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This month’s school closures have forced families to become teachers at home overnight. 

What we know about beginning readers

Children progress as readers at different rates, but they pass through predictable stages of development. For typically-developing readers, the stages of reading can be mapped onto grade levels, but as a homeschool teacher you have the advantage of being able to provide the instruction your children need, regardless of their grade.

For each stage of reading development, we’ve selected materials so that caregivers can support their children’s progress. Each stage of reading has an instructional plan with easy suggestions for targeting the two main components of reading:

Oral language: vocabulary and background knowledge

Decoding: learning the way in which letters represent the sounds in each word

Learning about books and words (preschool–early kindergarten)

At this stage, you will see…

Children first learn about reading by watching skilled readers handle books. They learn how to hold a book, where to find the front cover, title, author, pictures, and words. Children learn all of this when adults point out key features while reading aloud.

Children will begin to emulate skilled readers, but they are still essentially nonreaders.

“…they can pretend to read stories they have heard many times, and they can guess words from pictures. However, all of their feats of reading are performed by using cues that do not involve the alphabetic system.” 

Ehri, 2005 (opens in a new window)

In this phase of development, children may appear to read words, but they do so by remembering visual features, rather than by connecting letters to the spoken sounds they represent. For example, a child may “read” stop on a stop sign because they recognize the red octagon it’s printed on or because they see the squiggly shape of the letter S.

A child must learn…

Concepts of print

  • Book handling: how to hold a book and turn its pages, while noticing key features such as pictures and words

Alphabet knowledge

  • 26 lowercase letters (be able to name and write each letter effortlessly)
  • 26 uppercase letters, which are used to signal the beginning of a sentence, the name of a person, etc.

Letter–sound associations (commonly referred to as phonics)

  • From sound to letter (the sound /m/ is the letter m)
  • From letter to sound (the letter s has the sound /s/)

Phonological awareness

An adult should know…

To become a skilled reader, a child must learn how the words he or she hears and says are represented by the print on the page. A child must also become aware that words are made up of individual sounds (phonemic awareness). This understanding is essential for efficient reading. 

Letters in the word325
Phonemes (sounds) in the word3
/m/ /a/  /t/
/a/ /k/ /s/
/l/  /a/ /f/

Skilled readers instantly recognize letters (in a variety of fonts) and they know how those letters can be grouped to represent the ~44 phonemes (opens in a new window) (sounds) of spoken English. 

Efficient readers do not memorize words based on sight. They match the letters to the sounds those letters make. Readers can differentiate between visually similar words (stop and slop) because they instantly recognize letters and because they know which features to ignore (stop and STOP are the same word, no matter the font or handwriting). 

How to help

Teaching About Books and Words

What To DoFocus OnRelated Resources
Read aloudTeaching concepts of print: title, author, illustrator, where to start reading, etc.
 Engaging in discussion while reading by asking open-ended questions

Teach Letters
Building alphabet knowledge: recognizing and matching upper and lower case letters
 Handwriting with proper pencil grip and letter formation
 Practicing letter names until your child can say them quickly
 Practicing letter sounds, with correct pronunciation, until your child can say them quickly
Phonological AwarenessPlaying with spoken words to help your child hear the parts of words (syllables, rhymes, phonemes)

Assessments to Monitor Learning

Helpful Tips

  • Short lessons framed as “games” make the learning process more enjoyable for you and your child
  • Consider sprinkling instruction throughout the daya morning song with rhyming, letter practice before lunch, handwriting in the afternoon, a story at bedtime

Learning about words (kindergarten–early 1st grade)

At this stage, you will see…

Children use the letter sounds they have learned along with context to recite familiar books and memorize repetitive words. In this stage, children primarily pay attention to the first and last letters of words when reading and when writing.

A child must learn…

To say the sounds for each letter in a word (/s/ /t/ /o/ /p/) and blend those four sounds together to read (stop)

Children begin with short words (such as atup), progress to three-letter words that have a vowel in the middle (cat, bet, sip, jog), and then move on to more complicated spellings.

Some children quickly abandon guessing strategies and apply what they know about letter-sound relationships to their reading with relatively little instruction.

A majority of children require explicit instruction to make this leap, and some need many repetitions in order to cement their learning.

“Fortunately, because English is an alphabetic writing system, students can efficiently read many words once they learn how to use the relationships between letters and sounds. Unfortunately, however, switching from using context to using spelling-sound strategies is both unnatural and difficult for many students. Among the reasons for this is a lack of understanding that spoken words are made up of sound units (phonemes) and that the arrangements and varieties of phonemes correspond to the print they see on a page. A successful decoding program raises students’ awareness, understanding, and use of phonemes and establishes the relationships between letters, sounds, and spellings.”

— Shefelbine, 2014

An adult should know…

Reading at this stage is often a slow and laborious process. Listening to children sound out words can challenge our patience. Skilled readers instantly recognize the words and want children to do so, too. But if we ask a beginning reader to read quickly, he or she will revert to an earlier stage of development and will begin to guess words using initial sounds and context. Patience and calm determination are key, both for the child and the adult!

Paying attention to every letter of every word is essential to developing the automatic recognition of words, which teachers often call “sight words” (for more: learn about orthographic mapping (opens in a new window)). Slow, accurate reading will become quick and efficient once a child has had enough practice sounding out words.

How to help

Teaching About Words

What To DoFocus OnRelated Resources
Build Background KnowledgeEngaging in discussion to build vocabulary and content knowledge 
Listen to Your Child Read
Sounding out words while reading

Provide texts your child can read using the phonics they know (sources for decodable texts) To progress through this stage of reading development, children must learn to attend to every letter in every word.

