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The Practicalities of Teaching in a First Grade Classroom: Part 2

Let’s continue with how the science of reading may look in a first grade classroom. The last post discussed phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and high-frequency word instruction in a whole group setting, as well as differentiated spelling instruction. In this post, I’ll discuss what small-group reading instruction, when informed by research, may look like in a first grade classroom, specifically for a group approaching grade-level. In future posts, I’ll discuss how reading comprehension, vocabulary, handwriting, and writing played out in my classroom. I’m also hoping to do more on various levels of small group instruction (including chapter book readers!).

As I stated in the first post, this is meant to be descriptive–showing what instruction informed by evidence looked like in my setting–rather than prescriptive.

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Let’s first clear up why I use certain terminology in this post. I use the term small group reading instruction to mean just that–any method that teaching students how to read using small groups. I do not use the term Guided Reading (capital G-R) to describe what I did in the classroom. Guided Reading is a method created by Fountas & Pinnell. It refers to a specific way to group students (based on GR levels), assess students (most notably by using running records and MSV analysis), and instruct students (starting with predictable texts in kindergarten, which leads to the necessity of teaching the three-cueing, or multicueing, system). Lots of things not supported by the larger body of research.

Guided Reading is based on the faulty assumption that people learn to read like they learn to speak–naturally. If we begin with predictable texts (“I see the cow on the farm; I see the pig on the farm; I see the horse on the farm”) kids will naturally pick up on how our orthography (written system) works and gradually be able to break the complex written code implicitly, on their own.

It focuses much of its attention early on learning “sight words,” by which it refers to high-frequency words, so that students can “read” some of the text and then use pictures and context clues to “hypothesize” what the other words in the sentence might be based on teacher guidance.

In contrast, the large body of research suggests we should be teaching kids explicitly how to break the code. This means we don’t start with whole words units (high-frequency words) and patterned texts for them to use various “strategies” to figure it out on their own. Instead, we can instruct them in letter-sound correspondences and teach them about phonology (the sound system) and orthography (the written system) explicitly and systematically so that they can gradually learn how to break the code. This is all done while building their oral language comprehension through content-rich instruction.

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How might small group reading instruction look?

As teachers, we always need to start with assessment–the beginning of the year is the time when I would get to know my students academic needs. Although screeners (such as DIBELS PSF, NWF, ORF) are good to identify students at-risk, they aren’t necessarily designed to give you detailed diagnostic information use to plan instruction. They are a helpful starting point, but I always liked more in-depth information to help me understand my students’ needs and a starting point for instruction. Some common measures you could use to group students for decoding instruction are CORE’s Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures (phoneme segmentation, phonics survey, high-frequency words).

Once you have that information, you can group students based on common areas of need. These groups were always flexible, and I’d commonly have students moving between groups throughout the year based on differences in their individual growth rates. Once grouped, I would identify the areas to teach within each small group.

What does this look like for a group approaching grade-level?

At the beginning of the year in my contexts, it was common to have a small group of students who were still needing instruction in single letter-sounds, short vowels, and phoneme segmentation and blending. For these students who were approaching grade-level, I would meet with them everyday in order to consistently build their skills and provide the daily practice they needed to catch up to grade level. For students who were on-level, I would meet with them about 3 times a week. For students who were above-level, to the point of independently reading around a beginning of 2nd grade level, I would meet with them 1-2 times a week.

My small group reading instruction for approaching (and on, at the beginning of the year) would include:

  • review of grapheme phoneme correspondences (1-2 minutes),
  • new phonics skill (every 2-3 days, 3 minutes),
  • word building or word chaining (3-5 minutes),
  • irregular high-frequency word instruction (1-2 minutes), and
  • reading of decodable text (5-7 minutes).

They would then go to reread the text with a partner. This would result in about 15-20 minutes of instruction plus partner re-reading. I’ll expand on each of these below, but first a note on routines and expectations.

Routines and consistent, clear expectations allow for efficiency in teaching. Once routines are built and expectations for on-task behavior are in place, everything else takes less time. Students know what to do and how to do it because it’s been explained, modeled, and they have been given immediate, positive, and corrective feedback. The following practices will take much longer time periods for beginning lessons in order to set in place, but once in place times for instruction in small groups can be much more efficient.

