In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children’s Reading Development and Instruction

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Definition, Typology, Utility, and Controversy
  • Language Development, Vocabulary, and Reading
  • Reading Readiness
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Whole Word Reading
  • Practice and Fluency
  • Comprehension
  • Motivation and Metacognition
  • From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn
  • Parent and Peer Tutoring
  • Gender, Cultural, and Socioeconomic Differences
  • Reading and Information Technology
  • Reading Interventions
  • Assessment of Reading

Childhood Studies Children’s Reading Development and Instruction
Keith Topping
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0220


Reading is a complex cognitive skill that involves the extraction of meaning from printed or written text. “Barking at print” without understanding is not reading. Developmentally, the typical pattern is that in the early years children learn receptive and expressive language skills, which are key for reading development. Then they learn letter sounds (and sometimes letter names also) and develop the auditory skills necessary for this. Then by putting sounds together they are able to decode words—in principle, the 50 percent of English words that are regular. As they encounter and remember more words, they develop a “sight vocabulary” of words that are recognized at a glance, without any need for decoding. Then they develop even more visual skills and learn whole words (especially irregular ones) as an entity. As they progress there is increasing emphasis on comprehension. Eventually they get to the stage of not “learning to read” but “reading to learn,” where the focus is on completely on the meaning extracted, rather than the process of extracting it. Practice with reading is essential to develop fluency. Good readers read many times the amount of poor readers. As children fail in reading, their motivation and confidence becomes damaged, and they tend to try even less. Better readers will get to the stage of being aware of how they read and be able to control how they read for different purposes. Eventually, there is less emphasis on the process of reading and more on the value of what is being read. Parents have a major role in helping their children develop, not only preschool but also during the school years. Peer learning may be added to the school curriculum to individualize and differentiate reading. Generally, girls do better than boys at both language and reading, and this is true in many countries. Socioeconomic status is strongly associated with reading. Different countries have different languages with different characteristics that may affect reading development. Increasingly, children read books and other materials electronically, on computers, tablets, and phones. Research has investigated whether they actually prefer this. A range of interventions for weaker readers are reviewed. Most have good short-term effects, but few show continued effects in the long term, whether the intervention is continued or not. Traditional ways of assessing reading development are described and then computer-based methods that show promise are showcased. Generally, only studies from 2010 onward have been included.

General Overviews

The Handbook of Reading Research is a balanced and authoritative review of the last ten years of research in reading. It is rather large and not a quick read. More accessible is Smith 2011, but this is written (albeit beautifully) purely from a psycholinguistic perspective.

  • Kamil, M. L., D. P. Pearson, E. B. Moje, and P. Afflerbach, eds. Handbook of Reading Research. Vol. 4. Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 2010.

    This book is the major research handbook for this field. Each volume covers ten years of reading research, excluding studies done before this period. Volume 5 will appear in 2019 for 2020. The volume not only synthesizes reading research literature since the previous volume, it reveals important new directions and pushes readers toward new methods to try to address problems in teaching method or research design and challenges how to know what we need to know.

  • Smith, F. Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Routledge, 2011.

    This is a very wise book, albeit written largely from a whole-word perspective. Smith writes beautifully but with apparent simplicity, which can make some of his arguments beguiling. He discusses visual and auditory perception, issues of memory, and types of memory; is dismissive of phonics; and emphasizes the role of prediction of meaning. He points out that much of what teachers do to try to help actually interferes with children’s efforts to learn to read.

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