Stages of Reading Development

Some children naturally progress from preschool through primary years and beyond, easily learning to read from minimal instruction and gaining improved skills naturally through exposure to print and practice with reading. However, a child with dyslexia will not be able to learn so easily; your child will need assistance and instruction tailored to his needs and specific areas of difficulty. Your child's needs will change over time, depending on her age and reading level. You will be able to better understand what methods and programs are right for her if you understand the basic stages of reading development.

Stage 0: Reading Readiness/Pre-Reading (Birth–6)

According to renowned professor Dr. Jeanne Chall, children follow predictable stages of reading development. At the earliest stage, children first gain control of language. They begin to realize that words are made up of a series of sounds and start to recognize rhyme and alliteration.

If exposed to print, preschoolers also learn to recognize the alphabet and begin to learn the sounds associated with letters. They may begin to recognize a few words, relying largely on contextual information provided by pictures and highly predictable language.

Stage 1: Initial Reading, or Decoding Stage (Ages 6–7)

At this stage, beginning readers learn to decode by sounding out words. They understand that letters and letter combinations represent sounds and use this knowledge to blend together simple words such as cat or top.

This is the phase that generally is the first major barrier for a child with dyslexia. While your child will probably be able to understand that individual letters represent discrete sounds, he may find it extremely difficult to put the sounds together to spell words, and almost impossible to decode words by breaking down the component sounds.


Because of dyslexia, your child may reach each of these stages at a later-than-typical age. Keep in mind that your child will need to move through each stage at his own pace. Use the information to guide you, but focus on your child's actual level within the progression, not on what the grade or age level is for other children.

Stage 2: Confirmation, Fluency, Ungluing from Print (Ages 7–8)

Once primary level students have become adept at decoding, they begin to develop fluency and additional strategies to gain meaning from print. They are ready to read without sounding everything out. They begin to recognize whole words by their visual appearance and letter sequence (orthographic knowledge). They recognize familiar patterns and reach automaticity in word recognition and gain fluency as they practice with reading familiar texts.

Your child will need extra help to develop the strategies that lead to fluency. Your child's ability to recognize whole words may be hampered by visual-perceptual problems; if so, she may need therapy to address these problems as well as specific instructions and methods to build the orthographic skills.

It is at this phase that children with dyslexia often begin to fall seriously behind, as the skills they need are often not explicitly taught. Although a child needs to “unglue” from print in order to progress, remedial instruction or tutoring often remains focused on phonetic strategies.

Stage 3: Reading to Learn (Ages 8–14)

Readers in this stage have mastered the “code” and can easily sound out unfamiliar words and read with fluency. Now they must use reading as a tool for acquiring new knowledge. At this stage, word meaning, prior knowledge, and strategic knowledge become more important.

Your child will need help to develop the ability to understand sentences, paragraphs, and chapters as he reads. Reading instruction should include study of word morphology, roots, and prefixes, as well as a number of strategies to aid comprehension.


About 40 percent of children with reading difficulties have problems that are not apparent until they reach fourth grade. These children often do not have difficulties with tasks such as letter and word recognition, or phonetic decoding. Instead, their problem is that they are unable to read fluently or comprehend what they read.

Stage 4: Multiple Viewpoints (Ages 14–18)

As opposed to the previous stage of reading for specific information, students are now exposed to multiple viewpoints about subjects. They are able to analyze what they read, deal with layers of facts and concepts, and react critically to the different viewpoints they encounter.

Ironically, when your child finally reaches the phase where reading involves more complex thinking and analysis, he is ready to shine. Your child's whole-to-part learning style is geared for the demands of dealing with shifting viewpoint and contrasting information. He may still have difficulty with some of the mechanics of reading, but his mind is well suited to sharing and manipulation of ideas.

He will be well prepared to move on to the final, fifth stage of reading — college level and beyond. Fortunately, if you can successfully guide your child past the early stage barriers to this phase, he will be able to excel at understanding and integrating advanced reading material.

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