The Stages and Awareness for Learning to Read

Little girl reading with her mom
Michael Berman/Getty Images

A baby's brain is hardwired to learn a language. That means that a baby doesn't need to be taught how to speak a language; it happens naturally. Babies learn language pretty much from the moment they are born. It's an amazingly complex skill, but since it's natural, we aren't aware of everything it involves.

Unlike learning language, though, learning to read is not natural. It has to be taught. And as complex as language is, reading is even more complex.

Building Blocks for Learning to Read

To learn how to read, children need to be aware of some fundamental processes first.

Phonemic Awareness

This is where learning to read starts. Phonemic awareness means understanding that speech is made up of individual sounds. It is a critical part of reading readiness, so it is often a focus of early learning programs.

Alphabetic Awareness

Since writing isn't speech, phonemic awareness isn't enough to allow children to learn to read. In order to learn to read, children must be able to recognize that the marks on a page represent the sounds of a language.

Those marks, of course, are letters. This is more than just memorizing the alphabet. Learning the alphabet is part of reading readiness, but to be able to read, children must be able to do more than simply memorize the letters. They must also be able to identify which sounds in the language (phonemes) go with which letters.

Memorizing letters and sounds is a more difficult task that memorizing the names of objects like animals. Animals are concrete things—they can be seen and they can be pictured. For example, you can point to a cat and say "cat" to help your child connect the word to the animal.

You can point to pictures of cats or other objects to make your child connect the words to the objects. But sounds can't be pictured, so memorizing which sounds go with which letters is a more abstract process than memorizing the names of objects. The best we can do is use a picture of a cat to illustrate the sound of "C."

Memorizing the sounds that go with the letters of the alphabet is even more difficult because there is not an exact correlation between letters and sounds. English has about 44 sounds, but only 26 letters to represent those sounds.

Some letters represent more than one sound, as we can see from the letter A in the words father and fat. But other letters seem unnecessary since the sounds they represent are sounds that other letters represent. For example, we could just as easily spell queen "kween" and we could spell exit "egzit."

Sounds to Word Awareness Blending

As difficult as it might be to match all the sounds to the right letters and memorize them all, learning to read requires even more. Children must also be able to link printed words to sounds. That is more complex than it sounds because a word is more than the sum of its letters.

The word cat, for example, is made of up three sounds represented by three different letters: c-a-t. Children must be able to recognize that these sounds blend together to form the word cat.

Making the connections between sounds and printed words is so complex that we still don't know exactly how children do it. But when they are able to manage it, we say they have "broken the code."

Stages of Learning to Read

Like learning language, learning to read occurs in stages. Although not everyone agrees on exactly how those stages progress, knowing what the stages are can provide you with an idea on how children come to break the written code and learn to read.

Pre-Alphabetic Phase

At this stage, children recognize and basically remember words by their shapes. Words are something like pictures and the letters provide cues to what the word is. For example, a child might see that the word bell has a rounded letter at the beginning and two l's at the end.

The shapes of those letters provide visual cues. At this stage, children can easily confuse words with similar shapes. The word bell, for example, could be confused with ​doll.

Partial Alphabetic Phase

Children at this stage can memorize printed words by connecting one or more of the letters to the sounds they hear when the word is pronounced. That means they can recognize the word boundaries in print and usually the beginning and ending letters and sounds of a word.

For example, they might be able to recognize the word talk by the t at the beginning and the k at then end. However, they can easily confuse talk with other words that begin and end with the same sounds, like take and tack.

Full Alphabetic Phase

In this stage, children have memorized all the sounds represented by the letters and can read words by recognizing each letter in a word and the way the sounds represented by those letters blend together to form words. They can tell the difference between talk, take, and tack.

Consolidated Alphabetic Phase

In this stage, children have become aware of multi-letter sequences in familiar words. For example, they can see the similarities in the words take, cake, make, and lake. Instead of looking at each letter in these sequences, children memorize the whole group of sounds as a single sound. This is called "chunking," and it helps children read words more efficiently because they don't have to think about letters one at a time.

Children eventually learn to see other kinds of "chunks" in written words that continue to make reading easier. They begin to recognize morphemes rather than single letters. For example, they can recognize the word ​walk and the ending ed and blend the two morphemes to get the word walked.

Being able to recognize morphemes also helps children recognize whether a word is a noun, verb, or adjective. The ​​-ion at the end of a word, for example, makes the word a noun. This kind of chunking also helps children decode words with more than one syllable, like ​unbelievable.

Once children can recognize enough words relatively quickly and easily, they are ready to move from reading individual words to reading sentences and then paragraphs. At that point, they can start to focus on comprehending what they are reading. Most children reach this stage sometime during third grade.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ferguson B, Waxman S. Linking language and categorization in infancy. J Child Lang. 2017;44(3):527-552. doi:10.1017/S0305000916000568

  2. Tannenbaum KR, Torgesen JK, Wagner RK. Relationships Between Word Knowledge and Reading Comprehension in Third-Grade Children. Sci Stud Read. 2006;10(4):381-398. doi:10.1207/s1532799xssr1004_3

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.