Five Stages of Reading Development

“[In] a developmental theory, literacy is not a single skill that simply gets better … Being literate is very different for the skilled first grader, fourth grader, high school student, and adult, and the effects of school experiences can be quite different at different points in a child’s development.”

Literacy is not something that just happens. One does not wake up literate. Nor does one become literate in the same way that one learns to walk. It is not intuited from the environment nor is it simply a matter of physical maturation. Literacy learning requires instruction and practice,  and this learning occurs across discrete stages. The following notes explore the five stages of reading development as proposed by Maryanne Wolf (2008) in her book Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. These five stages are:
  • the emerging pre-reader (typically between 6 months to 6 years old);
  • the novice reader (typically between 6 to 7 years old);
  • the decoding reader (typically between 7 – 9 years old);
  • the fluent, comprehending reader (typically between 9 – 15 years old); and
  • the expert reader (typically from 16 years and older).
Please explore, and also visit the Stages of Literacy Development page for a more detailed discussion. Before we begin with the stages, there are two preliminary notes to make.
Preliminary Note #1: “As every teacher knows, emotional engagement is the tipping point between leaping into the reading life … An enormously important influence on the development of comprehension in childhood is what happens after we remember, predict, and infer: we feel, we identify, and in the the process we understand more fully and can’t wait to turn the page. The child … often needs heartfelt encouragement from teachers, tutors and parents to make a stab at more difficult reading material.” (Wolf, 2008, p 132).
“Without an affective investment and commitment, our words become unintelligible and empty; with that commitment words begin to show other manners of signification beyond the realm of literal meaning and correspondence.” (Krebs, 2010, pg 138).
Preliminary Note #2: Across this lengthy period of development, leaners are required to consolidate certain skills only to encounter new challenges. The one rule that applies equally is as follows: “Experts [agree] that readers, no matter which reading philosophy is followed, have to practice, practice, practice.” (You Need /r/ /ee/ /d/ to Read). There is no better way to exemplify this than in the following anecdote from Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain.
“I do not remember that first moment of knowing I could read, but some of my memories – of a tiny, two-room school with eight grades and two teachers – evokes many pieces of what the language expect Anthony Bashir calls the ‘natural history’ of the reading life. The natural history of reading begins with simple exercises, practices, and accuracy, and ends, if one is lucky, with the tools and the capacity to ‘leap into transcendence.’” (Wolf, 2008, p 109).
“My other vivid memory of those days centres on Sister Salesia, trying her utmost to teach the children who couldn’t seem to learn to read. I watched her listening patiently to these children’s torturous attempts during the school day, and then all over again after school, one child at a time … My best friend, Jim, … looked like a pale version of himself, haltingly coming up with the letter sounds Sister Salesia asked for. It turned my world topsy-turvy to see this indomitable boy so unsure of himself. For at least a year they worked quietly and determinedly after school ended.” (Wolf, 2008, p 111 – 112).

Stage 1: The Emergent Pre-reader

“The emergent pre-reader sits on ‘beloved laps,’ samples and learns from a full range of multiple sounds, words, concepts, images, stories, exposure to print, literacy materials, and just plain talk during the first five years of life. The major insight in this period is that reading never just happens to anyone. Emerging reading arises out of years of perceptions, increasing conceptual and social development, and cumulative exposures to oral and written language.” (Wolf, 2008, p 115).
“Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principal regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly — like the angular gyrus — are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after …What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children.” (Wolf, 2008, p 94 – 96).
By the end of this stage, the child “pretends” to read, can – over time – retell a story when looking at pages of book previously read to him/her, can names letters of alphabet; can recognises some signs; can prints own name; and plays with books, pencils and paper. The child acquires skills by being dialogically read to by an adult (or older child) who responds to the child’s questions and who warmly appreciates the child’s interest in books and reading. The child understand thousands of words they hear by age 6 but can read few if any of them.

