What Are the Stages of Reading Development?

What are the Stages of Reading Development?

Reading development can be broken down into two major stages: Learning to read and reading to learn. Learning to read involves mastering the sound structure of spoken language, understanding the alphabetic principle, decoding words, and becoming fluent. Once readers begin to become fluent the cognitive demands of reading shift from trying to decipher sound-symbol relationships and decoding words to comprehension, understanding another or multiple points of view about a topic, and gaining knowledge.

The stages of reading development progress on a continuum throughout a lifetime of reading. Positive early exposure to print and word play sets the stage for initial reading success. This often translates into more frequent reading and readers who are able to integrate new learning with their own knowledge.

Learning to Read

1. Pre-Reading

Reading development actually begins before children are aware of printed letters and words. Prior to learning about the alphabet, children have to be successful with their oral language skills. These oral language skills begin with exposure to nursery rhymes that help children develop and ear for the sounds of words. Once children get their ear for word sounds they begin to focus on the components that make them similar or different. This is called rhyme and alliteration. Rhyme and alliteration provide the foundation for the development of phonological awareness.

At this point, pre-readers’ understanding of how word sounds and patterns allows them to focus on smaller units of speech sounds. These units are called phonemes. Phonemes are speech sounds that are approximately equal to a letter or a combination of letters but not as big as a syllable. When children become proficient with phonemic awareness they are able to blend letter sounds, segment phonemes in words, and manipulate phonemes to make new or nonsense words. Being comfortable with sounds produced in isolation, being able to break words down into their small, meaningless components that are phonemes, and being able to manipulate the sound structure of words are all necessary pre-reading skills.

Pre-readers also need to be proficient with letter naming. Children who are able to rapidly and accurately identify letters find it easier to learn letter sounds and word spellings than children who are not as familiar or accurate. This is because knowing the names of letters allows children to learn their sounds quicker. That is, it hastens the pre-reader’s ability to understand the alphabetic principle which is simply the understanding that letters and words are made up of corresponding sounds. This understanding provides pre-readers the key for them to “unlock the code” and begin reading.

During this stage of reading development pre-readers gain mastery over the sound structure of spoken language, pretend to read, retell stories from picture books, enjoy having stories read to them, and recite the alphabet. The pre-reading stage typically lasts until the end of pre-school to the middle of kindergarten.

2. Emergent Readers

Emergent readers are able to begin learning how to connect sounds to printed letters and words. They soon realize that letters represent sounds and notice that combinations of letters produce different sounds. Parents and teachers often notice the beginnings of this stage when children use invented spelling. This occurs when emergent readers write words the way they sound, which is a typical part of this developmental stage as these beginning readers are over-generalizing their new skills because they have only a rudimentary understanding of the reading rules. Emergent readers often memorize the visual, i.e., orthographic, components of words or whole words and develop a “sight” vocabulary. Therefore, this stage is characterized by increased sound-symbol correspondence, increased visual memorization of high frequency “sight” words, and invented spellings.

Children in the emergent reader stage read high frequency words as well as phonetically regular words, continue to enjoy having stories read to them, enjoy stories that are predictable and relevant to them, need to be exposed to new vocabulary to increase their comprehension, and are usually able to sound out one syllable and sometimes two-syllable words. The emergent reader stage usually lasts until the end of kindergarten or the middle of first grade.

3. Early Readers

Early readers are at the beginning stages of becoming fluent. They are usually more efficient at sounding out words and are becomingly increasingly automatic at recognizing the parts of words and decoding them. During this stage readers learn how to chunk common parts of words (e.g., re-, un-, -ed, or -ing) which they can transfer among words increasing efficiency. As their fluency increases, early readers have more cognitive processes available to direct at understanding what they are reading. Therefore, they increasingly direct energy toward comprehending what they read. Early readers soon realize that there is more to understand than what is explicitly being stated in the text, and they may recognize that they have to reread a sentence or passage to understand what was being inferred. This is an important step in reading development as readers begin to become strategic, recognizing that they are reading for a purpose. The early reading stage typically lasts until the end of second grade.

4. Transitional Readers

Transitional readers refine and expand their decoding skills, increase automaticity of word recognition, increase their rate of reading, increase their vocabulary knowledge, and increase their level of comprehension. This stage can be looked on as an extension of the early reader stage or as a prequel to the fluency stage. The transitional reader stage may last until the end of third grade.

Reading to Learn

5. Fluent Readers

Fluent readers are comprehending readers. At this stage they shift from learning how to read to reading to learn. Reading at this stage becomes more purposeful. Students are able to access their background knowledge to gain insight into and connect with written text. At they stage readers began to more fully develop their understanding of meanings that are not explicitly stated. They are able to read into more subtle nuances in the text. Fluent readers are exposed to strategies that they can use to increase their understanding of what they read and they continue to learn new words that help with comprehension. Fluent readers are usually only able to take or see one point of view in the text they read. This stage may last until the end of ninth grade.

6. Multiple Viewpoints Readers

Readers in the multiple viewpoints stage are able to critically analyze the text they read from different perspectives. They usually read a broad range of styles and topics. Multiple viewpoints readers have an understanding of metaphors and allegories which they use to draw meaning from text. They continue to develop their vocabulary and use multiple strategies to increase comprehension. Students in this stage learn how to write creatively and persuasively. The Multiple viewpoints stage typically lasts until the end of high school.

7. Construction and Reconstruction Readers

Construction and reconstruction readers usually read for their own purposes (either to get knowledge or for pleasure). These readers are generally very fluent and efficient in their approach to reading. They have multiple strategies that they can draw upon to get meaning from what they read. Construction and reconstruction readers are able to read multiple viewpoints, critically analyze the viewpoints and information in each of them, and then synthesize and extend that information with their own thoughts. Readers at this stage of development are experts. How far a reader develops at this point depends upon his/her motivation, needs, and interests. The more practice one has, the better one will become.


This article outlines the 7 stages of reading development classifying them into two categories: 1. Learning How to Read, and 2. Reading to Learn. The main goal of reading is to obtain information from text, therefore readers need to able to rapidly identify individual words to have enough cognitive resources available to comprehend words, sentences, and paragraphs.

The early stages of reading development focus on developing sound-symbol relationships, decoding skills, sight word identification, and fluency. Once these skills become automatic readers have more cognitive resources available for the comprehension stages of reading development. As readers progress through the Reading to Learn stages they become increasingly more sophisticated in their comprehension skills. Finally, when readers enter the construction and reconstruction stage they use their critical analytical skills to become producers of new knowledge and not only consumers.

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