Read About Best Practices in Reading Development Over Time

Best Practices Library

This module explores the reading process and changes in reading development. You will examine observable behaviors that indicate students' progression through the emergent, early, transitional, and fluent reading stages.

The Reading Process

In order for students to reach high levels of literacy development, teachers must be knowledgeable about the reading process. They must be able to identify the strengths of their students and use this information to design appropriate literacy experiences that promote problem solving. The main goal of reading instruction is to create proficient readers who have a repertoire of strategies for independent reading. A good reader integrates the cueing system as she reads fluently and expressively, focusing primarily on meaning.

The Cueing System

Cues are defined as sources of information within text. A reader constantly builds and integrates these networks of information and uses them to check and confirm her responses to the text. There are three sources of information, or cues, that can be found in text (Clay, 1993a&b):

Meaning Cues:

These relate to the author's intended message and purpose. They also involve the reader's background knowledge and identification of particular concepts found in the text. The pictures also help the reader gain access to the meaning of the text. In the following example, the reader actively participates in constructing meaning. However, she does not direct her attention to the visual aspects of the text:

The text is written to read:

We use water to wash the car.

The student reads:

We use water at home to wash the car.

The teacher knows that the student must gain control of one-to-one matching using known high-frequency words as anchors for processing the text. So, the teacher asks the student to locate the known word to in the text. As the student locates it, the teacher prompts her to check the word closely, running a finger beneath each letter. She coaches further by telling the student that when she comes to that word during reading, her finger should be pointing beneath it. The teacher then asks the student to reread the page, using a finger to match the words. If the student experiences difficulty, the teacher assists with matching or locating the visual anchor by which to monitor.

Structural Cues:

These are derived from the reader's oral language and his exposure to book talk. Good readers monitor their grammatical substitutions by asking, “Does it sound right this way?”

In this example, the reader substitutes a meaningful word that contains visual similarities. However, the student does not recognize that his miscue is not grammatically correct.

The text is written to read:

We play it safe every day when we go out to play.

The student reads:

We play it safe every day when we going out to play.

After the student finishes the book, the teacher brings his attention back to the page where the miscue occurred. She tells the student that when he was reading, something wasn't quite right. Next, she rereads the text exactly as the student read it. She directs him to use structural cues by asking, "Does that sound right?" The student immediately responds, "No." Based on previous observations, the teacher realizes that the student possesses enough visual knowledge to self-correct the error, so she simply asks him to read the page again and make it look right and sound right.

Visual Cues:

Graphophonics relates to the letters, words, and sounds that are incorporated in a text. These elements of the text require the reader to access the visual information in order to read the text. Here, the reader substitutes a word that is meaningful and structurally appropriate but does not contain visual similarities.

The text is written to read:

Look at me! I like to put on a hat. I like to be a fireman. There is no one like me.

The student reads:

Look at me! I like to put on a suit. I like to be a fireman. There is no one like me.

The teacher validates the student's meaningful response by saying, "Yes, the fireman is wearing a suit, that does make sense, but what letter would you expect to find at the beginning of the word suit?" The student responds, s. The teacher points to the word hat in the story. She prompts, "Could that be the word suit?" The student shakes his head to answer no. She then asks the student to reread, get his mouth ready for the first letter, think about what word makes sense, and looks right for the tricky word.

Language Prompts to Promote Cue Integration

A critical force in developing a strategic reader is to use specific language to direct the student's attention on how to integrate multiple sources of information. Through the following language prompts, readers learn how to check one source of information against another in order to gain important feedback from the text (Clay, 1993b).

  • Does the word make sense?
  • Does the word sound right?
  • Does the word look right?
  • Does the word make sense and look right?
  • Does the word look right and sound right?
    ___ makes sense, but look at the first letter.

Strategies are defined as mental problem–solving actions initiated by the reader to gain meaning from the text. We cannot observe these mental behaviors, but we can see evidence that a child employs strategies of an efficient processing system as he or she exhibits some of the following behaviors (Clay, 1991):

  • Predicts future events
  • Searches the pictures or photographs for meaning
  • Cross-checks one cue source with another
  • Searches further for visual patterns and phonetic elements
  • Anticipates language structures and patterns from text
  • Rereads to self-monitor
  • Self-corrects when aware of dissonance
  • Reads fluently and expressively
  • Problem-solves flexibly according to different purposes

The following example depicts a reader who uses a range of processing behaviors as she encounters a point of difficulty while reading. It is evident that the reader possesses knowledge of problem-solving strategies as she works to integrate meaning, structure, and visual cues.