Review of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs, 1-2 minutes)

Here I would use the same GPC deck that I used for whole group instruction. We would quickly review (similar to a visual drill in OG) the graphemes and corresponding sounds. Some days, I would instead call out the sounds and students would write the corresponding graphemes on their white boards (similar to an auditory drill in OG).

New phonics skill (3 minutes)

If it was a day to introduce a new skill, I would take about 3 minutes to introduce a new GPC, for example. This would support mwhat they were learning in whole group it systematically full gaps in knowledge. This might look like below:

  1. Our new grapheme today makes the sound [say sound] /k/–and we spell it [spell grapheme] C-K. When we see the card, we will say /k/.
  2. What is our new grapheme?
  3. Good, “C-K”. What is the sound?
  4. Yes, /k/. When the /k/ sound is at the end of a word after a short vowel (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/), we spell it “C-K”. When do we spell /k/ as “C-K”?
  5. Yes, after a short vowel. Tell your partner the sound.
  6. Touch and say it for me.
  7. Let’s write it on our whiteboards 3 times while we say the sound.
  8. Good! This is the grapheme [say sound] /k/–and we spell it [spell grapheme] C-K.
  9. When the /k/ sound is at the end of a word after a short vowel (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/), we spell it “CK”
  10. Let’s read some words with “ck”
  11. Practice blending the written words (on my dry-erase board) tick, jack, muck. Sometimes I would quickly write a word on each of their boards to try individually.

If we were not learning a new sound, we would review the last learned sound and practice decoding individual words with that sound.

Word building or Word chaining (3-5 minutes)

During this time, students would spell words with the target skill. Some people use “phoneme-grapheme mapping” to accomplish this. In traditional PG mapping, students move a chip in each box while segmenting the sounds in a word, then move the chip out of each box to write each sound’s corresponding grapheme. In my small groups, I taught it a bit differently to save on materials/time. Students would segment each sound and draw a short, horizontal line on their board for each sound segmented. For example, for the word “lock” students would draw _ _ _ while segmenting the sounds. I would check and provide feedback; then, they would go back and assign a grapheme to each sound blank drawn.

Some days, we would “chain” these words. So instead of building a word, erasing, then building. the next word, the words would all be connected. For example, if students are learning “ck,” I might ask them to spell lock, then change it to lot, then slot, then sock. Each time, they have to attend to the letters, say the sounds, figure out which have switched, and the make appropriate changes.

I’ve also used word sorts during this time (draw 2 columns, for example, short a and long a words, and sort (point with their finger) then spell) depending on the skill they are trying to master.

On days when a new skill was introduced, all words would contain that skill. On other days, examples and non-examples, along with review words would be used.

High-frequency word instruction (1-2 minutes)

This is the time when students would learn irregular high-frequency words that were specified by the curriculum or were pulled from their decodable text for the day. I would say a word; they would repeat and then draw blanks to segment it. Then I showed the word and we segmented it again while matching sounds to graphemes on the word card. We would identify the part(s) of the word that was irregular to them (either permanently or temporarily, because they hadn’t yet learned a specific skill).

They would then write the word in their sound blanks and circle the part they had to learn by heart. They’d erase and we’d then practice segmenting and writing the word about 3 times so they had practice remembering the part they had to learn by heart.

If there were no new words for the day, we’d review previous words (either quickly by reading on cards or by spelling them on white boards). They could also practice reviewing with a rapid recognition chart with a partner afterward (if I was organized enough to print one out).

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Decodable text reading (7 minutes)

During this time, students would practice “whisper reading” the text on each page while I would listen in. They would stop at the end of each page or few pages (depending on the book, group, and time of year) to then read it chorally with the whole group. This provided a chance for students to practice decoding each word on their own and then begin to build fluency by reading it again with the group chorally.

As they were whisper reading, I’d listen in and provide feedback. Sometimes, this feedback was just pointing at the word I wanted them to sound out and blend again (without saying anything). If they then said a specific GPC incorrectly, I would provide it and have them reblend the word together. Other times, if the word was an irregular word, I would point to the part they were supposed to know “by heart” and follow a similar procedure as above if they didn’t know it–supply it and reblend.

During the text reading, I would periodically ask text-dependent questions and ask students to point in the text how they knew the answer. Then I’d call on a student to share out or ask them to turn and tell their partners.

