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Is Your Second Grader Ready for Second Grade?

Is your child or student ready for second grade or is intervention needed?

Key points

  • The science of reading in cognitive psychology and neuroscience lays out clear and practical expectations for children when they enter Grade 2.
  • Second graders who are behind in reading, writing, and spelling will need screening and intervention supported by science-based curricula.
  • If large numbers of children in your school or district enter Grade 2 far behind, you can follow this wake-up call for change.

Knowing whether or not a child is developmentally on track for literacy is hugely important. Study after study supports early intervention when children are not on track and a critical juncture is when a child enters second grade. The key expectation is that the child has become a fluent reader, writer, and speller who is able to integrate the major components of the reading process in the brain and connect to his or her already existing spoken language. Here are five essential expectations.

1. Using Brain Words

When entering second grade, students should have built the necessary accuracy and automaticity for sight word reading and correctly spelling 300+ high frequency words that map onto pronunciations. Reading and spelling go hand and hand and are integrated in the brain (Ehri, 2014). The words kids read should not have been memorized from flash cards, pictures, word shapes or guessing. The second grader should read them by looking at the letters in order to decode for reading or think about the sounds in each word and map to letters in order to encode for spelling.

When reading, second graders turn words they can see on the page into words they can say. For spelling, they turn words they can say into words they can see when they write. (Herron, 2020) When entering Grade 2, the 300+ brain words are automatically processed not letter-by-letter but as a single unit.

2. Reading Connected Text With Comprehension

Building accuracy and automaticity with high frequency words that they already have the sound and meaning for in their spoken language enables second graders to read connected and decodable text with fluency and comprehension. A second grader should not have to slow down and laboriously try to sound out high frequency first-grade level words. Instead of looking at the word hot on the page and blending the sounds of /h/ /o/ /t/ or /h/ /-ot/ into hot, they should now recognize hot automatically as a single unit without conscious effort or the need to sound it out. This tiny sampling of the 300+ words—hot, mother, where, cake, and my—learned in phonics and spelling lessons in the first grade, should be recognized automatically in Grade 2.

Here’s a beginning second grade reading sample to try out just for fun. Can your second grader read this excerpt from the classic “I Can Read Book,” Little Bear by Else Minarik? Start by saying “Can you read part of this fun imaginary story about a little bear and his mother?

“Mother Bear, Mother Bear,

Where are you?” calls Little Bear.

“Oh, dear, Mother Bear is not here

and today is my birthday.

“I think my friends will come,

but I do not have a birthday cake.

My goodness—no birthday cake.

What can I do?”

For comprehension ask “What’s the problem in this story?”

While this is not a definitive assessment, most second graders should be able to read this excerpt with fluency and comprehension.

3. Manuscript Handwriting

Handwriting ability especially manuscript which is typically taught before American students enter second grade should be automatic and fairly easy for any entering second grader. Handwriting automaticity goes along with mastering the foundational automatic skills for recognizing sight words, and spelling in units of syllables or phonics patterns. Entering second graders should form the letters of the alphabet without having to consciously ponder over how to make the strokes of the letter or having to stop and think about which letter or letter combinations map to a particular sound.

Handwriting fluency means everything for the likely success of an entering second grader’s ongoing literacy development. Pondering requires working memory which interferes with meaning making, comprehension, and fluency. When the child enters second grade much of the foundational knowledge should be stored in long term memory and retrieved automatically without conscious effort.

Can your child name all the letters of the alphabet in his or her mind and write the ABCs quickly and legibly in ABC order? If so this means the knowledge has been mastered and stored in long-term memory for automatic retrieval (Potter, 2022).

Ask the entering second grader to write the lower case ABCs in alphabetic order as quickly as he or she can. Is the child’s letter writing fairly legible? Does the child respond fluently with ease or pause and ponder?

Appropriate handwriting instruction and practice in kindergarten and first grade enables the entering second grader to do this activity with ease, accuracy, and speed. If the entering second grader doesn’t know ABC order it’s a red flag. Students should start learning ABC order in kindergarten or preschool with the alphabetic song and when they enter second grade this task should be easy.

4. Invented Sound Spellings

Seven unexpected sound-to-letter mappings are spelled in unexpected ways by beginning first graders. When they get explicit phonics and spelling instruction these spellings go away. The seven categories of unusual early spellings are based on the place of the tongue and lips, air flow, and articulation of these rather tricky English sounds. By second grade children should have moved beyond these early spelling phases to spell the English words in the special sound categories as illustrated in Column 3 in the table below. The Column 3 spellings are one good sign of readiness for Grade 2 literacy development.

J. Richard Gentry
Grade 2 Expectations
Source: J. Richard Gentry

(Adapted from Gentry and Ouellette, 2019; Ouellette and Sénéchal, 2017; Read, 1986 )

For a quick informal check, give a sentence and have a second grader spell the list below and note the spelling of the italicized word part.

bit—Is the short vowel spelled correctly?

stamp—Did the child include the m?

table—Is there a vowel in the last syllable?

purred—Does the spelling include a vowel?

trouble—Does the word start with tr?

paddle—Is the word spelled with d or dd and not with t?

traded—Does the word end in –ed?

Don’t expect all of the words to be spelled correctly but focus on the italicized part. If five or more of the questions above are answered “yes” it’s one good sign of readiness for second grade literacy development. If not, this along with other problems with the tasks in this post may indicate that further screening and intervention may be needed.

Children who are spelling the seven features above correctly have likely received good spelling and phonics instruction in first grade and may be well on the way as fluent readers and spellers. Advanced second graders will spell at higher than Grade 2 levels. (To find a child’s current spelling grade level, see here.)

5. Oral language; English Vocabulary; Background Knowledge including Science, Engineering, and Math (SEM); Writing Skills; Physical, Social and Emotional Development

As second graders move forward every school should have various curricula for continuing development in all of the areas listed above. There is time in the school day for all of them if teachers have proper teaching tools and resources. But without appropriate emphasis on literacy development none of these can fully develop—especially social and emotional development. A second grader who cannot read, write, and spell and doesn’t get intervention is already on track for problems in school and in life.

When schools and teachers are supported with science-based phonics programs, explicit spelling and handwriting instruction along with time for practice, cognitive science and neuroscience supports that 90 to 95 percent of students should enter second grade reading and meeting the common sense literacy requirements listed above. Parents should neither expect nor accept anything less.

The Truth About Reading

If large numbers of students in any school or district are not meeting these second grade expectations there are systemic instructional problems; the school or district should own up to the problem and make changes or parents should take action.

Teachers want the resources and training they need to help students learn literacy and life skills. Exposing the literacy problem early is the first step in the solution.


Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:5–21. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Herron, J. & Gillis, M. (2020). Encoding as a route to phone awareness and phonics. Perspectives on Language and Literacy. International Dyslexia Association.

Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77- 88.

Potter, D. L. (2022). Natural phonics primer: A universal safety net for literacy. Odessa, TX: Independently Published.

Read, C. (1986). Children’s creative spelling. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

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