Stage 2: The Novice Reader

In this stage, the child is learning the relationships between letters and sounds and between printed and spoken words. The child starts to read simple text containing high frequency words and phonically regular words, and uses emerging skills and insights to “sound out” new one-syllable words.  There is direct instruction in letter-sound relations (phonics). The child is being read to on a level above what a child can read independently to develop more advanced language patterns, vocabulary and concepts. In late Stage 2, most children can understand up to 4000 or more words when heard but can read about 600.
“Whatever her literacy environment, whatever her methods of instruction … the tasks for … every novice reader begins with learning to decode print and to understand the meaning of what has been decoded. To get there, every child must figure out the alphabetic principle that took our ancestors thousands of years to discover.” (Wolf, pg 116)
“The major discovery for a novice reader is … [the] increasingly consolidated concept that letters connect to sounds of the language.” (Wolf, pp 117)
“Learning all the grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules in decoding comes next for her, and this involves one part discovery and many parts hard work. Aiding both are three code-cracking capacities: the phonological, orthographic, and the semantic areas of language learning.” (Wolf, pp 117)
“Gradually they learn to hear and manipulate the smaller phonemes in syllables and words, and this ability is one of the best predictors of a child’s success in learning to read.” (Wolf, pp117)
“A useful method for helping novice readers with phoneme awareness and blending involves ‘phonological recording.’ This may seem to be just a pretentious term for reading aloud, but ‘reading aloud’ would be too simple a term for what is really a two-part dynamic process. Reading aloud underscores for children the relationship between their oral language and their written one. It provides novice readers with their own form of self teaching.” (Wolf, pp 118)
“Reading out loud also exposes for the teacher and any listener the strategies and common errors typical for a particular child.” (Wolf, pp 119)
“In every domain of learning – from riding a bike to understanding the concept of death – children develop along a continuum of knowledge, moving from a partial concept to an established concept.” (Wolf, pp 116)
“Orthographic development consists of learning the entirety of these visual conventions for depicting a particular language, with its repertoire of common letter patterns and of seemingly irregular usages … Children learn orthographic conventions one step at a time.” (Wolf, pp 120)
“However one labels it, orthographic development for novice readers requires multiple exposures to print – practice by any other name.” (Wolf, pp 120 – 121)
“Explicit learning of common vowel patterns, morpheme units, and varied spelling patterns in English (e.g. the prickly clusters of consonants that precede many a word) aids the work of the visual system.” (Wolf, pp 121)
Semantics (vocabulary)
“For some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing.” (Wolf, pp 122)
“For thousands of code-cracking novice readers … semantic development plays much more of a role than many advocates of phonics recognise, but far less of a role than advocates of whole language assume.” (Wolf, pp 122)
“If the meaning of the child’s awkwardly decoded word is readily available, his or her utterance has a better chance of being recognised as a word and also remembered and stored.” (Wolf, pp 123)
“Explicit instruction in vocabulary in the classroom addresses some of the problem, but novice readers need to learn much more than the surface meaning of a word, even for their simple stories. They also need to be knowledge and flexible regarding a word’s multiple uses and functions in different contexts.” (Wolf, pp 124)