Finally, I would pair students up to read the selection again with a partner (without me). They would go to their place in the room, whisper read it either chorally or by taking turns and providing feedback (also explicitly taught at the beginning of the year), depending on the day and my instructions.

Note: I typically used decodable text that came with the curriculum to introduce the week’s phonics pattern and then alternated with the leveled text throughout the week about equally. The leveled text (as long as it was NOT predictable text, which doesn’t require students to attend closely to the letters on the page) was an amalgamation of phonics patterns they had mostly learned up to that point and the same hfw in the decodable text and basal series. If students encountered a phonics skill they weren’t sure of and couldn’t flex sounds to figure out the word, I provided the sound/spelling and had them reblend. Talking to students about figuring out difficult words and (informally) mapping sounds to spellings once figured out can help them try these on their own during independent reading, attending to the letters closely. We don’t have much empirical research comparing the amounts or types of connected text to use with students, but we do know teaching students to attend to the letters on the page (rather than the pictures) and matching them with sounds is important for reading those words/sounds in a different context in the future. Once students were reading first grade texts fluently (what you may know as the ORF assessment from DIBELS or level J from F&P), I used more trade books with groups (rather than leveled readers) such as Henry and Mudge, Frog & Toad, Poppleton… then Magic Tree House fiction/nonfiction, Freckle Juice, My Father’s Dragon… and the wide world of other wonderful chapter books!

I hope this was a helpful look into one of my first-grade small groups! Feel free to leave questions and comments below.

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19 thoughts on “The Practicalities of Teaching in a First Grade Classroom: Part 2

  1. Tiffany, this is really useful and detailed. Thank you. Your posts have helped me clarify how I am going to change my Guided Reading…into more effective and scientific instruction. I do have one question!
    Can I ask what your other groups would be doing while you are working with a group? I’m wanting this time to be more effective also. Thanks in advance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you found it useful. What I found to work best was having some “must-dos” for them to do first, differentiated by student needs at outlined on the smartboard. I’ll have to write more extensively about it in the future, with examples, but after they finished their must-dos to practice skills taught explicitly in whole group or from their small group instruction previous weeks, they read independently. This worked in my context because I would always meet with the lowest group first, guide them to their must-dos (which included rereading the selection we read as a group, among other activities… they had partners from higher groups for these who also had roles to play) and then my two lowest who needed more intervention were pulled for their time with the reading specialist. After the rest finished their must-dos, they read independently around the room as well. I played instrumental music in the background and they knew they could not talk to neighbors unless it was to ask a friend for word help. We had necklace mics in the classroom that helped me with behavior management as well. They were taught the how and why of this time and we gradually build up the amount of time they were reading independently. They got to read with a partner the last 5-10 minutes–which we also had procedures in place for. This looked very different in PreK and K as the majority of kids could not yet decode independently at the beginning of the year. Instead, I had a center rotation during those times that practiced various skills they had learned from whole group time and that incorporated content from Sci/SS into ELA. I hope to write about it soon!


  2. Thank you for this clear picture of how your using the Science of Reading in first grade. I’ve been learning lots but have a hard time explaining to my colleagues.
    Looking forward to your next post. Can’t wait to hear what necklace mics are.


    1. Hi! It was technology the school provided to all teachers—a wireless necklace microphone that was amplified in built in speakers throughout the room, similar to this photo:
      This way, the teacher would touch it to turn it on, whisper something, and turn it off and all students throughout the room would equally hear it quietly through the sound system. Hope that makes sense!


  3. Hi, teachers at my school have been asking me that if this is how you do small group phonics instruction, how do you address small group comprehension instruction? We are having a hard time moving away from leveled readers for small group comprehension instruction.


    1. I guess I would wonder what type of comprehension instruction is happening with the leveled readers that they fear losing? Asking literal and inferential questions of the decodable materials, and teaching students to, in order to monitor understanding can be done with both decodable texts and leveled texts. I would frequently ask students text dependent questions and have them point to how they knew the answer from the text before answering aloud.
      If you are referring to applying comprehension strategies (such as summarizing, main ideas, etc) taught in whole group, this could be done here also. Sometimes, I would scaffold their understanding of this in small group also with the decodable text before them trying it independently after leaving the group. What makes the most difference for comprehension of complex texts, after students have brief comprehension strategy instruction (see is the abundance of rich content in read alouds and sci/ss instruction, as well as explicit vocabulary instruction.
      Thinking back to the simple view (see before planning small groups might help as well. If you have students that have language difficulties or DLD (see, they may need more explicit instruction in grammar to understand more complex syntax and more repetitions with vocabulary, which could be built into a targeted small group for students with language comprehension deficits in addition to instruction on decoding. Thanks for asking; I hope this helps! Let me know if I misunderstood the question.


