There are four components of instruction in English language learning for children in the primary grades. The purpose of this paper is to discuss each of these components -- phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and reading -- and present learning activities suitable for grade levels kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. Some options for differentiation will be provided to accommodate different ability levels and learning styles in the regular education classroom.
Rupley (2009) noted that a number of studies over the past seventy years underscore the important role played by the teacher in students' learning to read. That may seem obvious, but Rupley refers to the benefits of direct/explicit instruction with respect to the components of language learning. Direct/explicit instruction is "active, reflective teaching in which the teacher recognizes that reading is an interactive process and that students can be effectively taught to become better readers" (Rupley, p. 120). In other words, it is not enough for teachers to provide reading materials and expect that students will develop the skills they need through exposure to books and worksheets. The teacher must be a thoughtful practitioner and take an active role in helping children build the foundations for learning to read.
For this paper, the general characteristics of the "typical" learner at each grade level, kindergarten through second grade, are discussed. Activities for each grade level are organized under each of the four components of instruction. Most of the activities can be adapted for all three grade levels. Depending on the student population, some activities that appropriate for kindergarten students in one class, school, or district might be better suited to first graders in another location.
Kindergarten students generally enter school at age five. Most kindergarten teachers will notice a disparity among students with respect to school readiness. One factor is chronological age; with students so young, even a few months can make a big difference. "Children move through two distinct developmental phases during the kindergarten year -- one of caution, literalness and general compliance; a second of experimentation, oppositional behavior, and uncertainty" (Wood, p. 42). A child closer to four years of age can thus be expected to behave differently than a kindergartener nearer to the age of six. Basic personality would make a difference as well. Kindergarten students will come to school at different stages of readiness based upon family demographics. Students with older siblings have heard about school from their brothers and sisters and may have seen them reading and doing homework. These students may have a better idea of what school "is all about" compared to the only child or oldest child who does not have that same indirect experience. Children may also come to kindergarten with diverse preschool experiences. Some children will have spent their preschool years in the home, cared for by a parent or grandparent; pre-reading skills may or may not be part of the day. Likewise, childcare facilities and preschools vary in types of programs they deliver; that can impact school readiness. Finally, socioeconomic status of the family will also play a role. Lloyd, Li, & Hertzman (2010) found in a longitudinal study of urban, disadvantaged children that lack of early learning experiences negatively impacted reading achievement in later grades. It is the task of the kindergarten teacher to reach all of these children in the teaching of reading.
Chip Wood (1994) wrote about the "typical" child for each age group in his famous book Yardsticks. He acknowledged that his discussions of each age group were "snapshots of development" (p. xix) but also explained "children's growth and development follow reasonably predictable patterns" (p. 26). The activities for kindergarten students (as well as those for first and second graders) detailed in this paper reflect Wood's findings and have basis in his recommendations.
Learning is at its best for the five-year-old when it is both structured and exploratory; structured through a clear and predictable schedule; exploratory through carefully constructed interest areas where children can initiate their own activity. The best teachers observe learning activities and create teacher-directed instruction to complement the children's interests and meet the learning expectations for the age (Wood, pp. 41-42).
First graders generally enter at age six. Hopefully, kindergarten provided an opportunity for students to build reading readiness skills. Once again, the teacher will find some disparity in the classroom, the result of the same factors that characterized the kindergarten classroom -- chronological age, personality, inherent ability, socioeconomic status, and prior school experience. It is probably the case that many students attend first grade in the same school in which they attended kindergarten. In such cases, students would benefit from consistency in instruction materials and methods. Kindergarten is not mandatory in all states. Even within states there are both full- and part-time kindergarten programs. A child who has not attended kindergarten at all or who attended a different school may be at a disadvantage, although not necessarily. The first grade teacher must address various abilities, learning styles, and differences in prior school experience when teaching reading skills.
Six is an age of dramatic physical, cognitive and social change…[Children] love to do their assignments, but are decidedly more interested in the process than in the product…Children delight in cooperative projects, activities and tasks…A teacher's words, tone, and body language all have great effect on six-year-olds…In many ways this is a key moment, a turning point, an open door. At six, the child is extremely open, receptive to all new learning. The eagerness, curiosity, imagination, drive and enthusiasm of the six-year-old is perhaps never again matched in quantity or intensity during the life span (Wood, pp. 59-61).
Children are generally seven years old when they enter the second grade classroom. Children who attend the same school for kindergarten and grade one come to second grade with an understanding of the school culture, classroom procedures, and common vocabulary from commercially-prepared curriculum materials such as basal readers, phonics programs, math programs, and similar materials. Wood (1994) characterizes seven-year-olds in the following ways:
Sevens are hard workers and often perfectionists…[They] love the routine and structure of school and appreciate their personal relationship with the teacher…[They] are good listeners and still enjoy being read a story. They show great interest in new words…They like working and talking with one other person (in board and card games, on puzzles) but don't always do well on group projects (pp. 71-72).
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Before children can learn to read, they must understand that words are made up of sounds. They must understand how sounds work in words (Write-Express, 2010). A child's level of phonemic awareness on entering school is widely held to be the strongest single determinant of the success that she or he will experience in learning to read -- or, conversely, the likelihood that she or he will fail (Adams, 1990; Stanovich, 1986, in Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998). In fact, research clearly shows that phonemic awareness can be developed through instruction, and, furthermore, that doing so significantly accelerates children's subsequent reading and writing achievement (Ball & Blachman, 1991; Blachman, Ball, Black, & Tangel, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991, 1993, 1995; Caslte, Riach, & Nicholson, 1994; Cunninghman, 1990; Lundberg et al., 1988; Wallahc & Wallach, 1979; Williams, 1980, in Adams et al.) Ukrainetz, Ross, & Harm (2009) reported that regularly scheduled classroom instruction specifically on phonemic awareness was shown to benefit at-risk kindergarten students as much, and in some cases slightly more, than pull-out instruction. Phonemic awareness is the most basic building block for learning how to read. Research indicates that, without direct instructional support, phonemic awareness eludes roughly 25% of middle-class first graders and substantially more of those who come from less literacy-rich backgrounds (Adams et al.).
TEAMS Educational Resources developed general guidelines for levels of phonemic awareness. Preschoolers ages three and four are usually able to identify words that rhyme, Four and five-year-olds (a group that includes kindergarteners) realize that words are made up of syllables; they can clap their hands and count the "word parts" they hear. Six-year-olds (usually first grade) understand onsets (beginning sounds) and rimes (roots of word families) and can make substitutions. For example, they will understand a word puzzle such as "What rhymes with / at / and begins with / f/? Six years olds usually can isolate beginning, middle, and ending sounds and can blend them, for example stretching out the sounds / c/, / a/, / t//, then putting them together to say "cat." Second graders, and some first graders, can count the number of sounds they hear in a word as well as identify the sounds themselves. They can break down the word "man," for example, into its component sounds / m/-/a/-/n/. Second graders can usually substitute phonemes to make new words. For example, they could figure out what new word would be made…