The text is written to read:

Look at the porcupine. It has spines on its back. It will use its spines to keep some animals away.

The student reads:

Look at the porcupine. It has prickly/spikes/spines on its back. It will use its spines to keep some animals away.

Look at the porcupine. It has spines on its back. It will use its spines to keep some animals away.

As you can see, first, the student made a prediction based on meaning and language structures. She quickly rejected this attempt after noticing the visual details of the print. Next, her attempt revealed her attention to the sp pattern as she also integrated meaning and structure cues. When the reader realized that her second attempt still did not look right, she searched further for other visual patterns. This process resulted in self–correcting behavior. In a final interaction with the text, the child reread the page to incorporate a full understanding of the text. This analysis documents the student's engagement in self–monitoring, searching, and self–correcting behavior.

Using Language to Promote Strategic Reading

During literacy events, teachers use language to communicate specific knowledge, skills, and strategies to students. Language prompts make students aware of problem–solving processes and provide immediate feedback that explicitly describes an acceptable literacy behavior. For learning to occur, the student must understand the intent of the teacher's language so that he may successfully perform the prompted task. The following language prompts help students focus on appropriate strategies for problem–solving in reading and writing (Clay, 1991; Dorn, et al., 1998; Fountas and Pinnell, 1996).

Strategy–Based Language Prompts
  • Do you think that word could be_______?
  • Are you right?
  • Go back and read that again.
  • Is there anything else you can do?
  • What did you notice?
  • Read it again and see if you can find out what is wrong here.
  • Is there something you can do to help yourself?
  • What is the book about?
  • Do you know something about that word that can help you?
  • How would you begin that word if you were writing it?
  • What sound do you hear in the word _____? Say it slowly.
  • Do you see a word on this page that has those letters?

Assisted-reading events, such as shared reading and guided reading, help students develop strategies for gathering meaning from many experiences with a variety of texts. These guided-participation settings allow the teacher and the students to engage in interactive conversations about how printed language works. Through focused discussions, demonstrations, and language prompts, students acquire higher levels of processing behavior in order to operate more effectively on text. Analysis of oral reading records and writing samples provide teachers with excellent opportunities to observe the students' processing behavior and to respond accordingly.

Cueing Systems

As with young readers, fluent readers also use the cueing systems to gain meaning.

Meaning Cues:

Advanced, fluent readers construct meaning through a variety of sources: using vocabulary and text structures (cause and effect, problem/solution, description, compare/contrast, and sequence), making personal connections, making connections to other books, making connections to the world, and using text and graphic features.

For vocabulary, fluent readers think about the words in context. They know to use context clues and background knowledge to determine the meanings of unknown or difficult words and then determine how the definition helps them understand the text. The following is an example of a fifth grade student thinking aloud to help him understand a multiple–meaning word (homograph). The text is a level T/44.

I'm reading a book about Lewis and Clark and I notice the word band. The sentence states, “It was not until August that the Corps met a group of Missouri and Oto Native Americans, and later a band of Yankton Sioux.” I know one definition of band is like a rock band–a group that plays music–but that definition doesn't make sense in this sentence. I see that the author called the other Indian tribes a group, so maybe band means a group. Well I guess that's similar to a musical band except it's a certain type of band–people from the same tribe or group. I had to really think about the historical perspective for this word.

As the teacher watches the student read and listens to his think-aloud, the teacher determines that this student is using one of the reading behaviors of a fluent reader. He is using strategies to develop a more complex vocabulary.

For text structures, fluent readers think about how the author organized the text to better convey meaning. Identifying the text structure of a piece of text while reading helps fluent readers gain a deeper understanding. The following think–aloud shows how a reader might struggle with a simple compare and contrast text structure. If he cannot understand how the passage is structured, the reader loses meaning. This text level is P/38.

I just read a passage on bridges. The author says, “A cable–stayed bridge has advantages over a suspension bridge. The cable–stayed bridge will need less cable and it can be built quicker. Those advantages make a cable–stayed bridge less expensive than a suspension bridge in most cases.” My teacher wants me to figure out the differences between a suspension bridge and a cable–stayed bridge. I have no idea how to do that. She said to look for clue words that explain differences, but I don't remember what those are.

