Your child is in first grade, and his teacher announces with pride that your daughter has graduated from preprimer to primer readers.  What in the world is she talking about? you wonder.

What exactly are preprimer, primer and first grade leveled readers?

First off, a reader is synonymous with book.

The easiest leveled reader is a preprimer.  The text is simple and often repetitive and/or predictable when viewing the book’s illustrations.

Example preprimer text: I can run.  Dog can run.  I can jump.  Dog can jump.  I can swim.  Dog can swim.   

Preprimer correlates with late-kindergarten through mid-first grade.  So if your child’s reading skills are developing on grade level, she will likely be able to read preprimer books/readers somewhere between late-kindergarten and mid-first grade.

Primer is the next step up from preprimer in the world of leveled reading.  The text remains simple, but sentences are longer and more vocabulary is introduced.  Repetition is common, but not to the extent of the preprimer level.

Example primer text: It was Kitten’s first full moon. When she saw it, she thought, there’s a little bowl of milk in the sky.  And she wanted it.  (an excerpt from Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes)

Primer correlates with the third-quarter of first grade (I know … pretty specific!).

First grade seems to suggest your child should be reading at this level in first grade, but don’t get worried; first grade in the sense of a leveled reader correlates with the fourth-quarter of first grade.  In other words, your child is doing great if she reaches first grade readers by April of first grade.

First grade readers have much more varied text.  The vocabulary is less common; the sentences are more complex.  Words have more advanced or irregular phonetic patterns.  Reaching this reading level is a milestone.  Your child is READING!

Example first grade text: Chester felt his mother’s kiss rush from his hand up his arm, and into his heart.  Even his silky, black mask tingled with a special warmth.  (an excerpt from The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn)

Want to see how preprimer, primer and first grade levels correlate to other leveling systems?

Use the Reading Level Correlation Chart.  If you have a child in the early elementary grades, print it out and keep it on hand.  You will refer to it time and time again!

Where does the word primer come from?

First, primer is pronounced prim-mer with a short i sound.  Primers refer to the earliest form of reading instruction in book form.  A primer is similar to a basal reader.  It features extremely controlled text for the beginning reader.  Picture the textbooks in Little House on the Prairie when everyone recited the reading book aloud together.  The Dick and Jane series were once a modern example of a primer series.

An archaic term resides in the modern form of literacy instruction!  I hope this blog post helps to alleviate any confusion about the reading levels of preprimer, primer and first grade.



There is SO much research showing that having strong phonemic awareness skills predicts future reading success.  Want an analogy?  Phonemic awareness is the foundation of reading success.  Just like a house cannot be built on a weak foundation, a strong reader rarely develops without phonemic awareness.

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to analyze and manipulate individual sounds in words.  It is the ability to count the number of sounds; identify the beginning, middle and ending sounds; and segment, blend, add and delete sounds in words.  It is a more advanced sub-category of phonological awareness, which includes the skills of rhyming and syllabication.

phonemic awareness picture sort

A picture sort, examining the beginning sounds b, m, r and s. Notice there are no letters/words involved. This is an exceptional activity to develop phonemic awareness in pre-emergent and emergent readers.

The facts regarding phonemic awareness and reading success are cut and dry so it feels right to share them in list form.

1.  Development of phonemic awareness leads to improved reading ability.

2.  Poor readers at all ages are less phonemically aware than same-age good readers (Shaywitz, 1996).

3.  Children with poor phonemic awareness have trouble learning letter-sound relationships (aka alphabetic knowledge) and how to spell (Griffin, 1991; Juel, Griffith & Gough, 1986).

4.  Children who have poor phonemic awareness (and are consequently poor readers) in first grade typically remain poor readers in fourth grade (Juel, 1988).

5.  The more advanced forms of phonemic awareness (e.g. segmenting sounds) are more predictive of reading ability than simpler forms of phonological awareness, such as rhyming (Nation & Hulme, 1997).

6.  Instruction in reading is essential for the most advanced forms of phonemic awareness to develop.  In other words, knowing the letters and their sounds, make learning how to segment and blend sounds in words easier.

7.  In studies, phonemic awareness training in kindergarten and first-grade produces better readers and spellers, both at the completion the training period, as well as years down the road (Lungberg, Frost & Peterson, 1988).

8.  Phonemic awareness training with a component of discussion as to the importance of phonemic awareness and its application in reading is more effective than simply a “skill and drill” approach (Cunningham, 1990).

9.  Reading increases phonemic awareness, but reading is unlikely without a degree of phonemic awareness (Goswami & Bryant, 1990).  So the ideal instructional path is to develop some phonemic awareness, use it to develop reading skills, and then in turn develop even stronger phonemic awareness skills.

10.  When parents teach their children letters and their sounds (alphabetic knowledge), the children’s phonemic awareness improves (Crain-Thoreson & Dale, 1992).

Parents: For activity suggestions to develop phonemic awareness, check out my post, Activities to Build Phonemic Awareness.

Parents, what activities and strategies do you use at home to help your child develop phonemic awareness?  What has resulted in the most positive growth?  Please share your story.


Crain-Thoreson, C., & Dale, P. S.  (1992).  Do early talkers become early readers? Linguistic precocity, preschool language and emergent literacy.  Developmental Psychology, 28, 421-429.

Cunningham, A. E.  (1990).  Explicit versus implicit instruction in phonemic awareness.  Journal of Experimental Psychology50, 429-444.

Goswami, U., & Bryant, P. E.  (1990).  Phonological skills and learning to read.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Griffith, P. L.  (1991).  Phonemic awareness helps first graders invent spellings and third graders remember correct spellings.  Journal of Reading Behavior, 23, 215-233.

Juel, C.  (1988).  Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 417-447.

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B.  (1986).  Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243-255.

Lundberg, I., Frost, J., & Peterson, O.  (1988).  Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in preschool children.  Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 263-284.

Nation, K., & Hulme, C.  (1997).  Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills.  Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 154-167.

Shaywitz, S. E.  (1996).  Dyslexia.  Scientific American, 275(5), 98-104.