Avoid predictable texts, which prompt children to recite a pattern and use pictures to guess unknown words. See: What’s wrong with predictable or repetitive texts (opens in a new window). Guessing and checking is an inefficient way to read, but some instructional materials perpetuate the difficulty. 

Phonological AwarenessPlaying with spoken words to help your child hear phonemes (sounds) in words 

Assessments to Monitor Learning

Helpful Tips

  • Practice sounding out words (instead of guessing) can be framed as a game (video lesson: Snowman Game (opens in a new window))
  • Short sessions of reading practice (5-15 minutes) sprinkled throughout the day may result in more productive and enjoyable practice than one longer session.
  • This phase of reading has been nicknamed “the grunting and groaning stage” for a reason! A text will become easier for your child with each reread. Celebrate progress, knowing that the hard work will pay off in easier “first reads” when your child is developmentally ready.

Reading with greater ease (1st–2nd grades and beyond)

At this stage, you will see…

Readers can sound out unfamiliar words, they invent spellings that represent all the sounds in words, and they can remember correct spellings of words better than in the previous stages of development.

Children at this stage of development are able to remember more complicated spelling patterns for future encounters with a word when reading or for writing.

Phonetic pronunciation of the word sign

They may also begin to teach themselves new spelling patterns, inferring conventions in English spelling that they have not yet been taught.

“The final stage of reading acquisition is characterized by automaticity — the quick and effortless recognition of most words. A key instructional strategy for building this automaticity is massive amounts of reading practice at levels where decoding accuracy is at or above 95 percent. To achieve such accuracy, students must use spelling patterns to decode.”

— Shefelbine, 2015

A child must learn…

Fluency consists of accurate reading, at an appropriate rate, with suitable expression. It develops as a result of an enormous amount of reading practice.

Reading fluently supports reading comprehension.

An adult should know…

As a child’s reading begins to sound more like talking, his or her comprehension increases and that makes reading more enjoyable (both for the child and the adult listening!) You may need to teach your child how to read with attention to punctuation (e.g. pausing for commas) and typography (e.g. getting a little LOUDER when text is in all caps). A short lesson and plenty of time to practice on a variety of texts can yield big gains.

Reading practice builds reading stamina, so the more your child reads, the more he or she will want to read. You can help your child grow to love reading by providing authentic purposes for reading and writing (e.g. to learn more about a topic of interest) and by helping your child find books he or she enjoys.

How to help

Teaching and Practice for Reading With Greater Ease

What To DoFocus OnRelated Resources
Build Background KnowledgeEngaging in discussion to build vocabulary and content knowledge 
Opportunities to Practice ReadingAs you listen to your child read, ensure accuracy. As the child’s reading sounds more expressive, you know he or she is becoming more adept.Reading texts repeatedly helps children become more fluent.

Assessments to Monitor Learning

Helpful Tips

  • To provide authentic purposes for reading and writing for your child, think about what reading and writing can be used for:
  • Finding the answer to a question
  • Learning to do something new
  • Connecting with someone you miss
  • Enjoying a good story
  • Remembering something for the future

Your child is lucky to have you as a reading teacher

There are two strands to reading: 

  • Oral language is developed by talking and listening
  • Decoding is acquired by learning how letters represent the sounds of spoken words

Any work you do with your child that builds his or her vocabulary, background knowledge, understanding of printed words and spelling, is teaching reading.

Working together and enjoying the process is more helpful to your child’s reading development than battling over the completion of worksheet packets. Your child is lucky to have an adult who is taking the time to understand and facilitate his or her development as a reader. 

As you explore reading instruction for each phase of reading development, remember:

When you talk, read aloud, sing songs, and learn new things with your child, you are a reading teacher. 

Additional resources

Video: Reading, Singing, Playing, and Talking with Children (opens in a new window)

  • Quick tips for engaging activities to do with your child throughout the day

At-Home Learning from Zaner-Bloser (opens in a new window)

  • Free printable resources organized by grade level and topic: handwriting, phonological awareness, print concepts, letter recognition, grammar, etc.

Florida Center for Reading Research: Student Center Activities (opens in a new window) 

  • Activities for children in grades K-5 
  • Includes easy lesson plans and printable materials
  • Covers five essential components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension

Free Reading (opens in a new window)

  • Covers five essential components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension
  • Includes print concepts and writing
  • 40 weeks of lessons
  • For kindergarten students at risk for reading, start at Week 1, Day 1
  • For first grade students at risk for reading, start at Week 21, Day 1
  • For students in other grades who are still developing literacy skills, begin with the lessons and activities that best match their child’s needs

Parker Phonics (opens in a new window) (free downloadable books)

  • Teaching a Preschooler to Read
  • Reading Instruction and Phonics
  • The Reading Disability Crisis

Spelfabet (opens in a new window)

  • Suggested activities, printable materials, videos, and explanations
  • Resources for all ages, preschool children to adults with reading difficulties

One pagers of teaching tips for parents of children preschool-3rd grade

  • Printable one-page guides that are organized by grade level
  • Tips for adults and activity ideas for children
  • Available in English and 12 other languages

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons (opens in a new window)

  • 100 lessons that are each 20 minutes
  • Step-by-step program for parents to teach their children to read
  • Book cost ~$25

Amplify Core Knowledge Language Arts Resources for Parents (opens in a new window)

  • Free curricula for use with children in Kindergarten–8th grade
  • Many activities can be done independently by the child
  • Read Aloud lesson videos
  • Independent practice for foundational skills
  • Self-guided videos on science topics

UFLI Virtual Teaching Resource Hub (opens in a new window)

  • Resources, including links for additional sources of high-quality materials

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 14, 2020