I’m a First Grader!

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First grade is a critical transition for youth to move into the challenges of becoming proficient in reading and writing. Based on many factors some students do better than others both in the United States and around the world. Understanding the complex context and diverse factors which enable some to succeed where others fail is the role of policy makers, analysts, and teachers around the world. While the United States could learn a lot from the first grade approaches successful around the world, the nation may also benefit from a more detailed study of the differences within the states.  

To Be a First Grader

First grade typically teaches children age 6-7, and is the first year of primary school that beginnings curriculum with avengeance. “1st graders progress from having beginner reading and writing skills to becoming beginning readers and writers, as they read and write more with greater comprehension and ability. First grade is a crucial year for building reading skills” (Ackerman). However, since this is a transitional year research emphasizes that structuring curriculum with play is key for helping young students enjoy these new challenges. All children learn better in a spirit of play.

Unlike kindergarten, the classroom of first grade is structured differently, with desks and chairs. Children may be challenged to stay still more often during the day, but this is balanced with, in most there is still a meeting area for lessons and class discussions as well as areas or centers dedicated to different subjects of learning.  For instance, there may be an area with all of the math tools and supplies as well as a class library dedicated to reading. Technology also becomes a more important part of the classroom as students learn about and use it more. (Ackerman).

This change can often result in 1st graders being more tired than in prior classes because they are beginning to exercise new learning muscles. As such it is important for them to get a full nights rest. Teachers suggest, “At home, give your child time to rest after school or allow him to play and exert his energy before school in the morning. Most importantly, give your child the time to adjust” (Ackerman). While first grade may be the first time children are encouraged to read and write in school every child learns at the same rate, and this is often a difficult grade to gauge progress being so early.

During first grade students will focus on learning:

(List redacted for preview. Available via download).

New responsibilities will be offered to the child, and new routines will be created which will allow for the first grader to make new choices, and become more empowered. Parents can “Talk to your child about ‘big kid’ issues like packing a healthy lunch and how to treat other students on the playground” (Myers). Helping first graders recognize their own power, and ability to determine their day will help them address any feelings they have of being overwhelmed. As such, “Since first grade is such a change from kindergarten, it becomes very important for parents to help their child set the stage for a great day” (Myers). Often children do not consciously recognize the pressures they are under, but they still feel them unconsciously, and parents can help release this pressure through play.

How U.S. First Graders Compare Around the World

For decades the American education results have been slipping. This has become well known, and the changes which could help American youths perform better have not been made. In fact, “In a recent comparison of academic performance in 57 countries, students in Finland came out on top overall” (Wilde). In this analysis American students were right in the middle of the education pack. As is consistent, “On average 16 other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and 23 scored above us in math. The reading scores for the United States had to be tossed due to a printing error” (Wilde). That mistake must not have been too lamented for it was not righted. 

While analysts show that American scores have been consistently low, many countries (such as Estonia and Poland) have begun to come from behind and outperform American students. As analysts look at what makes U.S. students different from the rest of the work, researchers emphasize, “Researchers also made note of the fact that while the United States has one of the biggest gaps between high- and low-performing students in an industrialized nation, Finland has one of the smallest” (Wilde). So now policy makers and researchers are asking the question of why first graders are doing so well in Finland. They have found a few strong correlations for Finish success:

(List redacted for preview. Available via download).

Many of these elements have been proposed in the United States having been proven successful around the world, but met with little success. One key difference in the Finnish approach is motivation and inspiration of students rather than a fixation on results. Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, emphasizes, “Finnish schools manage to activate learning among the whole age cohort more effectively than any other country. Students are not sorted into different groups or schools but different types of learners are learning together” (Wilde). Students appear to feel supported by their community, rather than pressured, and it shows in the results (Students First).

Unlike the rather babysitting like nature of American preschool where many of the children would prefer to be learning with their families, preschool in Finland is relatively new, and noncompulsory. However, in Finland “Preschools are nonacademic in the sense that no clear academic targets are set. Socialization into school culture and learning to work together with children is the central role” (Wilde). This allows for a spirit of free play which can easily translate into playful learning in the early grades. 

However, many education advocates emphasize that cultural context plays such a large role in development of youth that it is difficult to compare between different nations. Emphasis is made, “For one thing, Finland has a vastly more homogeneous population than the United States. Very few students in Finland speak a language at home other than Finnish. In the U.S., on the other hand, 8% of children are English language learners” (Wilde). The United States has one of the most diverse populations of the G7 and G8 groups, and this diversity can skew the sample of the tests. One such elements to consider, as Erling E. Boe, Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Center for Research and Evaluation in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania points out, only the U.S. collects survey data for the race/ethnicity of students in the study samples. Canada, for example, has a substantial minority group (East Asians), but no data on such Asians as compared with Caucasians. The U.S. has sizable minority groups of Black and Hispanic students that do poorly in international comparisons and lower overall average scores for the U.S., while East Asians generally perform at a high level in math and science achievement. Therefore, it is possible that the overall scores for Canada are enhanced by its East Asian minority population. (Wilde).

However, many other analysts counter this suggestion with the belief that some educational policies are so sound that they transcend all cultural challenges (PBS). One way to measure this would be to take the top performing school around the world and see what they have in while measuring the potential costs of diversity. Another way to balance this is the new process “to compare individual states — rather than the United States as a whole — with other countries. This is seen as a way to pressure state governments to improve education. It also highlights the discrepancy in education that exists within the U.S.” (Wilde). This will provide the U.S. with the specificity of how first graders are performing in the context of their socio-economic constraints (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Early Child Care Research Network 367). 

However, something has to change in the U.S. It is well known that more and more youths are graduating high school completely unprepared for college. The fact in the currently, “Sixty six percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored ‘below proficient’ on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test, meaning that they are not reading at grade level” (Students First). This does not bode well for the competitive nature of the nation, and it all begins in first grade.


Helping students maximize their education begins with proper nutrition in the womb, but in first grade the preparation of the past six years begins to pay off. American first graders are lagging in the middle of international standards, but the U.S. has unique challenges to account for. Diversity is a strength, but it has yet to maximized.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Shira. “The Guide to 1st Grade.” Scholastic.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/collection/what-to-expect-grade/guide-to-1st-grade

Harvey, Mary. “What Your Kid Will Learn in First Grade.” Parents, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.parents.com/kids/education/elementary-school/what-kids-learn-in-first-grade/

Myers, Miriam. “What to expect in first grade.” Great Schools, 16 Aug. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/preparing-for-first-grade/

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Early Child Care Research Network. “The Relation of Global First-Grade Classroom Environment to Structural Classroom Features and Teacher and Student Behaviors.” The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 102, No. 5 (May, 2002), pp. 367-387. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1002181?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

PBS. “Grade-by-Grade Learning: First Grade.” Pbs.org, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/going-to-school/grade-by-grade/first/

Students First. “Statistics About Education in America.” Studentfirst.org, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.studentsfirst.org/pages/the-stats

Wilde, Marian. “Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?” Great Schools, 2 Apr. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/u-s-students-compare/