Stage 3: The Decoding Reader

In this stage, the child is reading simple, familiar stories and selections with increasing fluency. This is done by consolidating the basic decoding elements, sight vocabulary, and meaning in the reading of familiar stories and selections. There is direct instruction in advanced decoding skills as well as wide reading  of familiar, interesting materials. The child is still being read to at levels above their own independent reading level to develop language, vocabulary and concepts. In late Stage 3, about 3000 words can be read and understood and about 9000 are known when heard. Listening is still more effective than reading.
“If you listen to children in the decoder reader phase, you will ‘hear’ the difference. Gone are the painful, if exciting pronunciations … In their place comes the sound of a smoother, more confident reader on the verge of becoming fluent.” (Wolf, pp 127)
“In this phase of semi-fluency, readers need to add at least 3,000 words to what they can decode, making the thirty-seven common letters patterns learned earlier are no longer enough. To do this, they need to be exposed to the next level of common letter patterns and to learn the pesky variations of the vowel-based rimes and vowel pairs.” (Wolf, pp 127 – 128)
“In addition, they learn to ‘see’ the chunks automatically. ‘Sight words’ add important elements to the achievements of novice readers. ‘Sight-chunks’ propel semi-fluency in the decoding reader. The faster a child can see that ‘beheaded’ is be + head + ed, the more likely it is that more fluent word identification will allow the integration of this awful word.” (Wolf, pp 128)
“Fluent word recognition is significantly propelled by both vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. The increasingly sophisticated materials that decoding readers are beginning to master are too difficult if the words and their uses are seldom or never encountered by the children.” (Wolf, pp 129)
“With each step forward in reading and spelling, children tacitly learn a great deal about what’s inside a word — that is, the stems, roots, prefixes and suffixes that make up the morphemes of our language.” (Wolf, pp 129)
“And they begin to see that many words share common orthographically displayed roots that
convey related meanings despite different pronunciations (e.g. sign, signer, signed, signing, signature).” (Wolf, pp 129 – 130).
“Fluency is not a matter of speed; it is a matter of being able to utilise all the special knowledge a child has about a word — its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots and endings — fast enough to have time to think and comprehend. Everything about a word contributes to how fast it can be read. The point of becoming fluent, therefore, is to read — really read — and understand.” (Wolf, pp 130 – 131)
“To be sure, decoding readers are skittish, young, and just beginning to learn how to use their expanding knowledge of language and their growing powers of influence to figure out a text. The neuroscientist Laurie Cutting of John Hopkins explains some nonlinguistic skills that contribute to the development of reading comprehension in these children: for example, how well they can enlist key executive functions such as working memory and comprehension skills such as inference and analogy.” (Wolf, pp 131)
  • CV: A script you can read fluently works on you very differently from one that you can write; but not decipher easily. You can lock your thoughts in this as though in a casket.
“Fluency does not ensure better comprehension; rather, fluency gives extra time to the executive system to direct attention where it is most needed – to infer, to understand, to predict, or sometimes to repair discordant understanding and to interpret a meaning afresh.” (Wolf, pp 131)
“It is the moment when children first learn to go ‘beyond the information given.’ It is the beginning of what will ultimately be the most important contribution to the reading brain: time to think.” (Wolf, pp 132)
“A child in this phase of development also needs to know simply that he or she must read a word, sentence, or paragraph a second time to understand it correctly. Knowing when to reread a text (e.g. to revise a false interpretation or to get more information) to improve comprehension is part of what [is referred to] as ‘comprehension monitoring.’” (Wolf, pp 132)
“[It] emphasises the importance of the child at this phase of development of a child’s being able to change strategies if something does not make sense, and of a teacher’s powerful role in facilitating that change.” (Wolf, pp 132)
Barrier for the Decoding Reader
— “30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fluent readers with adequate comprehension … One nearly invisible issue … is the fate of young elementary students who read accurately (the basic goal in most reading research) but not fluently in grades 3 and 4.” (Wolf, pp 135)
— “Reasons …lend themselves to diagnosis: such as, a poor environment, a poor vocabulary, and instruction not matched to their needs. Some of these children become capable decoding readers, but they never read rapidly enough to comprehend what they read.” (Wolf, pp 136)

