How to prepare for Grade 1 – a teacher’s top tips

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With the Christmas lights of December and the fireworks of New Years’ behind us, South African shoppers are faced with the yearly onslaught of back-to-school advertisements and specials. School outfitters find themselves overrun by anxious parents and eager children. But, as every parent knows, there are so much more to school readiness than buying some pencils and a pair of shoes that your child will probably either lose or outgrow before the end of the year.

With that being said, what are the things that parents can do to assist their child when making the leap from Grade R to Grade 1? Experienced Grade 1 Teachers will all have their own lists of expectations and suggestions, but there are definitely a few universal tips to make the transition easier on the child.

If you’re reading this during the Covid-19 pandemic, this article on schooling and the pandemic might be helpful

Help your child to mentally prepare for Grade 1

Talk to your child about their new school and what they can expect in Grade 1. Focus on the differences between Grade R and Grade 1 – a more rigid schedule, sitting at the desk for longer periods of time, longer school hours and different play areas. Many schools host an open day where learners meet their teacher before the first day of school and get to explore the classroom a bit. This will help to calm their fears and align their expectations. Due to the current COVID climate, this might not be possible, so ask if you may engage in a five-minute video call with your child’s teacher so they can meet each other.

Make sure you have a routine  

Children flourish when they have a schedule to keep to. Create a routine from the first day – this means that they need to be prepared for the next day before they go to bed each evening. Let them help you to pack out their school uniform for the next day, as well as prepare their healthy lunch and make sure that everything necessary is packed in their school bag. This will help them feel calm and prepared for the next day. Lunch, homework, bath time and bedtime should be at the same time each day.

Mark their belongings

You should think this is a given, but sadly no. As an experienced Grade 1 teacher, this is my number one top tip to prepare yourself, your child and your wallet for the coming year. Mark everything. And I am not just saying this – every year I tell my parents this and every year they nod in agreement at the parent orientation, only to send their child to school the next day with a bag full of badly-marked stationery and an unmarked jacket.

Your child may think their teacher is a superhero, and in many ways she will prove to be one, but she lacks the skills to sniff out belongings from a pile. One ‘size 7 – 8’ navy blue jersey looks exactly the same as the next. Mark everything, and mark it permanently.

Because no matter how conscientious, your child is still a child, and likely to forget about mundane things like their R250 school jacket that they removed when it became too hot in the sun. And pencils fall down. Constantly.

If you are using a permanent marker, remember to check after each wash if the name is still visible, as they do wash out after a while. Re-mark things every term, at the least.

With regards to stationery – don’t write your child’s name on the box that the pencils, glue or scissors came in. That won’t help. The packaging material gets discarded. You need to write your child’s name on every individual pencil.

Here are a few examples of the things you should be marking, assuming they were on the stationery list the school gave you: All colour and grey pencils, glue (the lid as well as the tube) scissors, erasers, dictionaries, colouring books, white boards and the whiteboard markers, bean bag, skipping rope, chair bag, roll-ups, pencil case, school bag. All uniform items– socks, shoes, pants, skirts, shirts, pull-overs, jerseys, jackets, scarves, beanies, hats and headbands.

Trust me. Mark everything – you will save yourself a lot of money in future trips to the stationery store and school outfitters.

Open a line of communication with the teacher

Ask your child’s teacher what her preferred method of communication is – For some it will be phone calls or instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, but some might prefer the more professional platform of email. Make sure that you inform her of important events in your child’s life – for example, a beloved pet or family member passing away. This will enable her to offer the emotional support if your child is having a very bad day.

And then also be open to communication from the teacher 

Make sure that, should your child’s teacher contact you with concerns, you listen to her. She’s a professional and qualified to do her job. She might not be perfect, but she wants what is best for your child. Remember that she sees your child in a very different environment than yourself, and as such, she will see a different side of your child. If she mentions problems, it is not because she wants to criticize yourself or your child. More often than not, problems at school arise from deeper underlying issues and the sooner they’re addressed, the better for your little one.

Getting the academics right 

If this is also your first journey into Grade 1 as a parent you are probably quite scared by all you have heard about homework and all the expectations set on children. The truth is that it is not quite that bad, and that learning should still be fun. But it is true that the academic principles laid down now forms the foundation of learning for the rest of their lives. Here are a few things that you can focus on to help.

Make sure your child knows how to write their name

You can let them practice it with traditional methods, such as using a crayon and a paper. However, experts agree that children learn best when they can use their full range of senses, so here are a few less traditional ways of practicing their names (and the internet is filled with dozens more!). Use a stick in the sand, let them trace it on a plate filled with jelly powder, or write it with soap on a mirror.

If you notice that your child is struggling with letter formation and the reversal of letters (such as b and d or letting any letter face the wrong way) take a step back and ensure that your child practices the writing process with their entire body. A good way to do this is to write their name in very large letters with chalk on the pavement and letting them ‘walk it out.’ This will also encourage balance as they try to stay on the line. Make sure they begin and end each letter in the correct place. Also make sure that only the first letter is capitalized.

Mastering the pencil grip 

This fine motor skill is dependent on practice and it is important that your child learns how to hold a pencil from the start, as incorrect methods will lead to untidy handwriting and struggling with letter formation, as well as muscle fatigue and tension in the hand and arm. If you notice that your child is not holding the pencil correctly, here is a tip to help them correct their grip: The ‘pinch and flip’ method. See this handy video to illustrate.

Phonetic awareness 

This is something that was most likely addressed in your child’s Grade R year already, but if your child did not attend Grade R, make sure that they are able to tell you what the initial and ending sounds in short words are – for example, ‘cat’ starts with a ‘c’ and ends in a ‘t’. Make sure that your child doesn’t say these sounds they way they are pronounced in the Alphabet Song, but by their phonetic pronunciation (like the ‘a’ in ‘apple’.) This is a vitally important differentiation, as modern spelling methods prefer that children are able to build words using sounds rather than rote-learning spelling words. This flexibility allows for a much better understanding of language. You can practice CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words with them by saying the word and letting them break it up into the three sounds they hear, such as d-o-g, or giving them the sounds to build the word. All of this should be done verbally and practically only; your child will learn how to write these words during the course of Grade 1.

Read, read, read 

The last, and most important thing that you can do to assist your child before they embark on their formal school career, is to make sure that you read them stories. Albert Einstein said ‘If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want your child to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.’

Reading to your child from books of their choosing has a multitude of benefits, even once your child is already able to read independently. It promotes language development and problem-solving skills. It sparks the imagination, curates curiosity and expands the vocabulary and general knowledge. It also helps to strengthen the bond between parent and child, and releases serotonin in your child’s brain, which helps with stress management, healthy sleeping patterns and even promotes digestion. There is no downside to reading to your child.

Going to ‘big school’ is a big adjustment, for parents and learners. It’s important that you capitalize on the novelty of the first few weeks, before your child’s natural interest in the change starts to wane. Use this time to set a schedule for each day and stick to it.

Congratulations, mom and dad. You’re ready to embark on your second journey through primary school. We hope you can still ‘solve for x’ – it won’t be long before your child asks for help with their Algebra homework!

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Maryke Koch is an experienced Foundation Phase Teacher with enthusiasm for continuously learning more about Early Childhood Development. To date, she has taught more than 400 learners, all of whom she still considers to be 'her kids.' She is passionate about learning new teaching styles and methods and is currently exploring the pedagogy of the Montessori Method, as it is applied in other curriculums. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her German Engineer husband. They keep themselves busy playing board games, taking walks, and arguing about fictional characters.