This student is obviously not integrating the meaning cue source. She can read the words, but cannot analyze what she has read. Therefore she has not comprehended the author's message. Even if the teacher has already modeled the text structure of compare and contrast, she should model it again and possibly place a chart on the wall with the text–structure indicator words. The student will then have quick access to those words and phrases on a regular basis.

Fluent readers also make connections while they read. Personal connections can help readers remember and understand what they have read because they have background knowledge on the subject. Personal connections can be made through personal experiences, previously read books, and knowledge of current and past world events.

In this example, a fourth grader shows good fluent reading behaviors when he makes personal connections to a chapter on Lance Armstrong in his reading journal. Text level is O/34.

Text: Fans lined the streets of Paris to cheer on the brave cyclist as he crossed the finish line. Lance Armstrong had won the 1999 Tour de France, the hardest of all bicycle races. He had done it in record time. He had gone more than 2,200 miles in three weeks. His win came at the end of a long battle against cancer. His comeback is one of the bravest stories in the history of sports.

I just watched Lance Armstrong on TV with my brother. It was so cool to see him cross the finish line first again. I was too young to remember the 1999 race, but I remember the 2004 race. While the race was going on, my brother and I followed the race on a map. It was neat to see all the different parts of France. I don't know if I said the names right, but it was fun.

In his comments, this child made connections to personal experiences and knowledge of the world. To make sure he understands the text, the teacher can ask him to recall important information such as the fact that Lance Armstrong finished the race in record time and that he made a comeback from cancer to win the race.

Other meaning cues include the way the text looks, or page layout. Fluent readers often gain meaning by analyzing what they see besides the main body of text. Using graphic features to interpret information is an excellent use of meaning cues.

Structural Cues:

For fluent readers, structural cues mean intonation, rise and fall of the voice, and breaks in the reading related to syntax (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001). Whether the reading is oral or silent, fluent readers continually monitor the way the words sound in their head. In many cases, a reader will realize that meaning is disrupted because a comma was not utilized, the "head voice" didn't rise for an exclamation mark, or phrasing did not occur in the correct place.

Consider this passage from a level U/50 small–group reader:

When Rowland is in the field, he collects a sample of hot lava. If the lava flow is small enough, he collects a sample on the end of a hammer, wearing only gloves, a long–sleeve shirt, long pants and boots. If the lava flow is big, he must wear protective clothing because of the intense heat. Lava can be 2,000° Fahrenheit when it reaches the surface!

This paragraph says a great deal about the life as a volcanologist. However, notice the commas and end marks. A reader who is not using this part of the cueing system is missing out on the wonderful intensity of this piece. Think about the text in this way to better understand structural cues.

When Rowland is in the field,

he collects a sample of hot lava.

If the lava flow is small enough,

he collects a sample on the end of a hammer,

wearing only gloves, a long-sleeve shirt, long pants and boots. If the lava flow is big,

he must wear protective clothing

because of the intense heat.

Lava can be 2,000° Fahrenheit

when it reaches the surface!

Now the meaning of each part is intensified. Each phrase heightens the overall meaning of the paragraph. A volcanologist's job is very dangerous. He has to worry about being burned to death.

The teacher listens to a student read aloud to determine if this part of the cueing system is being utilized. If it is not, the teacher knows that this student needs to work on fluency and phrasing. Remember though, meaning is the ultimate goal. Simply sounding good when reading is not reading. Ask the child what he learned from the passage to check for understanding.

Visual Cues:

The fluent reader uses many visual sources of information to gain meaning including decoding skills and the way a word looks. At this level, word solving becomes less of a struggle and more automatic. Decoding the word prospectors takes less time because the student is able to use decoding skills quickly and has already heard the word in a read–aloud or shared reading experience.

For example: A student is reading a level R/40 book. He turns the page and begins a new chapter. This might be his visual think–aloud about the word tributary.

I'm not sure how to pronounce this one word. The author says, "In August 1896, three prospectors found gold in a tri–bu–tar–y of the Klondike River. I'm saying tributary with a long i, but that doesn't sound right. Maybe I should try a short i sound. Tributary. That does sound better. I think I've heard that word when we studied geography at the beginning of the year. I'll stick with that.

Notice that the child does not say the word and proceed. He stops when he comes to a word that doesn't sound right when connected to his thoughts. He uses fluent reading behaviors.

Strategy–Based Prompts

As with young readers, fluent readers must also have many prompts to ask themselves as they read. These prompts help fluent readers focus on appropriate strategies for problem–solving in reading and writing (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001).


