The First Step in Teaching Reading to First Graders

three first graders reading at school

The first step in your journey of teaching reading to first graders begins with assessment. Stay with me here. Think of assessment as your roadmap (or GPS). In order to ensure that you reach your destination of a classroom full of successful readers, you need a roadmap, so you (and your students) don’t get lost.

When you are heading out for a road trip, you make sure you know where you want to go and how you are going to get there. You pack the car with necessities (snacks), You make sure the gas tank is filled. You have your route planned out.

Teaching reading to first graders takes the same sort of preparation. So, resist the urge to jump right into instruction. You need to know where to start and then you need to know where you are going. We refer to this instructional cycle as “Assess, Analyze, Instruct”. At Informed Literacy it is our core belief that the best instruction begins with targeted assessment and analysis of students’ understandings. This analysis will help you identify your next steps in reading instruction.

Is there a standardized assessment for first-grade students?

While there are several valuable standardized assessments available, we use DIBELS 8 as a universal screener to obtain beginning, middle and end-of-year benchmarks. DIBELS 8 offers free downloads for fall, winter and spring benchmarks as well as progress monitoring materials.

Since DIBELS is a standardized, criterion-referenced assessment, we wanted to know specific benchmark assessment windows for the fall, winter and spring screenings. We contacted DIBELS and they confirmed the following assessment windows:

  • Fall/Beginning of Year= 1-3 months into the school year
  • Winter/Middle of Year= 4-6 months into the school year
  • Spring/End of Year= 7-9 months into the school year

It’s important to review the Administration Guidelines as this assessment has discontinuation procedures in first grade in an effort to maintain efficiency of benchmark assessment and decrease frustration for beginning learners.

First Grade Assessments

We recommend assessing several weeks into the school year rather than Week 1. Students often come to school with vastly differing understandings. Most of them benefit from several weeks’ time to get acclimated to the school environment. Meanwhile, be sure to review each student’s reading data from the previous year and do a lot of ‘kid-watching’. These are both important first steps when preparing to teach reading to first graders.

Anecdotal Observations: While official assessments or screens won’t start from Day 1, teachers can certainly gather anecdotal data that can provide a picture of the whole child.

  • Can the student follow directions?
  • Can the student attend to a story?
  • Does the student have strong (or weak) oral language?
  • Can the student work independently?
  • How does the student hold their pencill?
  • Can the student write lower- and upper-case letters with proper formation?
  • How does the student interact with peers?

Grade 1 Assessments

Be sure to check each student’s assessment history. Do they have a solid grasp of Phonemic Awareness? Have they mastered their letter names and sounds? If not, then start there.

What do I need to know about phonemic awareness?

Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic Awareness is an auditory skill that is fundamental to mapping sound to print. As Mark Seidenberg explains in Language at the Speed of Sight, ...”phonological information is an essential element of skilled reading in every language and writing system; impairments in the use of this information are typical of poor readers and dyslexics.”

assessment materials on a table with a pencil

DIBELS 8 contains a Phonemic Segmentation Fluency (PSF) assessment. However, it only addresses the ability to segment words. There is more to phonemic awareness than just segmentation, so if your student struggled with this one-minute screening, you would want to dig a little deeper. It is for this very reason that we created an easy-to-use Phonological Assessment. In addition to the more discrete phoneme skills, this assessment includes phonological skills such as rhyming, segmenting words in a sentence and segmenting and blending syllables. We also include ‘Guidelines for Analyzing’ to help teachers know what to look for after administering the assessment.

FREEBIE ALERT!! We are offering our Phonological Awareness Assessment resource for FREE!

What should I look for when assessing letter names and sounds?

the letter name and sound assessment on a clipboard wth a pencil

There are two things to look for when assessing letter names and sounds.

  1. Does the student know all of the letter names and sounds?
  2. How quickly can the student produce the letter names and sounds?

DIBELS 8 includes a Letter Naming Fluency (LNF) that can be administered as a universal screening at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. This assessment can be used to flag students who may have issues with Rapid Naming.

We developed a FREE Letter Name and Sound Assessment which is incredibly helpful to determine current letter-name and letter-sound knowledge. This resource includes our “Guidelines for Analyzing” which helps the teacher determine next steps for instruction.

My students mastered those foundational skills. What’s next?

Now that your students know their letter names and sounds and can orally blend and segment words, it is time to determine whether they can apply this skill to printed words.

DIBELS 8 offers one-minute timed assessments in single word reading for two types of words: decodable words and high frequency words. High frequency words (HFW) are words that first graders are expected to read by the end of the year. HFW are both regular and irregular words.

Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF): The nonsense words are decodable and follow common syllable patterns. Students read from a list of words for one minute. DIBELS uses nonsense words to evaluate whether the student truly recognizes the pattern or whether the student has memorized individual words. Students’ understanding of syllable types is crucial for accurate and fluent reading.

Word Reading Fluency (WRF): During this one-minute timed assessment, students read a series of words that contain both regular and irregular word patterns.

What type of running records do you recommend?

DIBELS 8 Oral Reading Fluency (ORF): This assesses the students’ ability to read a grade-level, non-controlled text. Non-controlled text means just that. The words in the passage are not limited primarily to patterns to which the students have been exposed.

After everything we’ve said in our blogs about the importance of decodable texts, you might be wondering why DIBELS uses non-controlled text with their ORF. It is because this is a criterion-referenced assessment that gives a more complete picture of where the student falls on the continuum of their grade level.

DIBELS is also a standardized assessment. The standardized component allows us to compare apples to apples. How is one student grasping reading skills as compared to their peers?

It’s worth mentioning again, teachers must be mindful of the discontinuation procedures put in place by DIBELS. Discontinuation guidelines keep assessments quick so as not overwhelm or frustrate students with tasks in which they are not yet proficient.

Why can’t I just give my students a running record using a leveled reader?

There are a few reasons why we recommend DIBELS 8 over leveled readers.

First, leveled readers are not standardized. Within a level of these types of books, text difficulty varies greatly from text to text.

Second, the DIBELS ORF is a 1-minute timed assessment. Leveled readers are much more time-consuming to administer.

Third, DIBELS includes discontinuation procedures that reduce student frustration. Most leveled readers do not.

Fourth, unlike leveled readers, DIBELS does not encourage students to rely on faulty word-solving strategies. Because DIBELS is timed, incorporates discontinuation procedures, and does not include pictures, students do not reach frustration and do not fall back on guessing at words. The same cannot be said for leveled readers.

What about using controlled texts for running records?

We are so glad you asked!

If you are following a structured literacy format and you are incorporating systematic phonics instruction into your daily reading lessons, then controlled texts is an essential part of assessment.

Controlled refers to the types of words in the text. A controlled text is a decodable text. That means students have been taught the phonics patterns found within the text. This type of assessment is particularly helpful because it reveals whether the student is responding to direct instruction.

Be sure to administer controlled text running records that contain only previously taught phonics patterns. This will help you determine whether your students have mastered specific phonics patterns or whether they need further instruction.

Do I have to give both types of running records?

Both types of running records are important because they provide different information. Each type of running record must be scored for accuracy and fluency (the number of words read correctly per minute). Click here for tips on how to calculate a fluency score.


The next step in teaching reading to first graders is to then analyze your students’ assessments. What do they reveal? Do they know their letter names but not their letter sounds? Can they orally segment words but have difficulty blending? Have they mastered some phonics patterns but not others?


Check out our FREE K-2 Scope and sequence. This handy guide provides you with a map of what to teach next and ensures that all the important skills are addressed.

Where can I find Science of Reading-aligned resources?

An important next step in teaching reading to first graders is to use the appropriate resources. After all that hard work of assessing and analyzing, you don’t want to take a wrong turn by using resources that don’t address your students’ instructional needs. Shop our TPT store for SoR resources. Each resource comes complete with lesson plans so no matter where you are on your journey, you can help your students meet with reading success! Here are just a few of the SoR materials we offer.

Decodable books help students apply phonetic patterns and develop automaticity.
Decodable Word Lists and Sentences
Reinforcing of Phonetically regular words resource
Reading and spelling are reciprocal skills. Strengthening one will strengthen the other.

Are you interested in learning about teaching reading in kindergarten?

Check out our post on the best way to begin teaching reading in kindergarten for some helpful tips.

Let us help you as you navigate the roadways of teaching reading to your first graders!

Connect with us on Instagram and send us a DM with any questions you might have.


Similar Posts