Introduction: How Children Learn to Read

Typical development in reading

The Simple View of Reading (SVR) offers one useful way to think about reading development. According to SVR, good reading comprehension requires two broad sets of abilities: word recognition and oral language comprehension. Each of these elements — word recognition and oral language comprehension — includes a set of specific component skills.

Word recognition encompasses, among other skills:

  • Phonological and phonemic awareness
  • Phonics and decoding skills
  • Automatic recognition of common words
  • The ability to read common phonetically irregular words

Oral language comprehension encompasses, among other skills:

  • Vocabulary knowledge
  • Background knowledge
  • Sentence (syntactic) comprehension
  • Understanding figurative language, such as metaphors, similes, and idioms

Word recognition and oral language comprehension are not equally important at all stages of reading development. For typical readers, word recognition abilities tend to be especially important in the early stages of learning to read, when children are learning phonics and developing the ability to read common sight words. Word-recognition skills tend to set a limit on reading comprehension in these early grades, because even if children have strong oral language comprehension skills, those skills cannot come into play while reading if they are unable to read many words.

Once children become proficient at word recognition, their further growth as readers tends to to revolve more around language comprehension than word reading. For typical readers, this shift usually occurs around third or fourth grade, when typical readers have developed accurate and relatively automatic word recognition. At this point, children can focus more of their attention on reading for meaning. They can begin to use reading as a tool for learning in content-area subjects such as history and science. Further growth in reading becomes more about developing higher-level comprehension abilities than about improving word recognition, although some growth in word reading still occurs. Jeanne Chall (1983) referred to this shift as the one from “learning to read” (in K to 3) to “reading to learn” (in Grades 4 and up). Of course, struggling readers may continue to have difficulties with word recognition well beyond third grade.

Reading experts like Linnea Ehri (1991, 2005), have identified the typical stages of reading development. These phases are briefly described below, in the context of typical expectations for reading by grade. Also see Spear-Swerling (2015) for a detailed discussion of typical development in reading.


At this stage, many children do not grasp the alphabetic principle and do not understand that printed words need to be “decoded” with attention to letters and letter patterns. For example, a typical four-year-old might recognize the word stop on a stop sign because of the red octagonal shape of the sign, but would not recognize the word stop printed on an index card. Ehri (2005) referred to this stage of word reading as pre-alphabetic. Many preschoolers do recognize some letters, such as those in their names, and they may grasp certain important print concepts, such as being able to identify the front and back of a book, or the fact that it is the print, not the pictures, that is “read.” These important print concepts are more likely to be found in older preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) and in those who have had ample exposure to literacy – for instance, from frequent parental or teacher read-alouds. Also, children at this stage usually do have a rudimentary level of phonological awareness, such as the ability to rhyme or appreciate tongue-twisters.

End of kindergarten

By the end of kindergarten, typical children recognize all or nearly all letters, both upper case and lower case; they can name and give sounds for single letters, especially consonants. They may also know some short vowel sounds, particularly if those are taught as part of the kindergarten curriculum, and they may be starting to decode simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words (e.g., man, sit, hop) — again, especially if these skills are explicitly taught.

However, even when they have received some decoding instruction, typical children at this stage of development lack knowledge of sounds for many common letter patterns (e.g., ar, ee, oo, oa, igh, tch). They may confuse similarly-spelled words such as boat and boot or meet and met. Often they rely heavily on the first and last letters of a word rather than looking carefully at all letters in a word to decode it. Ehri (2005) refers to this stage of word reading as partial alphabetic, because children rely only on partial phonics cues in reading words. These characteristics are reflected in children’s spelling.  Spelling errors may involve omissions of or incorrect sequencing of sounds, for example, especially in the middle of words. Because of their limitations in decoding, children tend to be very dependent on picture or sentence context to help read words at this stage. Also, their oral language comprehension far exceeds their reading comprehension; they can comprehend much more sophisticated texts in listening than in reading, because of their limited word-recognition skills.

End of grade 1

Typical readers at the end of Grade 1 can decode a wide variety of unfamiliar one-syllable, phonetically regular words, including words with closed syllable patterns (e.g., man, fish, block, stamp), silent e (e.g., like, same, spoke), open (e.g., no, go, be, cry, by), vowel r (e.g., car, star, her, shirt), and vowel combinations (e.g., tree, stay, broom). Although at this stage typical readers do recognize some common words automatically, without the need for “sounding out,” they still need to apply their decoding skills to many words, especially less common or long words. Ehri (2005) refers to this stage as full alphabetic, because children typically attend to all the phonetic cues in a word. At this stage, children’s misspellings become more recognizable as the intended word because all sounds are represented even if a word is not spelled correctly (e.g., garbij for garbage). By the end of Grade 1, typical readers are much less dependent on pictures or sentence context to read words, because they have increasingly accurate skills for decoding unknown words and do not need to rely on context cues as frequently. However, children’s oral language comprehension still far exceeds their reading comprehension at this stage.

End of grade 2

Children have an increasing ability to decode unfamiliar long words, including words with –consonant-le (e.g., stable, marble, needle), phonetically regular two-syllable words (e.g., basement, invite, mistake), and some multi-syllable words, especially words in their oral vocabularies (e.g., butterfly, potato, remember). Typical readers at this stage (and continuing into Grade 3) consolidate common letter patterns such as those associated with common prefixes, suffixes, and other word parts, to make word reading faster and more automatic. Ehri refers to this stage of word recognition as consolidated alphabetic. This stage tends to be one of rapid fluency development in text reading for typical children. Children’s increased knowledge of common letter patterns also is reflected in their improved spelling of words.

Grades 3 and 4

By the end of Grade 3, typical readers have largely mastered basic word decoding skills, including skills for decoding most multisyllabic words, except for unusual words (e.g., words of foreign derivation such as rendezvous, or technical words such as photosynthesis). Typical readers can decode most unfamiliar words quickly and easily and also recognize most common words automatically (“by sight”). Thus, their reading fluency (i.e., their ability to read text quickly and easily as well as accurately) is generally well-established by this point, at least in grade-appropriate texts.

In Grades 3 and 4, the comprehension and vocabulary demands of texts used in school escalate substantially. Vocabulary and morphemic knowledge become especially important to reading comprehension and also to spelling. For example, if children know the meanings of common morphemes, such as that geo means earth or astro means star, they can use this knowledge to help infer the meanings of a variety of semantically related words, such as geology, geologist, geological, astronomy, astronomer, astronomical, and so on. Also, the spelling of morphemes is generally stable across a variety of words, so if children can spell common morphemes, this knowledge will improve their spelling as well as their vocabulary development.

At this stage, children increasingly use strategies to aid reading comprehension. These strategies include summarization, questioning, and inferencing, along with “fix-up” strategies for when comprehension fails, such as rereading or looking a word up in a dictionary. Students also learn to vary their approach to reading depending on the purpose for reading (e.g.studying for a test vs. reading for pleasure) and their knowledge base about the topic (they to read more carefully if the topic is unfamiliar and difficult). Typical readers also are sensitive to differences in text structure, recognizing that fiction and non-fiction texts are organized differently, and they can use their knowledge about text structure to aid comprehension. For example, in an informational text, the key idea of a paragraph often is contained in the first or last sentence; and headings and subheadings may highlight important ideas.

Because typical readers are usually skilled decoders at this point, they can devote more of their mental resources to comprehension. The gap between reading comprehension and oral language comprehension begins to narrow.  Limitations on reading comprehension begin to revolve more around limitations in oral language comprehension, vocabulary, and background knowledge, than around word reading.

Middle and secondary levels

Reading is used as a tool in a wide variety of content area subjects such as science, social studies, and history.  Comprehension strategies and speed of reading continue to develop. At this stage, typical readers are developing higher-order comprehension abilities in reading, such as integrating information from a variety of sources, reconciling differences in viewpoints across texts, and appreciation of literary symbolism and theme.

According to Biemiller (1999), even for typical readers, oral language comprehension and reading comprehension do not become fully comparable until about Grades 7 or 8. For adolescents and adults, reading comprehension may sometimes exceed oral language comprehension, as when students are reading complex narratives or dense informational texts, such as a science chapter on DNA. However, oral language remains an important avenue for learning even in the upper grades, particularly for students who have reading problems. For example, a high-school student with dyslexia may be able to develop content knowledge and advanced comprehension abilities much more easily through listening than through reading, because of ongoing difficulties in decoding or reading fluency.