What is the author trying to tell me?

What are the most important things I should know now that I'm finished with the reading?

What does this word mean?

Did I understand what I just read?

I need to read the captions and sidebars on these pages. They may help me understand what I'm reading.


Am I listening to myself read or am I just reading the words?

Should I speed up or slow down to make this sound better?

What is the feeling of this piece? If I can't answer this question, maybe I should go back, reread, and be sure to catch punctuation and phrasing.

Does that sound right?


What do I already know about this topic that might refresh my memory about some of these difficult words? Maybe I've heard them before.

What do I know about word parts or chunks? How can that knowledge help me figure out an unknown word?

Modeling the cueing systems during read-aloud and shared reading, practicing them in the safe environment of small-group reading, and then applying them in independent reading is a scaffolded way to ensure that all students understand and use the reading process.

Reading Development Over Time

Readers generally move through four developmental stages as they learn to read. The stages are emergent, early, transitional, and fluent. Understanding the developmental stages and their characteristics enables teachers to select appropriate materials and methodologies to support all learners.

Emergent Stage (A-B/1-2)

At the Emergent Stage, readers are learning what reading is all about. They are learning that a book has a special way of telling a story. They are learning that when you read a book, you have to start on the left page and move to the right. They are beginning to understand one-to-one matching when reading. Emergent readers are also learning how to read print using first letter cues and locating known high-frequency words. An important instructional focus is knowing how to support beginning readers as they learn to integrate meaning, structural, and visual cues.

Readers at the end of the emergent stage should independently use the following behaviors:

  • One-to-one matching
  • Self-monitor or check themselves, using high-frequency words
  • Directionality, or left to right
  • Reread independently to confirm or disconfirm predictions
  • Return sweep
  • Reread by returning to the beginning of the sentence
  • Know a small core of high-frequency words that can be read fluently
  • Check prediction at point of difficulty with the picture (cross-checking)
  • Reread at point of difficulty and articulate the first letter of the problem word

Early Stage (B-H/3-13)

Early readers are becoming skilled at using visual and phonological information. They are displaying knowledge of reading high-frequency words with ease.

They are learning to search beyond the first letter in a word at points of difficulty.

They are beginning to initiate various problem-solving actions on unknown words such as rereading and cross-checking other cue sources. The goal of the Early Stage is for the reader to integrate their use of the cueing system (meaning, structure, and visual) automatically.

Readers at the end of the early stage should independently use the following behaviors:

  • Reread closer at the point of difficulty
  • Begin to search through a difficult word for more information
  • Fluently use beginning chunks (parts of words) and ending sounds
  • Search through the difficult word and blend sounds together
  • Integrate meaning, structure, and visual cues; move toward automaticity

Transitional Stage (H-M/14-28)

At the transitional stage, readers have full control over early reading strategies and are developing strategies that enhance comprehension and thinking on a higher level. They use multiple sources to gain and infer meaning, including graphic sources, fonts and special effects, and text organizers (table of contents, glossary, index, etc.). Transitional readers have a wider vocabulary and use refined decoding skills on a regular basis. Due to these abilities, they read longer, complex texts with a greater degree of understanding. Readers at this stage shift from reading texts orally to primarily reading text silently.

Readers at the end of the transitional stage should independently use the following behaviors:

  • Problem-solve at the point of error and make multiple attempts to self-correct
  • Take words apart using large units or syllables
  • Read longer text with greater accuracy
  • Use word meanings and context clues to problem-solve
  • Increasing control of visual patterns and flexible use of strategies

Fluent Readers (N-U/30-60)

Fluent readers are comfortable using all sources of information to gain and infer meaning. They read longer, complex texts from multiple genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) for longer periods of time. Decoding and vocabulary strategies are used automatically, and the text is read with orchestrated phrasing and fluency. Fluent readers continue to develop higher-level thinking and comprehension strategies. They are at a stage where important tools for learning can be acquired through reading.

Fluent readers should use the following behaviors:

  • Use parts of a book, such as table of contents, headings, and glossaries to locate information
  • Interpret graphic features of text, such as diagrams, tables, and charts
  • Monitor comprehension and use appropriate fix-up strategies, such as asking questions, making predictions, and rereading
  • Connect what they read to own experiences, other texts, and world events (to obtain the author's message and predict outcomes)
  • Decode a wide array of visual patterns and word parts
  • Use context clues, such as definitions, descriptions, and examples to obtain the author's message