Stage 4: The Fluent, Comprehending Reader

By this stage, reading is used to learn new ideas in order to gain new knowledge, to experience new feelings, to learn new attitudes, and to explore issues from one or more perspectives. Reading includes the study of textbooks, reference works, trade books, newspapers, and magazines that contain new ideas and values, unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax. There is a systematic study of word meaning, and learners are guided to react to texts through discussions, answering questions, generating questions, writing, and more. At beginning of Stage 4, listening comprehension of the same material is still more effective than reading comprehension. By the end of Stage 4, reading and listening are about equal for those who read very well, reading may be more efficient.
“The reader at the stage of fluent comprehending reading builds up collections of knowledge and is poised to learn from every source.” (Wolf, pp 136)
“At this time teachers and parents can be lulled by fluent-sounding reading into thinking that a child understands all the words he or she is reading.” (Wolf, p 136)
“Even when a reader comprehends the facts of the content, the goal at this stage is deeper: an increased capacity to apply an understanding of the varied uses of words – irony, voice, metaphor, and point of view – to go below the surface of the text.” (Wolf, pp 137)
“The world of fantasy presents a conceptually perfect holding environment for children who are just leaving the more concrete stages of cognitive processing. One of the most powerful moments in the reading life … occurs as fluent, comprehending readers learn to enter into the lives of imagined heroes and heroines.” (Wolf pp 138)
“Comprehension processes grow impressively in such places as these, where children learn to connect prior knowledge, predict dire or good consequences … interpret how each new clue, revelation, or added piece of knowledge changes what they know.” (Wolf, pp 138)
“The reading expert Richard Vacca describes the shift as a development from ‘fluent decoders’ to ‘strategic readers’ – ‘readers who know how to activate prior knowledge before, during and after reading, to decide what’s important in a text, to synthesise information, to draw inferences during and after reading, to ask questions, and to self-monitor and repair faulty comprehension.” (Wolf, pp 138)
“One well-known educational psychologist, Michael Pressley, contends that the two greatest aids to fluent comprehension are explicit instruction by a child’s teachers in major content areas and the child’s own desire to read. Engaging in dialogue with their teachers helps students ask themselves critical questions that get to the essence of what they are reading.” (Wolf, pp 139)
“Van den Broek, Tzeng, Risden, Trabasso, and Basche (2001) studied the effects of influential reading comprehension questioning on students in the fourth, seventh, and tenth grades, as well as on college undergraduates. They found that questions posed during the reading of the text aided in shifting attention to specific information for older and more proficient readers. However, it interfered with the comprehension of the fourth- and seventh-grade students, who performed better when the questions came after, not during, the reading. (Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2016, p. 38)
“[This is a] period of growing autonomy and fluent comprehension. The young person’s task in this extended fourth phase of reading development is to learn to use reading for life — both inside the classroom, with its growing number of content areas, and outside school, where the reading life becomes a safe environment for exploring the wildly changing thoughts and feelings of youth.” (Wolf, pp 140)

Stage 5: The Expert Reader

“All reading begins with attention — in fact, several kinds of attention. When expert readers look at a word (like ‘bear’), the first three cognitive operations are: (1) to disengage from whatever one else is doing; (2) to move our attention to the new focus (pulling ourselves to the text); and (3) to spotlight the new letter and word.” (Wolf, pp 145)
“William Stafford expressed the first element in these changes when he wrote how ‘a quality of attention’ is given to us.” (Wolf, pp 156)
“How we attend to a text changes over time as we learn to read … more discriminatingly, more sensitively, more associatively.” (Wolf, pp 156)
“Cognitive neuroscientist Marcel Just and his research team at Carnegie Mellon hypothesise that when experts make inferences while reading, there is a least a two-stage process in the brain, which includes both the generation of hypotheses and their integration into the reader’s knowledge about the text.” (Wolf, pp 160)
“The degree to which expert reading changes over the course of our adult lives depends largely on what read and how we read it.” (Wolf, pp 156)
By this stage, the learner is reading widely from a broad range of complex materials, both expository and narrative, with a variety of viewpoints. Learners are reading widely across the disciplines, include the physical, biological and social sciences as well as the humanities, politics and current affairs. Reading comprehension is better than listening comprehension of materials of difficult content and readability. Learners are regularly asked to plan writing and synthesise information into cohesive, coherent texts.
“The end of reading development doesn’t exist; the unending story of reading moves ever forward, leaving the eye, the tongue, the word, the author for a new place from which the ‘truth breaks forth, fresh and green,’ changing the brain and the reader every time.” (Wolf, 2008, p 162)
References  (back to top)
  • Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy (Grades K-12): Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA :Corwin Literacy
  • Humphrey, N. (2006). Seeing red: a study in consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Krebs, V. (2010). The bodily root: seeing aspects and inner experience. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 120 – 139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Van den Broek, P.,  Tzeng, Y., Risden, K., Trabasso, T., and Basche, P. (2001) Inferential questioning: Effects on comprehension of narrative texts as a function of grade and timing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 521-529.
  • Wittgenstein, L.  (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

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