For typical students at this level, especially those who are avid readers, reading becomes an increasingly important source of new vocabulary and background knowledge. Unusual words are encountered much more commonly in text than in spoken language, even the everyday conversation of college-educated adults. Skilled readers tend to receive more exposure to these unusual words and to new background knowledge, because they usually read much more than do poor readers. In fact, differences in volume of pleasure reading between good and poor readers are massive. For example, Cunningham and Stanovich (1998) estimated that fifth-graders at the 90th percentile of reading achievement read the same number of words in two days of out-of-school pleasure reading, as students at the 10th percentile read in an entire year! These differences in reading volume make an independent contribution to growth in reading and language skills (Mol & Bus, 2011), and can further widen the gap in achievement between good and poor readers. Avoiding this dynamic is one reason why early intervention for reading problems is so important.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment, and in its more severe forms, will qualify a student for special education, special accommodations, or extra support services.

The exact causes of dyslexia are still not completely clear, but anatomical and brain imagery studies show differences in the way the brain of a person with dyslexia develops and functions. Moreover, most people with dyslexia have been found to have problems with identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning how letters represent those sounds, a key factor in their reading difficulties. Dyslexia is not due to either lack of intelligence or desire to learn. With appropriate teaching methods, students with dyslexia can learn successfully (Moats & Dakin, 2008).

Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that causes problems with written expression. Students with dysgraphia may struggle with tasks such as holding a pen or pencil, writing letters clearly, spacing letters and words on a page, or maintaining consistency in the size, shape, and slant of the letters they write. Dysgraphia can also involve difficulty with composing written texts, thinking and writing at the same time, and spelling. Students with dysgraphia may have only impaired handwriting, only impaired spelling, or both. (Berninger & Wolf, 2009).

Executive function and reading

In recent years, a growing body of research has highlighted the role of executive function in learning to read. “Executive function” refers to a group of cognitive processes that we use to set goals, make a plan, pay attention, control our behavior, and ensure that tasks are completed and goals are achieved. These functions include:

  • Impulse control: the ability to stop or change behavior that is not appropriate to a given situation; to think before acting
  • Emotional control: the ability to moderate emotions through rational thinking
  • Flexible thinking: the ability to quickly switch focus and adjust to a new task or situation
  • Working memory: the ability to hold information in memory while completing a task
  • Planning and organizing: the ability to plan for and organize current and future task demands
  • Organization: the ability to create and manage systems for organizing materials and spaces
  • Task initiation: the ability to begin a task and independently generate ideas, responses, or problem solving strategies
  • Self-monitoring or self-regulation: he ability to monitor one’s performance in relation to a standard of what is needed or expected

Executive function issues can be a major factor contributing to reading difficulties. A student who has trouble paying attention in class will have a harder time learning basic skills such as phonemic awareness and decoding. A student with poor impulse control may tend to impulsively guess at an unfamiliar word instead of taking the time to look at the letter patterns and try to sound it out. And even students with strong decoding and comprehension skills may still struggle to become skilled readers as a result of executive function difficulties. For example, a student may be able to make inferences when the information needed to make an inference is in close proximity. But if the necessary information is widely separated, the student may struggle to infer not because of a lack of language comprehension skills but because of inadequate working memory. That is, the student cannot hold the required information in memory while reading. This same student may have difficulties following multi-step directions. Please see the articles listed below for more information about executive function.

References on reading

Berninger, V., & Wolf, B. (2009). Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and science. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Biemiller, A.  (1999). ; Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Chall, J.  (1983). Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22, 8-15.

Ehri, L. C. (1991). Learning to read and spell words.  In L. Rieben & C. A. Perfetti (Eds.), Learning to read: Basic research and its implications (pp. 57-73). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9, 167-188.

Moats, L. C., & Dakin, K. E. (2008). Basic facts about dyslexia and other reading problems. Baltimore: The International Dyslexia Association.

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 267-296.

Piasta, S. B., Connor, C. M., Fishman, B. J., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). Teachers’ knowledge of literacy concepts, classroom practices, and student reading growth. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(3), 224–248.

RAND Corporation, Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers' Impact on Student Achievement. Santa Monica, CA:, 2012.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2015). The power of RTI and reading profiles: A blueprint for solving reading problems. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

Reading 101 is a collaboration with the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and The International Dyslexia Association.

"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase