I Learned About _______
The idea here is not to give directions or make suggestions but, rather, to let the child discover on his or her own. The child can record his or her findings on a "What I Learned About _______" worksheet. Some children will be expert, others not, but all efforts are acceptable. "Why" can usually be left to higher grades.

Only a couple of objects every two weeks are probably enough.

Exception: it would help children to be taught the three types of levers. A lever is comprised of the pivot (fulcrum), the effort, and the effect. Class I has the pivot between the effort and the effect (scissors). Class II has the pivot at one end, and the effect is between the pivot and the effort (nutcracker). Class III also has the pivot at one end - the effort is between the effect and the pivot (spring-back tweezers).

Lay out a couple of objects on a table. Children learn about them on their own.
hand-powered rotary egg beater
hand-powered salad spinner
light bulb
lenses (from old eyeglasses)
book bindings
computer keyboard
spring scale (with a hook at the bottom)
wheel and axle (toy truck/car)
spring-back tweezers
two-armed corkscrew
ice cream scoop with movable dispenser
jar opener (pivot at one end)
medicine dropper
garlic press
can opener with twist handle
clamp that screws down (or a vise)
clamp that uses a spring
monkey wrench
nail puller (with a claw)
fingernail clippers (pivot at one end)
toy boat
suction cup
balance a straw with screw stuck in one end of it (as a weight)
electric switch
mounted weather thermometer with a bare bulb (touch moistened (warm, cold) finger to the bulb and see the colored liquid expand/contract)
sounds from a fork/spoon/tablespoon suspended on string and struck with a pencil
wind chimes
things that reflect (mirror, shiny spoon, other shiny surfaces)
tape measure, yardstick (for measuring)
coiled tape measure that retracts into its case - sometimes a plastic cover can be pried loose or unscrewed, revealing the workings inside
flashlight (imitating the sun) to shine on the globe. Stick a few pieces of clay to the globe to imitate mountains - as the globe is slowly turned toward the "sun," the "mountains" pick up the sunlight.

Section IV - Reading

The pleasure in words comes initially from being read to and from singing and reciting poems and stories. In first grade, they are the bases of the reading program. What fun to respond to the teacher:
"Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?"
"I've been to London to visit the Queen."
"Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?"
"I frightened a little mouse under a chair."
The child enjoys the rhythm, the rhyme, and the humor. Words do so much! Mother Goose rhymes, often learned earlier, continue to be wonderful in first grade, as do poems for children, such as "The End" by A. A. Milne:
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was _________
I was hardly Me.
When I was _________
I was not much more . . .
"The Monkeys and the Crocodile" by Laura Richards provides another example:
Five little monkeys
Swinging from a tree,
Teasing Uncle Crocodile,
Merry as can be.
Swinging high, swinging low,
Swinging left and right.
"Dear Uncle Crocodile,
Come and take a bite."

Four little monkeys . . .
What happened to the fifth? Children already know!
Four little monkeys
Sitting in a tree,
Heads down, tails down,
Dreary as can be,
Weeping loud, weeping low,
Crying to each other.
"Wicked Uncle Crocodile,
To gobble up our brother."
Children hear the rhymes in words:
A was once an apple pie,
Nice insidy,
Apple pie!"

B was once . . . (a little bear, Beary, Wary, Hairy, Scary, Taky Cary, Little Bear)

C was once . . . (a little cake, Caky, M____, B____, Caky, Taky Caky, Little Cake)

D was once . . .

(Edward Lear - found in Better Homes and Gardens Story Book and at this Internet address: Lots more Lear)

Most children will pick up a lot of reading vocabulary from whole-class activities. Many words can be learned from labels that the teacher has attached to objects in the classroom: table, chair, window, desk, floor, wall, door, etc.

In addition, labeled pictures of familiar objects can be posted on the walls of the classroom. The following labeled pictures are available for printing. To print a page from the Web, use CTRL-P. (If you want to download, right-click on picture and choose "Save image as" and save to the Desktop. Double click on the icon, and click the printer icon at the bottom of the screen.)

