Developmental Stages of Learning to Read:

What, Why, and How?

Most people are aware that learning to walk and talk are developmental processes. New mothers realize their babies may begin to walk at 10 months of age or not until they are 15 months old; they may begin to talk at 12 months of age or not until they are 18 months old. Young children reach the milestones of walking and talking at different ages. Before children begin to walk, they crawl and sit up; before they talk, babies babble and coo.

Learning to read is also a developmental process; all children do not begin to read at the same age. Children reach literacy milestones along the way. For example, children develop a basic oral vocabulary and understand the alphabetic principle before they begin to read. Although children may enter school at about the same chronological age, they are at various stages of reading development. A child's conceptual understanding of spoken words and his or her knowledge of print have an impact on his or her beginning literacy instruction. As a result, teachers need to be cognizant of the Developmental Stages of Learning to Read so all of their young students are successful learners.

What Are the Developmental Stages of Learning to Read?

Most children follow a similar pattern and sequence of reading behaviors as they learn how to read-from print awareness to pretend reading, to identifying alphabet letters, and to beginning reading. There are distinct stages of development across this continuum of learning to read, and there are specific reading behaviors that can be identified at each of these stages. Researchers have used various labels and terms to identify the stages of reading development, but the literature indicates there are five stages of learning to read (Chall, 1983; Dorn & Soffos, 2001; Fountas & Pinnell, 1996; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998). These Developmental Stages of Learning to Read give teachers an estimate, based on observations of reading behaviors, of each student's beginning instructional level:

  • Awareness and Exploration of Reading Stage (typically pre-K)
  • Emergent Reading Stage (typically pre-K to early Kindergarten)
  • Early Reading Stage (typically Kindergarten to early Grade 1)
  • Transitional Reading Stage (typically late Grade 1 to Grade 2)
  • Fluent Reading Stage (typically Grade 3 and higher)

Why Should K-3 Teachers be Aware of the Developmental Stages of Learning to Read?

An understanding of the Developmental Stages of Learning to Read and how these stages fall along a continuum of learning is helpful, especially at the beginning of the school year. It is well known; however, that developmental growth, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, is uneven and is greatly influenced by a child's environment and experiences (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Teachers of K-3 students need to be careful not to associate a child's intellectual ability with his or her developmental stage.

Children who come from literature-rich home environments where parents read and play word games with them on a daily basis will most likely be at a higher developmental stage of reading than a child who lives in a home environment that lacks books and reading experiences. Additionally, cognitive development is uneven, marked by alternating spurts of growth and regression. A child may appear to know something one day but the next day will be unable to answer the same question or demonstrate the same skill. The Developmental Stages of Learning to Read give the teacher a starting point, an idea of where to begin instruction. Using the analogy of painting a picture, the Developmental Stages are the broad strokes of the brush as the artist begins to paint the background. Later, the artist will use a fine brush to paint the details, just as a teacher will use ongoing assessment to target specific learning needs for each student.

How Do the Developmental Stages of Learning to Read Assist Teachers as They Plan Reading Instruction?

The Developmental Stages of Learning to Read enable teachers to estimate each child's instructional needs. Remember that this is a first look. Screening, diagnostic, and ongoing progress monitoring assessment will provide a more in-depth understanding of the student's learning needs. Once the assessment data has been gathered, instruction can be designed according to the child's zone of proximal development in the literacy strands (Vygotsky, 1978). The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) will then be used for the delivery of instruction, moving from high teacher support to low teacher support as the child develops mastery in the multiple areas of literacy.


  • Chall, J. S. (1983). Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Dorn, L. J., & Soffos, C. (2001). Shaping literate minds: Developing self-regulated learners. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
  • Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.
  • Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press.
  • Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

What Students Say

What Students Say. Find out how each of our programs have enriched our learner's careers and their classrooms. See how the strategies they learn enhance their own practice and impact student achievement.