Key Foundational Skills K-5 Students Need for Learning at Each Level


In the same way a pediatrician monitors a child's physical health and development, tracking their status and charting at intervals in comparison to others in their age range, elementary educators focus on social, academic, and emotional growth. Educators use identified benchmarks based on key foundational skills in grades K-5 to assess readiness and growth.  

A successful transition from year to year relies on the establishment of a strong educational foundation built during the elementary years. 

What are key foundational skills?

The basic literary, numerical, and social abilities on which a child’s education is built are referred to as key foundational skills. Skills in these areas are established, refined, and further developed as your child progresses through each grade.

As adults, we perform tasks that can be traced back to the development of key foundational skills. Think about the things you do each day that require reading and literacy—which couldn't be done without mastery of the alphabet and phonics—or STEM fields, like inquiry, problem-solving, and creativity.  

Collaborating with coworkers who have a variety of learning and communication styles, reading the user's manual for a new appliance, or configuring a tip amount at dinner are all tasks that are learned in phases throughout our early lives all require the use of these skills that are honed in K-5.

You may be wondering, "What should my K-5 child know?" or "What skills should my child know in each grade?".

What children learn and are expected to know from year to year relies on the progression and mastery of identified concepts. Here's a basic roadmap of key skills broken down by grade level:

Foundational skills in kindergarten

A student’s critical early development in reading and literacy begins with key foundational skills in kindergarten. They are learning the alphabet and producing letter sounds, syllables, and how to sound out unknown words. 

At this stage, your child should also be developing skills in memory recall, sequential ordering, symbolic thinking, and pattern recognition. Through spatial reasoning, they should be able to picture 2D objects in 3D and should be able to follow steps in a sequence to solve a problem.

Foundational skills in 1st grade

In 1st grade, your student is deepening their reading comprehension and phonological capabilities. They should be able to distinguish the parts of a sentence—punctuation, the first and last words, and capitalization and be able to pronounce the initial, middle, and final sounds (also called phonemes) in single-syllable words. 1st graders should be able to decode two-syllable words by deconstructing them into syllables.

In the STEM fields, your 1st grader’s skills in problem solving and engineering-forward thinking are budding. They may start to grasp the concepts behind air, light, weather, and sound. They will study how to predict the outcome of interactions between objects like throwing a ball at a wall or dropping a glass plate.

The concept of self-motivation may be developing at any point in early lower school; students may be beginning to understand short- and long-term goals and may be motivated to work for those goals if there is a reward or incentive waiting for them.

Foundational skills in 2nd Grade

One of the most exciting developments for your 2nd grader is that they are now able to read independently for prolonged periods of time, so chapter books and longer-form stories should be of interest. Responding to questions about the material they’ve just read—questions like who, what, when, where, why, how—is also a foundational skill of learning at this point. Your 2nd grader continues to explore sounding out unknown words using the phonetic skills they developed in previous grades. Teachers may guide students through the different purposes of writing—creative, persuasive, expository—and introduce the concepts of research and source-gathering.

Simple mathematical functions, like addition and subtraction, are a foundational skill in 2nd grade. Meanwhile, in science class, 2nd-grade students are exploring the scientific method and may be conducting simple experiments, which are honing their understanding of problem solving and application of technology. By this point, they may recognize basic presentations of data—that’s bar graphs, pie charts, etc.—and what those presentations are meant to explain.

Foundational skills in 3rd grade

In 3rd grade, the building blocks of phonics knowledge and decoding skills are beginning to take shape in reading fluency and, ultimately, comprehension of the material they are consuming. 3rd graders are no longer learning to read—they are reading to learn. Their vocabulary is blossoming. Students are competent in identifying errors in writing and making revisions. At this stage, students should be able to identify lessons or morals in fables and history.

Mathematical skills are also beginning to take root: 3rd graders understand three-digit numerals and which numbers are in the ones, tens, and hundredths places. Teachers are encouraging mental math for simple problems and helping students understand how the value of numbers changes when discussing currency or units of measurement.

Foundational skills in 4th grade

By 4th grade, your student should fluently read grade-level text and should be familiar with the concepts of poetry and prose. Years of developing their phonics and word recognition skills means that they can read multisyllabic words that are unfamiliar to them. Your 4th grader may be polishing their research and essay-drafting capabilities.

In the math classroom, your child is still reciting and memorizing multiplication and division tables—a foundational skill that stays relevant despite the easy presence of available technology—and that foundational skill is put to the test in this grade with word problems and multi-step equations.

Foundational skills in 5th Grade

In this crucial last year of elementary school, students are furthering the reading comprehension foundational skills they developed last year. When reading aloud, 5th graders use a natural cadence, intonation, and pace. They can also self-correct, which is recognizing when they’ve improperly decoded a word and fixing their mistake without a teacher’s assistance.

The basic scientific and mathematical principles that students have learned in previous years come to life when they begin to understand how those principles impact the world around them and their lives. 5th graders understand sequences and the basics of building, and now those concepts are now used to design new creations or investigate problems. This new foundational skill, called applied mathematics, is used in STEM careers like robotics, computer science, and coding.

How K-5 students are supported at Laurel Springs School

At Laurel Springs, foundational skills are classified into the following categories: executive functioning, career, and social-emotional. We know how important it is that counselors, teachers, and parents work together as a team to uphold foundational skill learning progress, starting in lower school and beyond. 

"As school counselors, we focus on the academic, career, and social skills students need in order to be successful in the classroom and in life," says Amber Barnes, Ed. S., Laurel Springs K-8 Counselor. "Parents are still a vital part of the education team, and should still be guiding and supporting students, but also encouraging independence as much as possible."

We make sure students know what tools are available for their use, including virtual appointments with teachers and LSS Live. These tools help students learn to hold themselves accountable for their own time management, organization, and motivation.

The skills children learn in lower school grades are important stepping stones to the following years. Independence should further increase as students move through each year of middle school, and this is also the time when career trajectories will be explored in more depth: identifying career paths, high school course selection, hearing from guest speakers, and job shadowing. 

"At this stage of development we want to encourage hands-on experience and have students narrow down their career choices," Amber explains.

You may also see important social-emotional foundation skills mature in your student by their last year of lower school, including self-awareness, emotional regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Students are supported through the Laurel Springs K-8 Counseling Department at all levels, where they can talk about goal-setting, self-esteem and feelings, self-advocacy, and problem-solving. 

Parents can also connect with our counselors through the monthly Parent and Counselor Coffee Chats to learn how students can be further supported at home.