Chall’s Stages of Reading Development

As students learn to read, they undergo changes. These changes were described in a theory of reading development conceptualized by Jeanne Chall.

According to Chall, readers go through a series of qualitative changes as they advance from beginning to highly skilled reading. These changes fall into six stages—from Stage 0, the pre-reading stage, to Stage 5, the most mature, skilled level of reading, in which readers construct and reconstruct knowledge from their own reading.

Learners in Stage 0 know some simple concepts of reading and writing—they read signs, say the names of letters, write their own names, and pretend to read books.

Stages 1 and 2 can be characterized as the time of “learning to read.” In Stage 1, readers learn the alphabetic principle—how to recognize and sound out (decode) words in print—and read simple texts. In Stage 2, readers acquire fluency and become automatic in reading simple, familiar texts—those that use language and thought processes already within their experience and abilities.

Stages 3 through 5 can be characterized roughly as the “reading to learn” stages—when the materials learners read go beyond what they already know, linguistically and cognitively.

At Stage 3, learners begin to use reading as a tool for learning, and texts begin to contain new words and new ideas beyond the scope of the readers’ language and knowledge of the world. At the beginning of Stage 3, learning from listening is still more efficient than learning from reading. However, by the end, reading is more efficient for some learners. By engaging with informational texts, students in the first half of Stage 3 gain in their knowledge of the world. By the end of Stage 3, readers have acquired much of the formal vocabulary and concepts needed to read a variety of newspapers, magazines, and reference materials.

In Stages 4 and 5, the texts and other types of materials being read become ever more varied and complex in content, language, and cognitive demands. In order to read, understand, and learn from these more demanding texts, readers’ knowledge, language, and vocabulary need to expand, as does their ability to think critically and broadly.

In Stage 4, readers learn to deal with more than one point of view. Building on the basic knowledge acquired in Stage 3, Stage 4 involves learning how to sort through new layers of facts and concepts now added to those acquired earlier, as well as to handle a variety of interpretations of that knowledge.

Stage 5 reading is characterized by students’ ability to organize knowledge in a generalized and abstracted way, and to create their own views on issues, based on their ability to synthesize and analyze the views of others.
Table 1 summarizes these changes in reading development in terms of what readers can do at each stage, how these processes are acquired, and the relationship between reading and listening.

A useful way to conceptualize these stages is in terms of the relative emphasis of the two major aspects of reading: the medium, which requires word recognition and word analysis (relationship between sounds and spelling), and the message, which requires understanding the meaning of the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that are being read. Major shifts have to take place in the reader at each of the successive stages: from learning the medium—that is, recognizing the printed words and learning the alphabetic principle—to acquiring a more extensive, abstract, less familiar vocabulary and syntax. Note that a considerable change takes place at Stage 3, when the major task shifts from learning the medium to learning the message.

Table 1 also shows the relationship between reading and listening. For instance, readers in Stage 1 can understand and use 6,000 words or more; however, they can read only about 300 to 500 words—less than 10 percent of the words they can understand when heard. By the end of Stage 2, reading moves closer to the level of listening. Nevertheless, the reader is still able to read only about one-third of the words known from listening. Only sometime toward the end of Stage 3 does reading catch up to listening.

In her stage theory of reading development, Chall also took into account changes that take place in the kinds of text that learners are able to read. Table 2 contains excerpts from materials she identified as typical of those understood by readers at successive stages.

Notice that the selection for each succeeding stage contains more unfamiliar, longer, and lower-frequency words, longer and more complex sentences, and a greater number of more difficult ideas. The topics and language become more abstract and more removed from common events and experiences at successive stages.

Of particular importance is how the language, concepts, and syntax of the Stage 1 and 2 selections differ from those starting at Stage 3. While Stages 1 and 2 contain familiar, short, high-frequency words, in Stages 3, 4, and 5 the ideas and language become more difficult, abstract, and subtle, and the vocabulary is less familiar.

Table 1: Stages of Reading Development:
The Major Qualitative Characteristics and How They Are Acquired

Table 2: Samples of Writing from Beginning
to Advanced Levels of Literacy

Adapted “Tables 2-3” and “Tables 5-1” from Stages of Reading Development: An Outline of the Major Qualitative Characteristics and How They Are Acquired, 2nd Edition by Jeanne S. Chall. Copyright © 1996 by Jeanne S. Chall. Reprinted with permission of Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning. Fax: 800.730.2215.

a. From S. Mascarone, Finding Places (American Readers Primer) (New York: American Book Company, 1980), 19.

b. From T. Clymer and P. H. Fenn, “Speck,” in How It Is Nowadays (Reading 720, Grade 2-2) (Lexington, MA: Ginn and Co., 1973, 1976, 1979), 48.

c. From E. Conford, “Fantastic Victory,” in T. Clymer, K. R. Green, D. Gates, and C. M. McCullough, Measure Me, Sky (Reading 720, Grade 5) (Lexington, MA: Ginn and Co., 1976, 1979), 66.

d. From J. A. Shymansky, N. Romance, and L. D. Yore, Journeys in Science (River Forest, IL: Laidlaw Educational Publishers, 1988), 217.

e. From J. T. Murphy, P. W. Zitzewitz, and J. M. Hollon, Physics: Principles and Problems (Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill, 1986),  5.

f. From E. L. Thorndike, “Connectionism,” Psychological Review 40 (1933): 434–490.