5 Stages of Reading Development

The 5 Stages of Reading Development

The 5 stages of reading development are a continuum that children move through as their reading skills become proficient and they learn, practice and master a multitude of reading strategies.

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Reading Development

When children learn to walk they go through various stages before becoming independent. They move through these stages at their own pace. This is the same for reading. The stages of reading are a continuum that children move through as their reading skills become proficient (Dorn & Soffos, Fountas & Pinnell, Chall, CLPE, Campbell-Hill). 

Every child will move through each stage when they are ready and proficient in the previous stage. A child’s previous literacy experiences influence progression through the stages. This is different for all children as they do not start school with similar levels of literacy exposure.

Importance of the Reading Process

As a teacher, I wanted to know each child’s literacy understanding to support them on their reading journey. Talking with parents provided a fuller picture of literacy exposure at home, which helped me understand each child’s needs when they entered my classroom.

As children move through the 5 reading stages, they need to learn, practice and master multiple reading strategies. This includes using

  • prior knowledge
  • predicting
  • visualising
  • questioning
  • comprehension
  • drawing inferences
  • summarising
  • synthesising
  • and knowing when to use each strategy.

Reading is not just about identifying a word, it is about so much more.

Characteristics of Each Stage of Reading Development

Highlighted below are the characteristics of a reader at each of the five levels. You will also find strategies you can share with parents to use at home. For elementary-aged children, the focus is on the first 2 or 3 stages, though there is information on all 5 stages.

Reading Development Stage 1: Pre-Reading / Emergent Readers

The first and most important stage is when children show an interest in reading and voluntarily pick up a book. They need exposure to quality and entertaining literature. Our job is to encourage this interest and develop it into a love of books and reading.

At this stage, you will see children:

  • understanding print has meaning
  • familiar with handling books
  • commenting on illustrations, with guidance
  • starting to recognise letter names and sounds
  • having a good grasp of oral language
  • relating a story to their own experiences
  • pretending to read a story
  • starting to rhyme

Strategies for parents to try at home

  • Read aloud dynamic and exciting books.
  • Read nursery rhymes and poetry with repetitive text.
  • Go on a picture walk before reading to understand the structure of the story.
  • Model how to predict by offering your own suggestions.
  • Ask questions about the story and model how to answer them.
  • Encourage children to make connections to the story. Remind them of related events that have happened to them.
  • Point out important events in illustrations and connect to the text.

This stage is the foundation for all the other stages, and it should be fun. The goal is to help children love reading so they don’t see it as a chore!

Reading wordless books is also a great way to practice these strategies.

Reading Development Stage 2: Reading/Early Readers

During Stage 2 children become more involved in the reading process. Their self-confidence grows as they feel like a ‘reader’.

At this stage, you will see children:

  • starting to memorise the story
  • taking risks
  • beginning to memorise common sight words
  • making connections between sounds and print
  • using the illustrations to tell the story
  • starting to read for meaning
  • starting to predict unknown words using visual cues
  • using rhyming knowledge to add, change and delete phonemes or individual sounds to make new words
  • combining strategies in their attempts to read unknown text

Strategies for parents to try at home

  • Continue to read-aloud stories to children
  • Model how to question, predict and comprehend
  • Introduce new vocabulary in context
  • Focus on letters in their own name and other meaningful words
  • Read the environment when shopping. Point out signs and labels

Don’t make children feel self-conscious about predicting or guessing words. It will only make their reading progression more difficult as they read more complex books.

Reading Development Stage 3: Responding / Progressive Readers

Children are becoming more fluent as they enter Stage 3. They are using various reading strategies in combination, including to self-correct and read for meaning.

At stage 3 children will:

  • understand text has meaning
  • use illustrations as part of self-monitoring
  • understand how to tell a story
  • independently use comprehension and prediction strategies
  • use multiple strategies to increase their reading fluency
  • make educated guesses when predicting and adapting their predictions as needed.

Strategies for parents to try at home

Ask questions while a child is using strategies to read unknown words. Below is an example of questions to ask when a child substitutes a word.

A child says ‘moose’ instead of ‘mouse’. 

