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The Stages of Reading Development


The twin concepts of fluency and comprehension, the related experience of absorption, and the concept of critical consciousness are central to understanding the stages of reading development. This overview explores these fundamental ideas, in order to provide a foundation for understanding the four stages of reading development that inform Institute of Reading Development’s curricula.

Fluency and Comprehension

Fluency means that the reading process is automatic, that the reader recognizes the overwhelming majority of words by sight and does very little conscious decoding. (Decoding refers to the process in which a reader consciously uses phonics and other related skills to figure out the pronunciation of a printed word.) Fluent readers read smoothly, linking words together into meaningful phrases rather than reading word by word. Because fluent readers recognize almost all words by sight, they focus on the meaning of the text, rather than lower order decoding processes.

Fluency is not the same as comprehension, but it is a precondition for comprehension. Pre-fluent or disfluent readers must use much of their conscious attention and cognitive ability to decode, i.e., to read the words in the text, and thus have less energy available to focus on meaning. While pre-fluent readers work to construct meaning from text on a basic level, it is not until they reach fluency that solid comprehension is possible.

Comprehension is not simply a matter of connecting meaning to individual words and phrases. A skilled reader with strong comprehension engages in a number of cognitive processes that are developed as a result of substantial independent reading as well as training. These include: following a sequence of action or thought, anticipating outcomes, visualizing, synthesizing and recognizing main events, and distinguishing main ideas from subordinate details. Most importantly, good comprehension is characterized by high level cognitive processes: in nonfiction this involves understanding a work's overarching message through comprehension of its various parts and their relationship to one another and to the work as a whole; in literature this involves participation in a story at the level of plot and meaning through identification and absorption.

The development of reading fluency and good comprehension in children’s novels opens the portals to the worlds of imaginative children's literature. With practice, i.e., lots of reading in children’s novels, a child achieves the levels of fluency and comprehension required to support identification and absorption.

The defining experience of reading fluency in children’s novels, as understood by the Institute of Reading Development, is absorption; a child identifies with the author's main character, and imaginatively participates in the character's adventures and experiences. The author's world comes alive; in the mind of the child it is real, just as the main character's experiences are real. There is no sense of duality, no sense that "I am reading," no sense of identity outside the identity of the main character. Rather, there is an effortless flow of experience, the character's experience in the imaginatively recreated world of the book.

Children who achieve fluency in children’s novels relatively early and who read widely during the late elementary and middle school years experience significant benefits in three areas: character formation, as they appropriate the positive values embodied in great children's literature; cognitive development, as they learn how to handle increasingly complex vocabulary, sentence structures, plot devices, characterization, implied meaning, and other language and literary structures; and cultural literacy, as they absorb basic knowledge about our society and the world we live in. These benefits pave the way for a child’s long-term academic success.

The development of high levels of fluency and comprehension is also the basis for all subsequent reading development, including reading for concepts and information. The same capabilities of fluency and comprehension that result in absorption in literature also enable the relatively automatic and accurate flow of understanding while reading for information in nonfiction.

Critical Consciousness

Critical consciousness, the ability to think abstractly and analytically about both text and the reading process itself, first makes its appearance in middle school and then continues to develop into adulthood.

An example of a kind of reading dependent on this critical faculty is the process of reading a section in a chapter of a textbook. First, as a result of an initial chapter preview, the reader must be aware of how the section contributes to the overall message of the chapter. Second, the reader must preview the section to determine what it is about, how it is divided into subsections and what each subsection is about, and how the subsections work together to convey the overall message of the section. Then, the reader must do a close reading of each subsection. While reading each subsection, the reader must recognize or synthesize its main ideas and relate them to the focus of the subsection itself, and relate the details of the subsection to the main ideas. The entire process is highly conscious; the reader's goal is to control the learning process in order to make it as effective as possible.


This stage begins when children are 4 or 5 years old and start to learn their letters. It is completed when children achieve fluency in Easy Readers, books written with a controlled vocabulary and simple sentences. Most students achieve the goals of Stage 1 at some point during second grade, although a few children complete this stage as early as mid-first grade or as late as mid-third grade.

For most of Stage 1, children's central focus is learning to decode. This means learning the alphabet and the sounds that letters make, learning to distinguish sounds in speech, and learning to sound out words. As this process gets underway, children also have to focus on reading connected text, i.e., reading Easy Readers at the right level of difficulty in order to develop the facility and automaticity that leads to fluency. As fluency develops, children's attention starts to shift toward meaning, toward comprehension of the stories they are reading.

