Reading and Writing Milestones: How (and When) Children Develop

Unlike speaking, both reading and writing are not innate human skills. What your child learns will depend greatly on what they have been exposed to and taught.

Think of the reading and writing milestones below more as developmental trajectories, meaning that students tend to acquire these skills in this order, if not necessarily at these ages.

This article will deal with the nitty gritty of reading and writing, that is to say “decoding” and “encoding.” Decoding is the process of translating symbols to sounds, what we think of as “reading,” but without paying attention to the comprehension part. Encoding, on the other hand, is the process of translating sounds into symbols, or what we casually call “spelling.” These milestones are intended to help you know what skills to support your child with at various ages, and to reflect on whether or not your child may benefit from additional support or a different teaching style.

Children’s ability to read types of words will always precede their ability to write those words, so the stages are purposefully a little bit misaligned that way. Here is a breakdown of the four major development stages from age three to age 14 and beyond, and what to look for as your child develops her reading and writing skills.

The 4 Development Stages

Emergent Stage (3-5 years)

Before the age of three, there usually isn’t any explicit reading or writing instruction. However, it is helpful to expose children to books and texts to teach them early literacy concepts, such as which way a book goes, that you read top to bottom and left to right in English. (They do not need to know the words yet, but when they look at pictures on a page, they learn to look at the left one first.)

In the Emergent Reading stage, children:

  • Pretend to read, either by remembering a story and/or by using the pictures to help them tell the story
  • Name various letters of the alphabet
  • Begin to rhyme and do other wordplay (like isolating letters)

In the Emergent Writing stage, children:

  • Distinguish between writing and drawing
  • Use upper & lower case letters interchangeably
  • Know how to make some letters and know the direction of writing on a page

Partial Alphabetic and Letter-Alphabetic Stage (5-7 years)

In the Partial Alphabetic (also known as “Initial”) reading stage, children: - Are able to read simple texts containing high-frequency words and words with regular phonology (sound patterns) - Can “sound out” or blend new, one-syllable words (with long or short vowels) - Attend most to the most salient sounds (typically at the beginnings of words, and consonants) - Rely more on memory than in later stages

In the Letter-Alphabetic writing stage, children:

  • Learn the “alphabetic principle,” which is the concept that letters represent spoken sounds
  • Write words with consonants in all positions and all short vowel sounds present (by the end of the stage)
  • Know diphthongs (e.g. sh, ch, th)
  • Begin producing fewer letter reversals and learn the conventions of capitals vs. lower case (by the end of this phase)

Full Alphabetic and Within-Word Stage (7-9 years)

In the Full Alphabetic reading stage, children:

  • Read simple stories with increasing fluency (saying two or more words in a phrase)
  • Gain control of their reading, and become more automatic readers (less “sounding out”)
  • Read words with various endings (plurals, verb tenses, etc.)

In the Within-Word writing stage, children learn a lot! There is a great deal of development that happens over these three years. Children:

  • Learn how to represent various long vowel sounds (silent e, vowel diphthongs or “teams”) (by the end of 1st grade)
  • Learn how to write r-controlled vowels (as in car)
  • Can write more complex consonant patterns, such as blends

Reading for Learning and Affixes (9-14, and beyond)

In the Reading for Learning reading stage, children:

  • Have primarily mastered decoding and are working on increasing their fluency
  • Are working primarily on comprehension skills (multiple viewpoints, conflicts in stories, abstract themes, figurative language, etc.)

In the Affixes writing stage, from 9-11 children:

  • Learn rules for adding inflectional endings (like the doubling rule)
  • Learn rules of syllabication

From 11-14 (and beyond), children:

  • Learn derivational endings
  • Learn about word etymologies and Greek and Latin roots

After this stage, reading and writing become more about the content of the writing and the comprehension of the reading. By now, children can typically decode or encode most words except for tricky content-specific vocabulary, which relies more on vocabulary than decoding or encoding ability (although vocabulary plays a role in all reading).

If you are concerned about your child’s reading, speak to her teacher. If she has not met these milestones, it may be because she has not been taught a particular skill yet, in which case, her development is appropriate. If children are missing some of these developmental stages or milestones, a further follow-up or screening may be appropriate to ensure they receive the right education for their learning needs. Getting additional help is nothing to be ashamed of; many successful people have struggled with reading and writing. It is better to address any potential issues at a younger age, so that your child may hit these milestones at her own rate and with confidence.

Sources:

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Building Your Child’s Listening, Talking, Reading, and Writing Skills: Kindergarten to Second Grade. Retrieved from ASHA.

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S. & Johnston, F. (2008). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (Edition 5). New Jersey: Pearson Publishing.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. (2012). Stages of Reading Development. Retrieved from Reading Rockets.

Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Assessments. Retrieved from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

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