Elementary Teaching Certification

elementary teacher

Think back to your first-grade teacher. Maybe you remember how you learned about the history of America, or how insects have six legs, but spiders have eight.

But did you ever consider what it took for that teacher to reach where he or she was? The hours spent studying teaching methods, subject matter, and effective classroom strategies?

Before becoming elementary school teachers, these educators must gain a complete understanding of the subject matter, as well as an understanding of learning strategies and methods to effectively reach elementary-aged students.

Only with this understanding will teachers feel prepared for the elementary certification process, which will eventually lead to a fulfilling career educating children from kindergarten to sixth grade.

How do teachers gain this understanding before striking out into the educational world? And why does certification matter? Find more indepth information about becoming and the life of an elementary teacher here.

Why is certification important?

Certification is an assurance to the public that teachers possess the knowledge and skills to effectively perform their jobs.

But understanding subject matter is only one part of becoming an elementary school teacher. Teachers must not only know a range of topics, but must also understand how to present those topics to elementary-aged children. The certification process ensures that a teacher has both of these skills.

Obtaining elementary school certification proves that a teacher has the expertise to positively impact the lives of his or her students. Each state has different requirements for certification, but most states follow a basic procedure.

Basic steps toward elementary school teacher certification
  • Obtain a bachelor's degree from an accredited university
  • Complete a certain number of semester hours in an elementary education program that includes student teaching.
  • Complete a certain number of semester hours in one teaching field such as math, science, language arts, reading, and history.
  • Pass certification assessments that test basic skills, teacher competency, and knowledge of particular subjects.
For more information on specific certification requirements, check your state's certification page.  

Because certification denotes that a teacher is an effective educator, what exactly do teachers in training need to focus on to prepare for the certification process?

The importance of understanding subject matter

It might seem obvious that in order to educate others on a specific topic, a teacher must have a complete understanding of that topic. Teachers who wish to prepare for the certification process should understand the subject areas introduced in elementary school.

Elementary school teachers must demonstrate an understanding of the four main elementary school subject areas – literacy and English language arts, science, mathematics, and social studies – to become certified.

Literacy and English Language Arts

Teaching children to read has implications that resonate for the rest of their lives.

In order to become certified, teachers must demonstrate an understanding of grammar styles, vocabulary, and sentence structure to effectively teach their students. This includes understanding the role of context clues, reading comprehension, and the foundations of language development.

Teachers must know how to deconstruct sentences, identifying the subjects, verbs, objects, adverbs, and adjectives. With a thorough understanding of sentence structure and grammar, teachers impart valuable skills that students will need for more advanced projects in middle school and high school.

Good, effective teachers know that the reading skills they pass on to elementary students affect them for the rest of their lives, and develop lesson plans that promote reading, writing, speaking, and listening abilities.

Writing includes pre-writing, drafts, edits, and rewriting, so teachers must understand the best ways to present the writing process to the students. These include lessons on sentence-decoding skills, vocabulary building, and reading and writing comprehension.

Understanding these general language arts topics ensures teachers are prepared to effectively impart language comprehension skills on their students.

Difficulties with reading

According to the American Federation of Teachers, elementary school students face significant challenges when learning to read.

  • 20% of elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read.
  • At least 20% of elementary students do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent reading.
  • One-third of poor readers are from college-educated families.
  • The rate of reading failure for African-American, Hispanic, limited-English speakers, and poor children ranges from 60% to 70%.
Source: “Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able To Do” from the American Federation of Teacher  


Elementary teachers understand that students arrive at school filled with curiosity and wonder at the world around them, and that the best way to encourage this curiosity is to explore the world through experimentation.

To help spur this curiosity, certified teachers understand that children learn best by examining, comparing, classifying, and describing objects and occurrences in the environment. This means teachers must have a deep understanding of the scientific process, and how to use it during class experiments.

It also means that teachers must know the accepted methods of investigation, including predicting outcomes, observing experiments, and gathering and analyzing data.

During elementary school, children are learning about the basic building blocks of life, including the different molecules and cells that make up the world. Science teachers must have an understanding of the structures that comprise individual cells, and how they contribute to the functioning of all forms of life.

Science teachers also focus on understanding the geologic events that led to modern Earth, like tectonic shifts, earthquakes, and volcanic activity.

Qualified teachers understand all of the major concepts behind elementary science, including biology, physics, and chemistry, and present these concepts during field experiments and class lectures.


During certification, teachers are tested on their knowledge of math concepts, procedures, and ideas.

These include basic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as geometric shapes and algebraic methods.

Elementary school standards require that children first learn how to multiply and divide numbers, so teachers must demonstrate knowledge of patterns in the multiplication table, and understand how to effectively teach these patterns to students.

Elementary school teachers must comprehend the basics behind identifying trends and relationships between numbers, and present these basics to their students using objects, pictures, and graphs. Teachers should know how to graph points in equations, and find the patterns between those points.

