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Reading Theories for First Graders

by Katrice Morris

The best way to teach reading is a topic of much debate and research. First grade is a critical year in learning to read as children who fall behind will have a difficult time catching up in later grades. Many reading theories overlap and it often is a combination of theories that proves to be the most effective.

Bottom-Up Theory

Letter names and sounds are essential skills to focus on in the bottom-up approach to reading.

According to this theory, students should master the basic skills of phonics and phonemic awareness when learning to read. This means students first learn letter names and sounds and then are taught to decode simple words by sounding them out one letter at a time. Beginning reading books include many words students are able to sound out. For example, Pat sat on the mat. Instructional time is devoted to practicing individual skills which build on each other.

Whole Language/Psycholinguistic Theory

Children should be excited about reading and engaged in the books they are reading.

Professor and author Kenneth Goodman is credited with developing this top-down theory and model. He likened learning to read to learning language, a natural process. Emphasis is placed on authentic texts students can relate to and take meaning from. Beginning reading books are likely to have repetitive patterns with words and pictures that are closely matched. Students are taught to think about what makes sense when figuring out words they don’t know. This theory de-emphasizes direct phonics instruction in favor of more authentic reading. It includes making a variety of titles available, student selection of texts and immersion in reading throughout the classroom day. Analyzing mistakes readers make while reading, called miscue analysis, provides insight into the thinking process of beginning readers.

Schema Theory

The teacher helps students build background knowledge before reading.

This theory is based on students using schema, or background knowledge, of words and how they work to help them learn to read. As students learn about letter patterns within words and sentence structure they begin to anticipate what to expect when reading. This allows readers to read quickly and focus on meaning rather than only accurately reading words. Building the reader’s background knowledge becomes a key part of learning to read according to this theory.

Metacognitive Theory

Students begin using reading strategies independently.

Metacognition refers to becoming aware of your thought processes. Metacognitive theory emphasizes the strategies readers use to decode words and make meaning while they are reading. Struggling readers and beginning readers benefit from being explicitly taught strategies such as rereading, reading slower and stopping to check for understanding. These strategies are introduced and modeled by the teacher, and students are taught to become aware of their thought processes as they utilize them. As students gain experience with strategies, they are encouraged to become independent in applying them.

About the Author

Katrice Morris is an educator based in Georgia. She has six years of classroom teaching experience in the primary grades and certified to teach grades Pre-K through 8 in the state of Georgia. She holds an Master of Education in instructional leadership from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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