Caution: don't teach vowel sounds or rules, such as "when two vowels appear together . . ." They only confuse first grade minds. Let the words speak for themselves. We learn to pronounce from experience. Think, for example, how you learned to pronounce "aria" and "area." Another example: "minute" (a unit of time) and "minute" (tiny). You learned from experience.

computer (divides com-put-er in written composition)
knees (many years ago, the k was pronounced)
knife (many years ago, the k was pronounced)
lima beans

Students can make their own word books with their own words, their own lettering, and their own illustrations.

Learning from reading textbooks requires close leadership by the teacher. You turn the students' attention to only one paragraph - or one sentence! - at a time. You start with word study of words in the paragraph or sentence - new or interesting or difficult words. Be careful not to confuse the students with rules - for phonics, consonant sounds are enough. After sufficient preparation, the students read the paragraph or the sentence silently. The teacher then checks student understanding by asking questions about the paragraph or sentence.

Children can learn a lot of words independently. Here are a few 14(+)-page downloadable books designed for this purpose.

To print directly from a Web page (hold down ctrl and tap p), use Internet Explorer.

This Horse


This Bear

More Bears

At the Beach


At the Farm







Human Body



Most first-graders have not yet developed the auditory discrimination to distinguish well among vowel sounds. The first-grade teacher should continue to teach the sounds of the consonants (probably taught in kindergarten) and not worry about the vowel sounds. Children can read words in context that they can not read singly. Good auditory discrimination and knowledge of vowel sounds will develop in time.

Section V - Math

Children need to be able to DISCOVER and to PROVE the math that they are taught. For whole number operations, there is nothing like Stern blocks (described in Children Discover Arithmetic by Catherine Stern), which can be home made from corrugated cardboard or bought commercially in plastic or wood. Commercial sources: 1) for Cuisenaire rods ETA/CUISENAIRE or 2) for plastic rods (Clearview Base 10 Sets and Components DG111152TS), call Summit Learning at 1-800-777-8817 (Summit Learning Clearview Sets). If home made, each block can be 1-1/2 inches wide and, for length, 1 inch long for each unit. For example, the "6 block" would be 1-1/2 inches wide and 6 inches long. The blocks are marked across in 1 inch units. They can be coated with clear enamel spray. In first grade, there should be several of each length of blocks - 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

The blocks can be matched against each other. For example, using the 9 block as the foundation, the child can match the 4 block and the 5 block with it, proving that 4 + 5 = 9. Three 3 blocks can also be matched against the 9 block, proving that 3 + 3 + 3 = 9, etc. Blocks can be kept in a center, and children can be asked to go there individually to see what the blocks are that match a 9 block (or any other number). In this way they truly discover arithmetic.

For larger numbers as the foundation, a "number track" is needed. This looks like a railroad track. It can be twenty or more units long, with the 10's marked - 10, 20, 30, etc.

100 blocks can also be made. They are squares marked off in 10 rows, 10 units in each row.

Experiences with weight, length, area, and volume provide children with opportunities for using their knowledge of cardinal and ordinal numbers and for comparing (greater and lesser). In addition, there are relationships that can be learned with respect to weight, length, area, and volume as independent systems (ounces in a pound, feet in a yard, etc.). Money, too, has its own system, which is related to our decimal system - two nickels equal a dime, four quarters equal a dollar, etc.

Every first grade classroom should have a balance scale, a postal scale, and a spring scale (with a hook at the bottom). Children can make lists of things to weigh. The teacher can also make assignments - which is heavier, a cup of dried peas or a cup of rice? Guess first. Children can be misled, because the dried peas are larger than the grains of rice. However, as one child explained, you can get more rice grains in the cup. Weights of many things can be compared. How many screws balance five nails? How many acorns balance two stones?

Questions can be asked of volume measures. Kitchen measures of half cups, cups, pints, and quarts need to be provided.