Teachers know that children best learn math through using these objects, as well as calculators, computers, and other representations to understand new and potentially confusing subjects. To prepare for a technology-rich learning environment, teachers must demonstrate an understanding of computer programs and learning software to assist their math students.

Having a complete understanding of these topics prepares future elementary teachers for the certification process, and helps teachers recognize the best ways to present material to students.

Social Studies

Teaching students the basics of civics, government, and economics helps prepare them to become productive, active citizens in the United States, and introduces them to various theories and ideas about culture.

To prepare for certification, teachers must understand the issues and events in the world, and how they shape governments and cultures. This includes integrating knowledge from world history, geography, U.S. history, and different forms of government.

A thorough understanding of history and government allows teachers to show their students the importance of understanding the underlying reasons behind events and cultural traditions, and prepares them for future economics and government courses.

Social studies teachers show students how they can use knowledge of government and society to become involved in the political process, and become agents of social change. This includes walking them through the democratic process, and showing them how voting and elections change the political landscape.

More knowledge leads to higher grades

Research shows that teachers who have advanced knowledge of school subjects achieve higher grades from their students. But in order to truly reach students, effective elementary teachers understand that their knowledge of subjects is only effectively taught using the most active and experiential teaching strategies.

Combining knowledge with effective teaching styles

Certification denotes that teachers are the most qualified individuals to teach students, so these teachers must be able to employ a number of teaching styles and methods to meet these standards.

To reach their students, teachers adapt their teaching strategies, developing experiential lesson plans that capture the attention of the class.

For elementary school students, teachers should combine in-class lectures about subjects with hands-on experiences that allow the students to put that knowledge into practice.

For example, consider a fourth-grade science class. The teacher has spent most of the week educating the students about insects and their ecosystems. To show the children that the knowledge they've learned is applicable in their lives, the teacher has the children go outside with bug nets to catch insects.

Each student brings an insect back to class where they sketch their insects, label the body parts, and observe the insects' behaviors. Then, each student presents the insect to the class, noting any interesting characteristics, and answers questions about the bug.

This exercise not only applies the knowledge the students previously learned, but also gives the students more confidence in the classroom from their presentations. But these strategies don't only apply to the science lab.

Active teaching

According to Richard L. Allington, effective teachers are “active” teachers.

He describes active teachers in “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers,” published in The Phi Delta Kappa Journal.

Active teachers adapt their teaching strategies and engage students directly in the classroom, minimizing distractions and student tangents during class time.

While Allington specifically focuses on reading, the strategies he notes are effective for teachers of all subjects.

Many classrooms use an “assign and assess” method, such as assigning reading homework and asking questions at the end. But if a child has difficulty reading the material, how can teachers expect them to understand the questions?

Active teaching refers to teachers who clearly explain the material, as well as walking students through the learning process.

Because classrooms are large environments, teachers sometimes prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, which Allington states is ineffective. Elementary school teachers must examine their students on a case-by-case basis, and give alternative assignments and projects to fit their learning styles and abilities.

The most effective teachers give their students a steady stream of easier assignments so they develop good introductory reading skills. Building their confidence and reinforcing basic skills, teachers would gradually increase the difficulty of their assignments until the students are more in line with the rest of the class.

Teacher preparation courses help future elementary school teachers to examine lesson plans and adapt to challenging environments. Certified teachers are able to understand these challenges, and meet them head on.

Obtaining certification

Future elementary school teachers who combine their knowledge of subjects with effective teaching strategies will find themselves well prepared for the elementary school certification process.

Because certification requirements are different in each state, find out more about your state's certification process here.

Knowledge and certification effects on student achievement

Some researchers debate about whether teacher certification matters, but studies are showing that better prepared teachers are more likely to employ effective teaching practices that lead to better grades.

In “Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement Gains: A Review,” published in The Review of Educational Research, researchers note that students learn better from teachers with an advanced knowledge of subject matter.

In the article, authors Andrew J. Wayne and Peter Youngs write that teachers who had higher college grades and higher scores on certification exams had the most positive effect on student grades. This suggests that a teacher’s knowledge of subjects is a high predictor of how students will learn course material.

This greater knowledge also had an effect on teacher certification and its effects on student achievement, especially in mathematics.

According to “Effects of Teachers' Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching on Student Achievement,” published in The American Educational Research Journal, a teacher's knowledge of a subject has a significant effect on how well their students perform.

In the article, author Heather C. Hill and colleagues examined student achievement data from 1,190 first graders, and 1,773 third graders, and compared the data to teachers' knowledge of mathematics.

The results showed that a teacher's mathematical ability significantly and positively influenced student grades, and that math teachers with greater subject knowledge also had a greater understanding of how to present that information to their students.

During elementary school, children are first exploring their educational passions for educational topics and subjects. These studies underscore the need for teachers to fully grasp the subjects they teach, and earn certification for recognition of this understanding.