When do young children begin learning to read? Many educators believe that learning to read begins at the same time children are learning to talk! Even while still infants, the experiences they encounter that assist them in the development of oral language also assist them in developing written language. Talking to babies, singing and reciting nursery rhymes, and reading to them are all strategies for facilitating the development of talking and reading.

Learning to read in the early childhood years can be divided into three stages: emergent, early, and accomplished. Each stage of development is identified by children’s growing knowledge and skills, and each requires different teaching strategies. The chart below summarizes the knowledge and skills associated with each stage and suggests some appropriate experiences teachers can use to assist children’s reading development.

The Emergent Reader

Knowledge and Behaviors
Appropriate Experiences

Children at this stage of reading development

  • Enjoy listening to books and enjoy repeated readings of favorite stories

  • Retell simple narratives

  • Begin to understand that it is the print that carries the message

  • Attempt to read independently, sometimes relying on their memories, the illustrations, and their background experiences to reread the story

  • Begin to understand directionality that is, the left-to-right and top-to-bottom orientation of print

  • Identify signs and labels in their environment (environmental print)

  • Begin to understand that words are made of sounds (phonemic awareness)

  • Identify some letters and know some letter-sound matches (phonetic awareness)

  • Begin to match spoken words and written ones

  • Recognizes some words by sight (sight words)

Teachers working with children at this stage of reading development can

  • Read and reread books to children, including big books

  • Talk about letters and their sounds in the context of the reading

  • Provide an environment rich with literacy materials and experiences

  • Play language games

  • Help children break spoken words into individual sounds

  • Blend individual sounds into whole words

  • Provide literacy experiences as part of children’s play activities

  • Provide, use, and point out environmental print within the classroom

  • Model one-to-one match by pointing to words while reading

  • Use language experience by taking children’s dictation and helping children read the resulting text

The Early Reader

Knowledge and Behaviors
Appropriate Experiences

Children at this stage of reading development

  • Use letter-sound correspondence knowledge to sound out unknown words when reading

  • Use a variety of strategies, such as rereading, predicting, and using context when comprehension breaks down

  • Recognizes common, irregularly spelled words by sight (have, said, where)

  • Identify and increasing number of sight words

  • Self-correct when an error does not fit with letter or context cues

Teachers working with children at this stage of development can

  • Read daily to children from a range of different types of texts (fiction, nonfiction, poetry)

  • Model a variety of strategies for identifying unknown words

  • Provide practice for identifying unknown words in meaningful texts

  • Give children opportunities for independent reading

  • Introduce new words in the context of meaningful reading

  • Demonstrate and model a variety of strategies to use when comprehension breaks down

  • Choose texts carefully to match children’s abilities, needs, and interests

  • Provide opportunities and real reasons for children to read orally

The Accomplished Reader

Knowledge and Behaviors
Appropriate Experiences

Children at this stage of reading development

  • Read with greater fluency

  • Use strategies (rereading, questioning) when comprehension breaks down

  • Use word-identification strategies with greater efficiency to identify unknown words

  • Accurately read many irregularly spelled words

  • Uses roots, prefixes, and suffixes to infer meaning

  • Spend time reading daily

  • Use reading to research topics of interest

  • Interpret information from graphs and charts

Teachers working with children at this stage of development can

  • Read daily to children from a wide range of different types of texts

  • Provide experiences for children to notice patterns in roots, prefixes, and suffixes

  • Provide opportunities for independent reading from a range of different types of texts

It is important to keep in mind that this chart is not intended to be exhaustive. Children at any age level will demonstrate a variety of behaviors along the developmental continuum, sometimes showing behaviors associated with one stage and sometimes with another. Teachers need to develop a wide range of teaching strategies in order to meet the varying needs of children in their classrooms.

Additional Resources

All teachers must know a broad range of literacy techniques and strategies for every aspect of communication and must be able to develop each student's ability to read, write, speak and listen to his or her potential within the demands of the discipline.   Standard 1 Indicators

Design strategies to develop prior knowledge for readers.

View teaching principles that will help you to design more effective learning experiences.

Engaged Learning Indicators