The Page Turner

September 2003
The Stages of Reading Development

Learning-to-Read Stages

Reading-to-Learn Stages


From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn
The Stages of Reading Development

    by Pamela Little

Afterschool practitioners who care about literacy development know the importance of putting the right books in the right children's hands. But which books are the right books for which children? How can you determine what books should be in your program library for your kids?

Understanding the stages of reading development can help. According to Dr. Jeanne Chall (1996) of Harvard University, the stages of reading development help us understand how children progress from the rudimentary stages of learning to read into the complex process of reading to learn.

Age or grade guidelines don't tell the whole story. It's more important to understand where the individual child is on her journey to lifelong reading. Some first graders have moved past picture books and early readers into more complex Transitional books (usually designated as grades 2-5), while some fourth graders need instruction in Early or Emergent stage activities.

The Learning-to-Read Stages

Stage 0: Pre-Reading. (Reading Readiness, Role-Play Reading), Ages 0-6
This stage covers more changes than any of the others. Children begin to build a fund of knowledge about letters, words, and books. Their ability to use language grows, and they learn to play with language by, for example, rhyming. While reading growth in this state takes place mostly at home, the skills children acquire during this stage help them succeed in first grade. Go to Parent A-Z and click on Literacy to find tips for encouraging reading readiness in young children.

Stage 1: Emergent. Grades K-1, Ages 5-6
During this stage, children learn to associate letters with their corresponding sounds. They internalize such aspects of reading as what letters are for; how to discern a new word when a letter is changed (can from cat), and how to recognize they've made an error. They learn a few high-frequency words that serve as a foothold as they learn to use both picture and text cues.

Since Emergent readers are just learning about print and letter sounds, their books must help them focus on words, integrate the cueing systems, and use what they know about words to learn new ones.

Books appropriate for Emergent readers have:

  • large font size and ample spacing
  • few words and lines per page, usually consisting of captions and phrases or short sentences
  • a consistent pattern of placing print on the page
  • rhyme, rhythm, and repetition
  • language that reflects children's natural oral language
  • simple story beginnings, middles, and endings
  • clear, uncluttered illustrations that directly support the text
  • a cover and title page that are an integral part of the book as a whole

Stage 2: Early. Grades 1-2, Ages 6-7
Early readers know they need to read from left to right and can match letters to their sounds. Their eyes are beginning to control their reading, so they don't always have to point to each word. Early readers have a store of sight words and don't have to sound everything out, so they can read familiar text with fluency. They are also working on strategies for identifying unfamiliar words.

Books appropriate for Early readers have:

  • large font size and spacing
  • an increasing number of words per page, including shorter and longer sentences
  • a varied pattern of placing print on the page
  • two or more sentence patterns
  • dialogue mixed with narration
  • a few unfamiliar vocabulary words
  • simple concepts and story lines related to children's interests and experience
  • illustrations that support the text but do not convey the whole story

The Reading-to-Learn Stages

Stage 3: Transitional. Grades 2-5, Ages 7-10
Transitional readers can read texts with many lines of print. They do not rely heavily on illustrations for meaning, though their books still have pictures. Transitional readers can read aloud fluently with some expression. They have a large repertoire of high-frequency words. During this stage, readers are beginning to adapt their reading to different types of texts.

Books appropriate for Transitional readers have:

  • an increased amount of print with several paragraphs per page
  • greater variety of words including more challenging and specialized vocabulary
  • a balance of narration and dialogue
  • more complex, fully developed story lines and characters
  • story lines involving different times and settings
  • stories on familiar topics and experiences
  • age-appropriate concepts and humor
  • illustrations that are less supportive of text, intended to add detail and create story atmosphere
  • reading helps at the beginning of the book and of chapters that clearly set the stage and introduce the characters
  • book features that help children access information—tables of contents, indices, glossaries, charts

See Ask the Librarian for tips on choosing Transitional books. Transitional readers love series; check out the Bookshelf for recommended series for this stage.

Stage 4: Independent. Grades 6+, Ages 11+
In this stage, reading is purposeful and automatic. Independent readers apply their reading strategies to long, complex texts; they become aware of their strategies only when they encounter difficult text or are reading for a specific purpose. Independent readers have a large store of high-frequency words that helps them read quickly and automatically. They are building background knowledge and learning to apply what they know. Independent readers will be asked to interpret the author's message, compare books on similar themes, and research topics of interest.

Books appropriate for Independent readers have similar features to Transitional books as well as:

  • long text intended to be read over several sittings
  • increased number of characters, more dialogue
  • multidimensional characters whose personalities and desires create the tension that drives the plot
  • settings that may change from chapter to chapter or even within a chapter; changes are usually signaled with a typographical device such as extra white space or a line of asterisks
  • plot resolution that may rest on characters adjusting their own attitudes
  • subtle humor and an increased need for inferential reasoning
  • less familiar topics and experiences

Readers do not fit into neat categories that can be described in a single word. "Continuums and development charts provide a useful overview, common patterns, and typical behaviors and language for thinking about groups of readers. However, the best of these frameworks can only serve as a guide." (Routman, 1994, pp. 108-9.) We must always focus on the child in front of us and respond to how we see that child reading. See our Bibliography for a few recommended titles for each reading stage.


Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace.

Routman, R. (1994). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners, K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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