Section 1: Knowledge of Emergent Literacy and Reading
Developmental Stages of Reading

To gain an understanding of the reading process, it is important to become acquainted with the research on developmental stages of reading. In this section we will explore the available research and begin to examine these developmental stages.

Harvard professor Jeanne Chall is noted for her research on developmental stages of reading. She was among the first researchers to describe reading as a developmental process. Her 1967 book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, summarizes her findings on the debate (which continues today) between proponents of phonics and proponents of meaning-based approaches to reading. Chall's study concludes that, while learning the alphabetic code (variously called phonological awareness, word analysis, decoding, and sound/symbol relations) is essential in beginning to learn to read, it is not all-important. Other crucial factors include language, good teaching, and instructional materials on an appropriate level of difficulty.

Chall also researched the impact of poverty on learning to read and the interdisciplinary nature of learning to read. In 1983, she developed the "first stage theory" of reading development. It is important to note that reading is a process that changes as the reader becomes more able and proficient. Her stages described what students typically had to master before moving to the next stage. More recent research has modified these stages, particularly the early stages. However, Chall's work is still useful in how we understand learning to read and reading to learn. The grade levels assigned to the stages relate to typical learners.

Developmental Stages of Reading

  • Stage 0:  Prereading, birth to age 6
  • Stage 1:  Initial reading, grades 1-2.5
  • Stage 2:  Confirmation, Fluency, Ungluing from Print, grades 2-3
  • Stage 3:  Reading for Learning the New, grades 4-8
  • Stage 4:  Multiple Viewpoints, high school, ages 14-18
  • Stage 5:  Construction and Reconstruction, college and above, ages 18+

Required Reading

Click on the link below for information about the stages of reading development:

As readers progress from emergent to fluent levels, selecting texts of the appropriate level is important. Leveled texts aid in reinforcing the known and can challenge readers to move to the next level. Many "beginning-reader" books for guided reading have been leveled according to text characteristics and teaching points the text supports. It is important that teachers know the target skills for each level and understand how to recognize characteristics of books for the various stages of reading. This knowledge will help ensure the effective use of leveled texts in small-group reading instruction.  

Required Reading

To learn more about the characteristics of guided reading leveled books, review each of these resources. Click on each title to connect to additional information:

"Guided Reading Strategies"

"Developmental Stages of Reading – Characteristics and Examples":

Steps in Teaching and Learning Printed Word Recognition in English

            Greek-derived Morphemes
      Derivational Morphology: Anglo-Saxon and Latin Roots, Prefixes, Suffixes  
    Inflectional Morphology        
    Common Syllables and Syllabication        
  Fluent Recognition of
Word Families
"Sight Words"
K 1 2 3 4 5 6 7+

The chart above provides a visual representation of the progression of skills needed to develop word recognition.

  • In kindergarten, instruction begins with an emphasis on oral language and awareness of sounds. Activities include listening for rhymes, identifying the initial sounds of pictures or spoken words, listening for how many words are in a spoken sentence, and listening for the number of syllables in a word.
  • Then children learn that letters correspond to speech sounds and that speech can be put into print. Children begin by learning initial sounds. They often represent whole words with just the beginning consonant sound when writing. Final consonant sounds are represented next.  Vowel sounds are included last as children begin learning to match speech to print for the purpose of writing and reading. 
  • After students understand simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns, then consonant blends and consonant digraphs can be introduced, so that words like plan and stop or that and she can be added to the words that students can spell and read. 
  • As they become familiar with words in print, readers build a storehouse of common words that they recognize automatically by sight.  These words are also called high-frequency words because they appear in text more often than most other words.  Words like the, to, a, and, you, am, I and of occur very frequently in text. 
  • In the next stage students work with words built from a similar pattern or word family like the "at" in hat, cat, fat, mat and rat.  This knowledge allows them to read many more words. Activities which engage students in manipulating sounds to build words and sort words help reinforce the patterns of spelling in English.
  • A knowledge of syllables and word parts expands a reader's capacity to recognize and decode longer words. This concept is often introduced with compound words made up of two smaller words the child might already know –play-ground, sun-shine, or black-board
  • Learning about inflectional endings like -ed, -ing, or -s provides additional information about how the meaning of words changes with different endings. These endings can change tense of verbs or create plural nouns. 
  • This is followed by learning about prefixes and suffixes, which impact the meaning of the base word to which they are added.  Think of how the meaning of like changes by adding  a- to form alike, dis- to form dislike, un- to form unlike, -able to form likeable, or -ness to form likeness
  • At the upper end of the continuum, students learn about word parts of Latin and Greek origin. These parts provide meaning cues. At this point, the student is no longer decoding at the individual letter level, but rather by meaningful units called morphemes. The demands of reading content-area textbooks require having skills for recognizing familiar word parts in order to read the text and determine the meaning of the vocabulary.  

Oral language development is extremely important as a building block for success in reading. In their landmark 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley examined the daily exposure to language of one- and two-year-olds in America. Their goal was to identify what accounted for differences in vocabulary growth in four-year-olds. As they examined the amount and types of words preschoolers heard at home, they found staggering disparities between the amount and quality of interactions between extremes in socioeconomic levels. As a result of their work, the importance of daily high-quality language interactions in preschool settings became more apparent.

The following webcast, which is 58 minutes long, explains the importance of conversation and interaction in developing children's language. Todd Risley is one of the panelists discussing research on oral language.

From Babbling to Books:  Building Pre-Reading Skills

Concepts of Print

Emergent readers must learn about sounds and letters through phonemic awareness instruction, but they must also learn how print works on a page and how to handle books.  When children have many experiences with books and other print materials in their preschool years, they will already have many of the concepts of print well-established prior to entering school.  Kindergarten and first grade teachers model the concepts of print, such as directionality of print, going from left to right across the page, and print going from the top to the bottom of the page. These concepts are often modeled through shared reading with a big book.  A big book is an enlarged copy of a book made for use with a group of children.  At first, the big book will have a limited amount of print on a page and obvious spaces between words in order to help children learn about word boundaries.  The teacher may frame individual words or point to each word as she reads to help the students with matching words one-to-one with speech. 

Required Reading

Click below to learn more about concepts of print and why they are important to the emergent reader: