Results May Vary: Do First-Grade Reading Curriculum and Instruction Need to Be Adapted?

    by Elfrieda H. Hiebert & Alia Pugh | January 25, 2021

    One student in a first-grade class picks up Green Eggs and Ham and reads it with zest.  Another child looks on, not quite certain what their classmate is doing.  In any first-grade class, children can differ greatly in their literacy knowledge.  But when children begin to read, do they follow a similar path?  That is, are the words that are initially known similar, regardless of when children start on the literacy journey?

    In a recent study, Hiebert, Toyama, and Irey (2020) looked at the pathways followed by first-graders.  The results suggest that, with the possible exception of the students in the lowest quartile, beginning readers may indeed follow a similar path.

    Hiebert et al. found similarities in the features of words that the high group could read mid-year of first grade and those that the middle group could read at the end of first grade.  Children in the middle group had gained proficiency over the school year in their ability to read words that were longer in syllables and letters, similar to what their peers in the higher-performing group had been able to do mid-year.

    Students in the bottom quartile in reading proficiency made gains from winter to spring of first grade. However, they had not attained the levels of their middle-group peers in winter of first grade.  At the end of first-grade, children in the bottom quartile were reading fewer words correctly and the words that they were able to read continued to be high-frequency words, not less-frequent words with phonetically regular patterns that had characterized their middle-performing peers in the middle of grade one.

    These discrepancies in progress and patterns do not mean that lower-performing students will not eventually follow a similar path to proficiency. These findings suggest, however, that their development may not be supported by the typical curriculum and instruction now in place.  Hiebert and colleagues suggest that curriculum and instruction should recognize the needs and proficiencies of the students who are most dependent on their experiences in school to become proficient readers.


    * Hiebert, E. H., Toyama, Y., & Irey, R. (2020). Features of known and unknown words for first graders of different proficiency levels in winter and spring. Education Sciences, 10(12), 389. Available at

    Download the PDF here.