  1. Ask: “Does that look right?” Child: “Yes, it starts with ‘m’.
  2. Ask: “Does that sound right? The moose lived in a tiny little space.” Child: “It sounds ok.”
  3. Ask: “Does that make sense? The moose lived in a tiny little space?” Child” “No, it doesn’t make sense, a moose is too big.”
  4. Finally, ask your child to read the sentence again, this time reading for meaning.

Reading Development Stage 4: Exploration / Transitional Readers

Children are reading more fluently and accurately in stage 4. They may still need help with more difficult texts.

At Stage 4 children are:

  • recognising an increasing number of words
  • using multiple reading strategies and have increased comprehension
  • reading with improved fluency and speed
  • using illustrations and text to self-monitor and self-correct
  • reading unknown words using knowledge of phonemes and digraph
  • understanding how to read with expression using punctuation marks
  • choosing books to learn about subjects of interest
  • reading books as part of a series

Reading Development Stage 5: Applying / Independent Readers

Children are consistent and independent in their reading at stage 5. They read longer and complex texts and choose relevant books for an intended purpose.

During Stage 5 children are:

  • confident and independent readers
  • self-monitoring on a regular basis
  • reading different for purposes, including expanding their own interests
  • reading longer texts, extracting the information they need
  • aware what they read can influence their opinions 
  • reading text from different points of view
  • learning to read between the lines and analysing what they have read
  • expanding their comprehension and vocabulary as they read more complex texts

In Summary

The five stages of reading give parents a benchmark for their child’s reading progress. 

Children move through the stages at their own pace and may even straddle two stages at the same time, particularly if their decoding is more advanced than their comprehension.

What suggestions do you have for parents to support their child’s reading at home?

What do you think of the stages of development? If you found it useful or have anything to add, let me know!

12 thoughts on “The 5 Stages of Reading Development”

  1. Encouraging children to read books is vital in every stage of their development to achieve certain milestones. The role that books play is varied in so many aspects. They can be a child’s companion as they undergo their childhood. Most of the children’s book narrative gives them many life lessons that they can carry throughout their lives. However, getting them to do so can be a handful of work.

  2. As I read your post, I could picture my children and grandchildren at the different stages. This really helped me to see their growth and progress with reading. I particularly liked your problem solving strategy, “Does that make sense?” Sometimes my kids would get so caught up in the process of reading they forgot about the story!

  3. I love that you point out that children will move through these stages at different rates. A wise teacher once told me that on the first day of kindergarten you can easily tell which children have been read to which have not. And it is so true. Understanding the reading process really shows the importance of reading to children from a very early age, long before they are ready to start school. My youngest, who isn’t even two, is already beginning to show signs of in the first stage just because we read books so often. She has already learned which way a book should be held and interacts with the pictures. She’s well on her way to reading!

    1. Hi Michelle, you are so right! When I taught Kindergarten I could tell which children had been read to consistently before starting school. How wonderful that your 2 year old has learned the basics already!!

  4. This is so helpful! Thank you for sharing all the stages. I’ve got a little one who seems just about ready to start putting some time into focusing on learning to read, so I found the information very beneficial!

  5. This is such a great article! So much information has been covered. It’s a wonderful resource for parents who homeschool or those who want to support their children once they are in school. I especially like that you have included strategies that go with the first three stages..

  6. This is extremely interesting to see this laid out. I’ve been teaching my own children to read and have noticed this progression. I just didn’t really recognize them to be different stages. Do most children tend to transition between these stages fairly easily? I have one daughter who practically jumped from stage 2 to stage 5 overnight while my second daughter seems stuck between stage 2 and 3. I’m not pushing since I know everyone learns differently but I’m wondering if I need to be more intentional with her to help her get past this stage. Or if I can just let her read herself out of it naturally.

    1. Hi Rebekah, your daughter will definitely pass this stage, it just may take her a little longer than her big sister. Going from stage 2 or 3 is hard as stage 3 is about being more fluent and independent. This is daunting for many children. You are doing the right thing by not pushing her and giving her lots of positive encouragement. If some days she is finding it a bit much then why not read to her and get her involved in discussing the book (comprehension, questioning, predicting, inferring, etc). Let me know how it goes!!

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