Experiences with lengths involve measuring lengths in the classroom and school. Under the guidance of the teacher, children take an interest in measuring cloth, paper, furniture, and window sills, as well as things that must fit into cupboards or drawers or must fit on shelves. A trundle wheel (a wheel whose circumference is one yard) can be used for measuring longer distances (corridor, boundaries of playground, etc.). Trundle wheels are available from Summit Learning 800-777-8817 Trundle Wheels.

In one classroom children were interested in the sizes of their feet!

Children can learn about area by using geoboards, which are square boards marked off 10 inches by 10 inches, with nails pounded in at the intersections. With a rubber band a child outlines an area on the geoboard. Children can then count how many square inches are included in the area. As a next step, the teacher can provide graph paper marked off in one inch squares, and the child can reproduce the shape that he/she has created on the geoboard. The area can be colored in with crayon and the number of square inches recorded on the graph paper. By stretching the rubber band across two nails on a diagonal, the child includes one half squares in the area that he or she is enclosing. Sets of commercial geoboards are available at Summit Learning: 800-777-8817 Geoboards.

An independent activity with a geoboard can be set up. Make an assignment sheet - 1) Enclose 5-1/2 square inches. 2) Enclose 3 square inches. 3) Enclose 10 square inches, etc. Children who have completed the assignment sheet can check off their names on a list of names.

You can make worksheets that simulate geoboards if you have screen capture software, such as MWSnap (MWSnap). The worksheets can be copied from this Web site (should be opened in a new Window, since the browser's back arrow doesn't work in their site): Geoboards worksheets (Allow pop-ups on your browser). Sample worksheet: Sample geoboard worksheet

The beginnings of mathematics are found in a child's interest in collecting things. How many toy cars do I have? How many dolls? Do I have more than my friend? Who of all of my friends has the most? How many large ones and how many small ones do I have?

Graphs can show these relationships, such as "Numbers of Dolls Owned by Girls in the Class," "Numbers of Trucks Owned by Children in the Class," "Numbers of Brothers & Sisters of Children in the Class," "Numbers of Children in the Class with Birthdays (each month)," etc.

The recordings of children's number experiences can be gathered together in booklets. If the recordings are organized by topic, a title can be given to the booklet, and it can be added to the classroom collection. Examples: A Book About Ten, The Sizes of Our Hands, Minutes (to wash hands, to eat lunch, to walk home, etc.)

Section VI - Writing


The handwriting program should be whole class, formal, and highly teacher directed, using workbooks.


One or two sentences are just fine, with an illustration at the top. The teacher can say, "Write a sentence or two about [the weather today, a favorite pet, your kitchen, your favorite shirt, . . . ," or she can make the composition into a more formal lesson by eliciting from the children what words they will need and then writing the words on chart paper or the whiteboard for all to see and use.

Section VII - Art

For most of us, the sights and sounds and smells of childhood hold a particular joy. We can remember the joy of walking through a field of flowers or of picking up seashells on the beach. The woods gave us a feeling of depth and mystery. We reveled in lying on the grass and looking up at the sky. With what pleasure we felt the soft fur and warmth of a pet.

Section VIII - Play in the Classroom

The best way to provide for play in the classroom is to offer children materials with which to play, such as sewing cards, weaving toys, blocks, boxes and tins, kitchen utensils and bowls and pans, dress-up clothes, toy cars and trucks, and dolls.

Play is essential for the emotional-social growth of children. It helps make going to school a pleasure. With opportunities for play, children will have even more chance to be themselves and to grow in creativity and conflict resolution.

Section IX - Games and Physical Education

When at recess, first-grade children should be free to play as they wish. The teacher should provide balls and jump ropes.

4-Square Ball requires a court painted on pavement. For rules, see Rules for 4-Square Ball or Rules for 4-Square Ball. Rules have to be modified for young players.

Classroom Games
Four Corners
Pass the Chicken!