Underlying and supporting the entire stage is the regular experience of hearing stories read aloud. Reading aloud to children provides them with the experience of absorption in a story and identification with characters, something they will not be able to do on their own until they attain a high level of fluency, several years later. The result is that the foundation for a lifelong relationship with books is established before a child can read a single word. Developing a strong and positive relationship with books is its own reward; it also provides the motivation for tackling the challenging task of learning to read. Not surprisingly, children who are read to a lot in their early years learn to read more quickly and easily.


This stage begins when children achieve fluency in Easy Readers, usually at some point during second grade. By the time children enter Stage 2, some have already made the transition from oral to silent reading, and the rest will make that transition in the upcoming year. Stage 2 is completed when children achieve fluency in children’s novels, usually in third or fourth grade, although some students complete this stage as early as second grade or as late as fifth.

The central focus during this stage is to do a lot of reading in books at the right level of difficulty, progressing from Easy Readers to chapter books, which are considerably longer and without the controlled vocabulary and simple sentences of Easy Readers. Reading practice and skill development at this stage are both primarily focused on fluency development. Students learn how to decode long words, i.e., words of three syllables or more, as the percentage of these words jumps from 1-3% in Easy Readers up to around 5-8% in children’s novels. Students also practice oral reading in order to develop oral reading fluency. The phrasing, automaticity, and focus on meaning in oral reading then transfers to the silent reading process.

Note that fluency not only describes a functional level of reading process, it also characterizes the relationship of reader to text, i.e., a reader is only fluent in relation to a certain level of text. For example, a child who is fluent in Easy Readers is not necessarily fluent in chapter books, and a child fluent in chapter books is not necessarily fluent in children’s novels.

As fluency continues to develop in this stage, primarily as a result of reading practice, comprehension becomes both an instructional and a developmental focus. As children achieve fluency in chapter books, both the level of reading skill and the story substance are sufficient to support the experience of identification and absorption that until now was only available when being read to. (While children may experience identification and absorption earlier, in Easy Readers, it tends to be limited both by the material and by their less developed reading skill).


This stage begins when children achieve fluency in children’s novels, usually in third or fourth grade, although some students begin earlier and others later. The focus of this stage of reading development is to do a great deal of reading in children’s novels at gradually increasing levels of difficulty, a process which enables a child to develop the levels of fluency and comprehension required to support identification and absorption. The achievement of identification and absorption at the core of the reading process, i.e., at a level of automaticity, is the capstone of all of the early stages and substages of reading development. It is also the foundation of all subsequent reading development.

When students read with identification and absorption, the process is both transparent for the author's vision and intrinsically pleasurable. It is transparent in the sense that the text evokes in the reader’s mind an accurate representation of the story. No skill deficit or process flaw interferes with the accuracy of the reader’s experience. The process is intrinsically pleasurable because it is an effortless experience of participation. No sense of labor or struggle interferes with the flow of experience.

The development of high levels of fluency and comprehension does more than provide the basis for the habit of reading for pleasure. This achievement is also the basis for all subsequent reading development, including reading for concepts and information. The same capabilities of fluency and comprehension that result in absorption in literature also enable the relatively automatic and accurate flow of understanding while reading for information in nonfiction.


Children undergo transformational physical, emotional, and cognitive changes starting in middle school and continuing through high school and into adulthood. These changes bring in their wake a new cognitive capability that first appears in middle school and that continues to grow throughout the secondary and postsecondary years. This capability is critical consciousness, the ability to stand back and reflect on one’s own experience, to think abstractly and analytically. When brought to bear on the process of reading, this capability allows students to enter a new stage of reading development in which a new, critical dimension of experience is added to the basic substrata of experiences that are already present as a result of previous developments in reading ability.

When a student who has achieved the goals of the third stage of reading development enters Stage 4, the opportunity exists for a much more effective reading process to develop. A student with a strong reading background who reads with solid levels of fluency and comprehension will experience a relatively automatic and accurate flow of understanding while reading, whether reading a novel or a textbook. But the challenges of reading a textbook are different; a relatively automatic, accurate flow of understanding is not enough.

The new critical reading faculty needs to be trained in order to become most useful. Training in critical reading is based on metacognitive techniques in which the reader learns to exercise conscious control of the reading process based on one’s purpose as a reader and the demands of the text. Students develop: the ability to recognize how material is organized; the ability to determine and synthesize main ideas; the ability to relate details to main ideas; the ability to monitor comprehension and adjust reading rate or reread when necessary; the ability to take notes; the ability to study notes for a test.

There is something magical about how a set of marks on a page can become such a source of pleasure and delight.