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The Practicalities of Teaching in a First Grade Classroom: Part 1

We all know that using evidence-aligned practices in our classrooms is important. But how does this look, practically, in a first grade classroom? This post is not meant to be prescriptive, but descriptive–meaning these are the practices that have worked for me in the classroom and that are aligned to the evidence about what is beneficial for literacy learning.

The Daily ELA Block

Here is an example of an ELA block I’ve used in the past (click on the image below for a link to the full google drive spreadsheet. This changes from year to year (and within the year), when schedules change or curriculum resources become available, or because of other factors that make teachers some of the most flexible people on earth. But no matter the order or specific amounts of time, content will be similar.


One caveat: All of these things could not be accomplished without teaching efficiency. As you know, predictable routines are the backbone of instruction. I taught students each routine explicitly in order for us to spend our time where it belongs—on task.

For example, when I taught a lesson, I always had students come to the front carpet–and, more often than not–this teaching required frequent responses on a dry erase board. This means they needed an individual dry erase board, a dry washcloth to use as an eraser, and a dry-erase marker. Their supplies were labeled with a number [each student was assigned a number at the beginning of the year] and they were responsible for keeping up with these items in their desk (I also spent time teaching explicitly how to organize their desks). We called these 3 items their “dry erase set.”

After teaching and practicing this routine, all I would need to do was say, “Meet me on the carpet with your dry erase set!” and count down from 10 (or 15, depending on the activity beforehand) and students knew how to gather their items, come to their own assigned spot on the carpet, put their items down close to them in a pile, put their hands in their lap, and have a “bubble” in their mouth (waiting for the next instructions).

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

From about 9am-9:20am, I had students come sit on the front carpet with their dry erase sets for phonemic awareness and phonics time. The National Reading Panel and the CORE Reading Sourcebook suggest about 10-15 minutes of phonemic awareness during the first 6 weeks of first grade (and continued for students who have not mastered it beyond this in small groups) would be beneficial. I spent a bit less on this in whole group and incorporated it into small group for those in need as well.

First, students left their boards on the ground. I made sure to spend the time we had on phonemic awareness, specifically (the smallest sounds in words)… not on rhyming, syllables, or onset-rime. Phonemic awareness is most correlated with reading and spelling development and research suggests students do not need to master other phonological skills before gaining from instruction in phoneme-level skills. We did some blending and segmenting words in our arm or fingers (depending on school) to warm up, then moved to reviewing previously introduced sound spellings by building words on their boards. This phase was also explicitly taught as a routine–sound out the word with your fingers or on your arm (depending on school), draw a line for each sound, write a grapheme on each line, check it by reading the words as a whole. After doing phoneme-level activities, with or without letters, we moved onto letter knowledge and phonics.

During phonics time, we always started with a fast-paced review of our sound-spelling deck (looked similar to this video). Even when my school did not provide a deck similar to this one, I bought my own set–because $35 made my life and my students’ lives that much easier. You can also make your own using the curriculum’s scope and sequence on big index cards or cardstock paper.

I then introduced–using explicit instruction routines–a new grapheme (letter or group of letters that makes one sound) to add to the deck. I followed the curriculum’s scope and sequence and typically introduced a new one every 2-3 days.

Then, students would practice spelling various words including the new grapheme and previous graphemes on their white boards. They would repeat the same procedure from above, sound out with lines on boards, fill in the lines with graphemes. This procedure could be faded away to just writing the words as the year progressed. Students would hold the board next to their chest (as a secret) until I asked them to hold their board up for me to see. I would use this time as a formative assessment and it would help me to change my instruction in the moment, during small groups, and in future whole group lessons. They got to check their answers, fix it, and draw a tally on the top corner of their board for each sound correct.

This is also when I would introduce any new phonics patterns that were essential to know when spelling using the grapheme introduced (again following my curriculum’s scope and sequence–systematic and cohesive instruction is very important). For example, when introducing ‘ck’, students learned it is used at the end of a one-syllable word after a short vowel. I would provide the pattern, model examples and non examples, and they would practice with new words, receiving feedback as a whole group once their boards were held in the air.

If it was a day we were not introducing a new grapheme, after reviewing the deck I would call out phonemes (sounds) and ask students to write the corresponding graphemes on their boards, followed by a review of previously learned patterns in words similar to above.