Books of classroom games are available, such as these, available from Amazon:
** 57 Games to Play in the Library or Classroom -- Carol K. Lee, Fay Edwards
** Illustrated Treasury of Classroom Games and Activities -- M. Karlin

Section X - Music

Musical Instruments
From time to time, parents or the music teacher can be asked to bring a musical instrument into the class - a violin, a clarinet, a trumpet, a portable keyboard, or another musical instrument.

Regarding the violin, for example, children can be taught how to position and hold the violin, what the various parts of the violin do, how the strings are tuned, why there are several strings, what happens when the holes in the violin case are covered up, the characteristics of the bow, and how bowing is done. Children can be invited to try to play the violin.

Directions for making many types of home-made musical instruments can be found at :

You can organize a rhythm band with homemade instruments, such as
a pie tin (to bang)
metal pot lids to strike with a spoon/unsharpened pencil/knuckle
keys on a large ring (to shake)
plastic jars partly filled with dried beans and sealed (to shake)
a heavy-metal coat hanger suspended from a string (to strike with an unsharpened pencil)
various containers for use as drums.
The rhythm band can be used to accompany songs. A conductor is needed. A few children might be able to figure out a rhythm band composition (to accompany a song) at home and then to conduct it with six or seven performers at school. Examples:
The Campbells Are Coming
Get on Board (little children)
Ahrirang (Korean folksong)
The Galway Piper
Down In the Valley
Old McDonald (Old McDonald had a band, e-i-e-i-o, And in that band he had a drum, e-i-e-i-o, With a * * here, and a * * there, . . . etc., with other instruments)
If You're Happy and You Know It (bang the drum, strike the triangle, shake the jar, etc.)

Ask a music teacher or parent to teach the children bongo rhythms. It's desirable to have a commercial set (many available on eBay), although a set can be homemade from two coffee cans (large and regular) bolted together (Coffee Can Bongos). Books and CD's that teach bongo rhythms can be found at Amazon if you use the search term "bongo rhythms." There is also information on the Internet.
Our heritage is very rich in children's songs. Just think of these:
- Farmer in the Dell
- A Tisket, A Tasket
- London Bridge
- I Love Little Pussy
- The North Wind Doth Blow
- Sing a Song of Sixpence
- Three Little Kittens
- Hickory, Dickory Dock
- Skip to My Lou
- Yankee Doodle
- She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain
- This Old Man (he played one . . .)
- Mr. Frog Went A-Courting
- I've Been Working on the Railroad
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
- America the Beautiful
- Blow the Man Down
- Where Have You Been, Billy Boy
- Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield Down By the Riverside
- Michael Row the Boat Ashore
- Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The teacher can enjoy these songs as much as the children.

There is no such thing as a song that's too young for children. First graders can enjoy nursery songs (as can adults).

There are many sources of songbooks. Do a search in Google or Amazon or Alibris using the seach term "songs for children" or "first grade songs" or "first grade music."

First grade teachers might find some useful suggestions in my site for substitute teachers:

A Packet for Substitute Teachers
and my site for classroom teachers:

Students Can Learn On Their Own

Try out my home hygiene site:

You Should Have Told Me - Home Hygiene and Home Routines.

There are a few choice suggestions in it that you yourself might want to use every day.

Health enthusiasts might be interested in my site recommending (not generally known) daily health habits:

Health Tips: How to Prevent Hemorrhoids, Bladder Infections, and Heartburn (for a start)

Atheists might be interested in my site for atheists:

Depression, Anxiety, and Worry - What Can an Atheist (or anyone else) Do About Them

Pestered by unwanted thoughts and feelings? Try my new Web site:

Commonplace, Ordinary, Everyday Life - Choosing Good Nature

Food for thought:

Bad Habits of Mind

Diet without dieting:

The Sherlock Holmes Diet - Losing Weight Naturally by Knowing How to Eat

Advice/Tips/Suggestions/"How To" for Principals:

Advice/Tips/Suggestions/"How To" For Principals

Want to improve your reading comprehension? Take my quizzes:

Reading Comprehension Quizzes