Five-Word Learning Phases of Early Reading

Ehri and McCormick (1998) distinguish between five-word learning phases that help educators in understanding the difficulties faced by students and the ways to support them. The first phase of pre-alphabetic reading refers to a lack of alphabet knowledge in children, who select cues and associate pairs based on the context. In the partial-alphabetic stage, also known as the visual recognition phase, children remember the way words are read by sight. The full alphabetic stage implies that students have some knowledge regarding the relationships between phonemes and graphemes, while the consolidated-alphabetic stage refers to a greater focus on spelling patterns. The last automatic phase reflects proficient reading with high speed and automaticity.

  • Guying. The reading patterns of this student reflect the partial-alphabetic phase that is typical for first-grade readers. Guying seems to have some awareness of the alphabet, but his mistakes are related to visual recognition and its connection with the environment. Namely, he knows the letter “b” but misreads the word “best” due to a lack of knowledge. The use of phonic analysis instruction is useful for Guying, who should avoid relying on the context only and start paying more attention to the letters in a word. In other words, a teacher can focus on spelling patterns to be developed by this student to prevent further reading problems.
  • Kelli. Kelli’s reading patterns show that she reads backward and confuses the letter order in words, which means that she is a partial-alphabetic learner. This student tends to match some letters in words to pronounce them, such as “big” instead of “dig”. Kelli lacks a strong left-to-right reading orientation and fails to shape the connection between the letters to understand it as a word. In this case, it is possible to recommend the practice of reading direction should be introduced more extensively to make it automatic. This instructional approach would help Kelli in forming confidence related to reading orientation and sight method development.
  • Ernest. This case is especially important to pay attention to as the student is a fluent reader, but he cannot tell about the meaning of the text. He seems to be between the consolidated alphabetic and automatic phases. A lack of reading comprehension may signalize the presence of reading disability, which should be tested by educators. Another reason is the distraction of the student from the text and the inability to focus on the content. A teacher can use such an instructional approach as reading sentences out loud and retelling their meaning, which can be accompanied by a range of retelling questions.
  • Dawn. This student pretends to read from the book by seeing the picture and associating them with the knowledge he has. The word “spokes” which is read as “bikes” also confirms that Dawn is at the pre-alphabetic phase that is characterized by a lack of sufficient working knowledge. There is no ability to decode the words since the students can only guess how one or another word can be pronounced. The instructional approach of mnemonics can be recommended to help this student in advancing his reading. By building the links between letters and sounds through the Letterland program, it is possible to educate the student on how to memorize letters.
  • Cassandra. Cassandra’s accurate and slow reading fits the full-alphabetic phase when students begin mastering the spelling-sound stage. This learner has knowledge of major phonemes and graphemes, which allow her to decode unfamiliar words, while the speed of reading is low since she did not yet automate the process of a letter and word recognition. The key instructional approach is to encourage students to read more as their reading would improve with practice. The fluency of reading can be developed by offering them the stories and books that are new to them. This will help in redirecting their focus from relying on memorized words to unfamiliar ones.
  • Corri. The student’s ability to read prefixes and affixes signalizes that she is at the consolidated-alphabetic phase. She has significant sight word vocabulary and can apply her knowledge to read unfamiliar words. Cori can store longer words in memory and associate word chunks to build relationships with the root words. To facilitate her learning, a teacher can encourage her to practice decoding multisyllabic words and segmentation patterns. This intervention is important to read compound words; for example, if a student cannot easily read longer words, it will be possible to first divide them into meaningful parts and then read together.
  • John. Since this student reads the words that he faces around him, such as McDonald’s, one may suggest that he is at the pre-alphabetic stage of reading development. John only knows some letters, being a novice in word learning. Therefore, he associates the already known symbols with the corresponding words. The relevant intervention for this student is elaborate letter instructions that should be provided by teachers. According to Ehri and McCormick (1998), letter mastering is critical at this phase to prevent learning difficulties in the future. If the student knows letters, further word learning and the transition to the next stages would be smooth.
  • Krysta. The use of analogy to read “blight” while knowing the word “right” means that this learner is at the full-alphabetic phase. As noted by Ehri and McCormick (1998), at this stage, students have some decoding skills that assist them in reading new words and can adapt the patterns of one word to a similar one. Krysta can be offered to experiment with consonant substitution to execute her decoding skills. The use of rimes is considered a useful method that is easy for beginners to improve their reading. At the same time, since she can easily produce the word “yacht”, one can suggest that the student is close to the next phase.
  • Sara. This student is at the consolidated-alphabetic phrase that refers to the acquisition of larger units of graphemes and morphemes and the ability of students to focus on spelling issues when they read. Sara seems to expand her decoding skills, but she lacks knowledge about the impact of the final – “e” and “i”, and “e” on the preceding consonant on the word. The explicitly stated rules of spelling should be taught to Sara as the main instructional approach. As a result, sufficient knowledge of the mentioned impacts would prevent further reading difficulties, which can critical without proper attention to spelling mistakes.
  • Jessica. The misreading of the mentioned words points to the partial-alphabetic phase, namely, a lack of a full phonemic segmentation system that limits reading abilities. Jessica can process only fractional connections between letters. In this case, it seems that she has associations between “b” and “n” as well as “f” and “m”, overlooking the letters within the words. The mnemonic approach to distinguishing between the letters would be beneficial to help this learner to memorize the mentioned problematic letters. The goal of this intervention is to develop the ability to compose complete spellings by building grapheme-phoneme relationships in the process of reading.


Ehri, L. C., & McCormick, S. (1998). Phases of word learning: Implications for instruction with delayed and disabled readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 14(2), 135-163.

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ChalkyPapers. "Five-Word Learning Phases of Early Reading." September 28, 2023.