In the first grade, children begin to learn the printed equivalents for the spoken words they know. Some schools and reading textbooks teach the child to recognize whole words and stress the meaning of the text. Others first emphasize the study of phonics—that is, the sounds represented by individual letters—and the development of independent word-recognition skills. Nearly all current programs combine both techniques; they try to teach a child to recognize words and to learn phonics. For more than 60 years, research has shown that early, systematic phonics instruction produces high reading achievement, at least until the third grade. The most common means of instruction is the basal reading program, consisting of a reader, workbook, and other associated materials. These readers have been criticized as not containing sufficiently high-quality literature and as not meeting the child's needs for meaningful content. Defenders have suggested that a limited vocabulary is necessary in the beginning so that children can concentrate on learning to recognize and sound words.
In the early elementary grades, children read stories and selections containing common words already familiar from speech. With practice, most children read with increasing fluency and understanding. The different reading levels in a classroom may lead to the grouping of readers or even to an individualized approach that adapts instruction to each reader's abilities.