First-grade classrooms vary greatly

iStock_000014442615XSmallFirst grade is a highly variable experience for children in the United States. As part of a long-term study of children beginning at birth, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) recently observed 827 first-grade classrooms in 32 states.

Classrooms were observed for three hours in the morning, when literacy instruction is most likely to occur. In general, classrooms were characterized by teacher-led, whole-class, literacy-related activities.

Frequent instructional interactions lacking

The environment was generally positive and teachers were usually supportive of children. However, the majority of classes were not characterized by frequent instructional interactions between teachers and children, and there was tremendous variation in most aspects of teaching.

Classrooms varied most on actual instructional features: whether teachers were actively teaching academic skills and whether the class environment provided students with useful feedback and opportunities to talk and share information with the teacher.

Children’s engagement with academics and positive social behaviors were higher and negative behaviors were lower when classes provided more instructional support for learning.  The teacher’s years of experience teaching first grade and amount of college and post-graduate education showed small but significant associations with instructional and emotional support and time devoted to academic activities.

The NICHD concludes that the observed variability in classrooms is large and should be studied. In some classes, the children were engaged in teacher-led literacy activities for the entire morning and in others there was little literacy instruction. The reasons for this variability were not obvious. Even after limiting all observations to the morning hours when teachers were asked to schedule literacy instruction, there was extensive variation.

Whole-class instruction predominates

Instruction was almost exclusively whole-class. There were few occasions in which children received either individual or small-group instruction. About 40 percent of classrooms did not provide children with evaluative, constructive feedback on their performance, which is known to produce higher achievement.

This raises the question of whether the activities most first-grade children encounter are the kind of interactiv experiences that increase achievement.

Emotional and instructional support

In classrooms rated high on emotional support, teachers demonstrated sensitive, well-timed help for children and allowed students some freedom of choice. The overall tone was positive, with no negativity observed among peers or between adults and children. Students in these classrooms were more likely to stay engaged with assigned activities.

Many classrooms ranking high on instructional support revealed frequent and high-quality instructional conversations between teachers and children. There was a heavy emphasis on literacy instruction and not just reading aloud to students. Teachers provided feedback aimed at improving students’ performance.

However, in almost half of all classrooms this kind of task-specific conversation between teachers and students did not occur at all. Although many classrooms offered literacy-related activities, teachers’ instructional interactions with children were variable and frequently of low quality. Researchers concluded that there appeared to be more consensus among teachers on the importance of social and emotional support than on the instructional components — how teachers can and should implement and execute instruction with first graders.

Class size, child-adult ratio and teacher experience

The wide variation in the first-grade environment could not be accounted for by class size, child-adult ratio, or teachers’ total years of experience. Teachers with more experience teaching first grade, however, and more years of education tended to provide more instructional support for children and more time on academic activities.

extreme variability in these classrooms may be complex.  Simply requiring teachers to have more first-grade experience or more education may no automatically lead to quality educational experiences for children. While it is limited in many ways, this study does reflect a typical day in school for a large number of children.

These findings indicate that efforts to provide children with early school experiences that increase literacy achievement need to address recommended instructional practices and to develop a consistent and coherent set of instructional goals and academic objectives for young children.
“The Relation of Global Classroom Environment to Structural Classroom Features and Teacher and Student Behaviors” The Elementary School Journal Volume 102, May 2002 Pp. 367-388.

Published in ERN September 2002 Volume 15 Number 6

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