      1. The Writing Revolution is a great resource to think through content-embedded grammar instruction. Writing instruction is a bit more complex to think about, since composition level instruction is only as good as foundation level instruction. I hope to have time to write about this in the future!


  4. Tiffany,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to share a detailed description of your evidence aligned practices. In part 1, you list read aloud/modeling, read aloud/guided practice, and read aloud/independent practice. Is this similar to shared reading, where a teacher models how to read a grade appropriate text (same for entire class), and students then practice reading it to develop fluency and accuracy?

    Thank you,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! That whole group read aloud time would be the read aloud of a more complex text to guide students through learning and comprehension of the new material. It would be with a text at a higher decoding level than the kids would be able to read, but in order to build vocabulary and background knowledge. 🙂


  5. Thanks so much for this, Tiffany! I have a few questions:

    1. You mentioned that once students were reading first grade level texts fluently, you shifted to more trade books. Does this mean that you wouldn’t advocate the use of decodable texts in 2nd grade? Or would you still utilize them for introducing and practicing new phonics concepts for typically-developing 2nd grade readers, while also mixing in trade books?

    2. I’m curious- were you using F&P as an assessment tool to get students’ levels? Or were you translating data from other assessments and what you knew of their reading ability to pick out the leveled readers you used in groups?

    3. Finally, do you find that leveled readers below a certain level tend to be predictable, whereas above a certain level are more appropriate to use? I can’t think of an A-C leveled reader that isn’t at least mostly predictable, but I’m not sure if I’m holding the bar at the right place.


    1. 1. No, I wouldn’t use decodable texts after about mid-first level. At that point, if students are meeting benchmarks for ORF, they typically have mastered the most common grapheme-phoneme correspondences and have a pretty good set-for-variability (flexing the sounds in words to match real words). They start being able to self-teach more (Share) and use more independent strategies for figuring out unknown or little used GPCs. At that time, I switched over to trade books such as Henry and Mudge, Poppleton, Frog and Toad, National Geographic Kids books, etc. Although they could decode most words fluently, I’d still have them read most of these with me, making sure to walk them through figuring out unknown words. Once students had more stamina and fluency, I then used chapter books, such as Magic Tree House fiction/nonfiction pairings, Freckle Juice, My Father’s Dragon, and others. At this point, they would read the majority on their own or with a partner, after being introduced to new vocabulary and any other “jobs” they had while reading that particular section. We’d use our time together to discuss more comprehension related topics rather than walking them through decoding.
      2. I have used F&P to assess in the past, at some schools I worked at it was required in addition to DIBELS. However, the leveled readers (approaching, on, above), decodable readers, and basal text I used in groups throughout the week were included with the curriculum (Treasures) and all aligned in the hfw included. I found the high were too low for my higher readers and therefore, used the tradebooks (mentioned above) instead.
      3. Yes, the leveled readers I’ve used are typically predictable until D or E. I wouldn’t use these during small group as kids don’t typically attend to the letters on the page.

      I hope that was clear! Feel free to ask more if it wasn’t.


  6. Hello, I am teaching first grade this coming year (I am moving up with my kinders from last year). Due to online schooling last year I have huge differences in levels. Some kids only know a few letters and other kids are already reading at a second grade level. How can I differentiate literacy centers or must do/may do activities?


    1. Hi, Lauren! In my first grade, I differentiated the must-do activities (for example, Group 1 may write their hfw for the week on index cards, hole punch, and add to their rings, practice them with their designated partner, and reread their decodable readers, while Group 3’s “must-do” was to read Ch 4 and 5 and complete their assigned “jobs” or “look-fors” for those chapters, and share with a book club partner (before we met as a book club next). I’d then have them read to self and (when 15 minutes were left) read to a partner. Procedures were taught for all of these incrementally and the students who were not yet reading on their own were pulled during this time for intervention. This provided lots of time on text for students who were ready for independent practice and time for intervention after small group instruction for those who needed more guiding during this time. I hope this helps!


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