Spelling groups

Then we’d move to spelling time. I’ve done different things, including differentiating the weekly lists given in our core curriculum myself, but personally found the easiest way to differentiate spelling instruction is through a program with resources already included like Words Their Way. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the program to be used as instructed in the manual–I used it as a tool and modified the intended use, as explained below.) At the beginning of the year, students took a spelling assessment from the program to “place” them at the appropriate lesson. I then analyzed the assessments and flexibly grouped students based on their results. Each student was assigned a partner from their group (triads were sometimes necessary).

Using a posted rotation schedule (the kids helped me change it based on their classroom jobs), I would typically meet with 1 of the 5 groups each day to assess them on their learning of the previous week’s pattern using words they worked with throughout the week and new words using the same pattern–to assess if they are able to generalize, not just memorize. Then, I’d explicitly teach the next spelling pattern. They would practice with their word sort after I explained and demonstrated while I gave positive and corrective feedback.

Next, students were sent to complete each of the activities on the sheet below (explained in the next paragraph) while I visited other partners around the room to check in. These were all taught explicitly at the beginning of the year. (Note: I got this from somewhere and adapted it… but I don’t remember where I downloaded it from originally—feel free to link in comments if you know!). Click on the picture below for a printable version.

For the regular sort (completed 2 times/wk) students would sort the words independently (orthographic pattern practice) and then read the words to their partner—decoding practice (who would check and provide feedback). The blind sort (completed 2 times/wk) consisted of a partner calling out the word (deciding practice) without showing the student, and the student pointing to which column it would belong (orthographic pattern practice). The partner would place it in the column if correct. If not, the partner provided feedback. The speed sort (completed 2 times/wk) was a regular sort (orthographic pattern practice) in which partners went head-to-head. Whoever finished first got to read their words to their partner, then the partner read their words (decoding practice). The written sort (completed 1 time/wk) was similar to the blind sort, except students spelled the word in their notebook in the appropriate column (orthographic pattern practice) after their partner called it out (decoding practice) instead of just pointing at the column. After each was completed, their partner would initial on the line stating that the student completed the work. As you can see, lots and lots of opportunities for decoding practice and orthographic pattern practice with corrective feedback from a partner.

Students knew they had to show me their sorts when completed (to ensure deliberate practice instead of practicing incorrectly)–if I was working with a group, I would assign a checker (someone above level who liked to help others) to “be the teacher” for that time. After I finished with the small group, I would monitor and provide more specific feedback to pairs of students around the room.

After these were completed, students glued down the words in their notebook under the appropriate columns and then started the word hunt. The word hunt was optional for students who finished all of the above activities and consisted of students hunting for the spelling pattern “in the wild”–aka, in the classroom library’s books.

Each day, students would stop where they were once time was up, collect the words into their ziploc bags, and transition to the next activity.

This complemented whole group phonics and spelling time, ensuring all students were being taught grade level patterns and content in whole group, but then further differentiated to fill in gaps for students below level in a systematic fashion and provide extended practice for students on or above grade level. This work will be extended during small group reading instruction (in a later post).

High Frequency words

I was going to write a post on high-frequency word instruction, but Lindsay Kemeny did a wonderful job here. So–go read that post–then come back!

After introducing the new words explicitly (similar to Lindsay’s linked post above), students would grab their word rings (they wrote and added new words to their word ring during work time while I was meeting with small groups) and practice with their assigned partners. I would keep about 3-5 students who needed the most scaffolding with me on the carpet to review all words as a group (they would do individual word rings with a partner later, during small group time).

If I had students who had already mastered these words, I would pair them with students who needed more scaffolding (and would train them how to “be the teacher” to these students). Normally if I had more than a few students in this above-level category (reading on a second grade level), this high-frequency word time was moved to after the read-aloud so these above-level students could transition directly to doing independent reading instead of working on already-mastered high-frequency words.

I had a parent volunteer come about once a week to assess students on their individual word rings. If the students were automatic with the word (less than a second), the parent volunteer tore them off the word ring and threw them away (students loved seeing their progress in this way too)!



Deep breath.

So since this is turning out to be a longer post than intended, I’ll continue with discussing how I adapted materials to match evidence-aligned practices for comprehension and read-alouds, small group instruction, and writing in the next posts. Please leave any questions below and I will try to answer!


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16 thoughts on “The Practicalities of Teaching in a First Grade Classroom: Part 1

    1. Great question! Phoneme level skills would continue throughout the year whole group (rather than stopping after 1st six weeks). Handwriting instruction would be 10-15 min instead of 5 min. High frequency word instruction wouldn’t begin until the second six weeks. I always did a warm up before the grapheme cards of where I would say all of the sounds that corresponded to each letter in the beats after the lyrics from Day 1 (and still introduce sound-spellings normally as per curricula). So.. “Who let the C out?../k/../s/..” I’d do a sign for each letter as we said each sound. I found exposing them to these everyday was great distributed practice. It even helped all my PreKers master all their letter names and sounds by November (minus 2-3 that were shaky on the noniconic ones until Jan/Feb). For spelling, I would spend more time on teaching phoneme segmentation and assigning graphemes–and encourage inventive spelling! These were just a few tweaks that I found helpful–Hope this is helpful to you!


  1. Hi! I love the routines and the dry erase activities. I’m wondering who cuts up the words for the word sorts? Do you have students do it (takes up instruction time) or do it beforehand (takes up prep time)? How much time does it take for kids to paste the words into their notebook? My thinking is that it would be more efficient to have them write the words in their notebooks — more practice with spelling and handwriting. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks!


    1. The kids cut them(I teach an efficient way and it takes them less than 5 min once a week). The ones who have more fine motor issues I cut when their at the table with me (takes me less than a min). Also, I have them glue them down as one last sort—and to show they’ve completed all activities for that pattern. Only takes them a few min using a glue stick. They’ve already written them twice by that point 🙂 At least that’s what I found most efficient for me and the students I worked with!


      1. Okay, thanks! In my tutoring, cutting and pasting takes up too much time, considering that I have only 45 min with a student once or twice a week. In the classroom, it seems you’re saying that good routines make things like this possible.


      2. Yes! Teaching them not to cut out each box but down the lines, stack them up, then across helps too. And like I mentioned above, for the ones who are slower I usually just took a minute to cut it quick for them. The pasting only happened after they’d mastered a list, and not during time with me but on their own (then they brought it over for me to check). This worked for me in a classroom set-up, but do what works for you in the tutoring set-up! You may just want to prepare them ahead of time 🙂


  2. Amazing information, Tiffany! Thank you! This not just gives detailed instructional information but shows how much time is often needed (which will astound many teachers I am sure). Just wondering – do you teach the new phonics concept/skill ahead (before the whole-class lesson) to those who have high needs and receive small-group instruction daily? If not, have you considered this? I’d love to know your thoughts.


    1. Hi! Thanks for the question. I didn’t teach it ahead of time, but I introduced them all whole group. I’d then have a time when I sent the above level kids to reading their chapter books and work with the below/on group a bit more. I’d always pull my lowest group first (followed by second lowest/on group). I’d reinforce the material there and target their deficits. When they left, they had an assigned partner to reinforce the work we did (similar to PALS) with the decodable reader, other decodable word lists from the curriculum or high frequency word cards, depending on the day. Their tasks for the days for each group were always listed on the smartboard so they knew what to do in order when they left me. While I was meeting with other groups, the reading specialist at our school pulled the below-level students for an additional targeted small group instruction time. Also, these routines varied throughout the year and depending on how high/low each group I had were. I hope that answers your question and sorry if it just confuses it more. The more I write about my classroom routines the more I realize they were dependent on the mix of abilities I had at the time and the time of year. 🙂


  3. This was very interesting and insightful. I am curious about the decodable readers. Do they just read them for one lesson or are they repeated throughout the week?


    1. We would typically read a story twice each week. We had a decodable story, a basal reader (working on the same skills and hfw), and leveled readers (below, on, above) for each week available with this specific curricula, so there was no shortage of materials. Resources make a big difference as I’ve also been at a school without a published reading curricula and it is very challenging to find, plan for, and deliver high-quality instruction without high quality materials. I always think of the quote that Google Scholar has up “Standing on the shoulders of giants” when I think about curricula in schools–teachers can have all the content knowledge in the world but if you aren’t given proper curricula/resources, you are just standing on the ground. It goes both ways though–HQ curricula without teacher knowledge won’t work out as well either.


  4. Total newbie to SoR and so appreciate this breakdown of time and its components. It is very thorough and informational. It seems that there are many similar components in the small group as in the phonics/spelling blocks. The most noticeable difference was the decodable. Are there any videos you have or recommend to visually digest the same information?


    1. Unfortunately, not that directly compare whole group and small group, but the main difference is whole group is teaching the new skill to the whole class, with the pacing the same for everyone. This is then reiterated in small group for students on-level. For students below, they would get instruction on skills everyone else is in whole group, then on skills they still have not mastered in small group, and the small group for students reading above the level of the average of the class would be reading more complex texts (or working on more complex phonics skills). I hope this explanation helps a bit!


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