Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Three Pivotal Beginning Reading Benchmarks for Parents and Teachers

When should kids be able to read chapter books independently?

Three Pivotal Beginning Reading Benchmarks for Parents and Teachers

Part III of a Three-Part Series

Parents and teachers are responsible for three pivotal benchmarks in a child’s development of brain circuitry for reading: the first from birth to age 3 or 4, a second at the beginning of kindergarten, and a third at the end of first grade. At each of these points in a child’s beginning reading development we can point to a standard or point of reference against which success with beginning reading is either present or absent. When absent, we should intervene. Waiting for 3rd grade test scores to reveal reading problems is too late.

Benchmark #1

Parents either did or did not read to their babies in their laps and talk to them so that the babies and toddlers either did or did not pick up reading readiness and some reading skills as easily as they pick up language. Specific preschool skills include: ability to write their names, clap out syllables, name some letters, recognize some words, and memory-read or tell about favorite books that the child has enjoyed over and over. Instruction is always informal and never forced.

FACT: By the time a child has reached 9 months of age, neuroscientists see development of white matter that connects areas used for talking, grammar, reading, and social interaction with areas used for listening and understanding. That is to say, scientists now see the track connecting the areas of the brain used for reading present in infants. This implies that babies and toddlers have brain capacities for learning to read early and informally—mostly from repeated reading of words and favorite books in the laps of their parents. This informal learning of reading at home can be enhanced with new technologies for early education.

Benchmark #2

Children either did or did not enter kindergarten with readiness for success with formal reading instruction. Children who entered not ready either did or did not receive early intervention.

FACT: The requirements for likely success with formal reading instruction in American schools are simple: in layman’s terms, children should be able to write their name and tell about a favorite book when they enter kindergarten. This year in America, 33 percent or about 1.5 million children entered kindergarten unable to write their name or tell about a favorite book. Why? Because nobody taught them. Most of these kids are in high-poverty neighborhoods, and one-third of them will drop out of high school.

Benchmark #3

Children who could not read an easy chapter book such as Little Bear by the end of first grade either did or did not get intervention from a reading specialist.

FACT: Little Bear, by Else Minarik, has 63 pages, roughly one Maurice Sendak illustration on every other page, and about 1,643 repetitions of 55 words. The text in Little Bear goes like this: “Mother Bear, Mother Bear, Where are You?” calls Little Bear. “Oh, dear, Mother Bear is not here, and today is my birthday. I think my friends will come, but I do not see a birthday cake. What can I do?” So here’s the standard: Any kid who can’t read an easy chapter book similar to Little Bear independently, fluently, and with comprehension by the end of first grade needs immediate intervention or should have already been getting intervention by a well-trained reading specialist.

Virtually all reading problems could be detected and corrected in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade by reading teachers. Even dyslexics are likely to be able to reorganize reading circuitry in their brains if intervention begins early—preferably in preschool and kindergarten. Waiting beyond end of first grade to fix reading problems is too late. Research has shown that 88 percent of poor readers in first grade will be poor readers in fourth grade. (Juel, 1988) What are we waiting for?

Specific Standards in a Spiral Staircase Reading Model

In Part II of this series I introduced the Spiral Staircase reading model that proceeds upward in five phases. The chart below describes the standards for each phase, the grade level when the phase should have been met for expected normal development, and the spelling/sound standard for writing at each phase. While current Common Core State Standards only begin in kindergarten, the CCSS provides a good fit with the Spiral Staircase model and phases presented below.


(Expected in preschool years.)


  • Begins at birth.
  • Advances with widespread age discrepancies depending upon the exposure that children receive with literacy at home or in preschool.
  • Writing is characterized by marking, drawing, and scribbling, which leads to letter-like forms.
  • First words and easy books are mastered through reading aloud and labeling.
  • Repeated exposure to books eventually leads to first experiences with memory reading of words and phrases.

Writing Example

Phase 0

Phase 0

Scribbles represent whatever the child says he/she has written.


(Begins in preschool. The child should pass through Phase 1 by the middle of kindergarten.)


  • Begins when the child writes his or her name and begins using letters..
  • Child attempts to write messages and stories using letters.
  • Child imitates (memorizes) the reading of easy books.
  • Child does not know that letters represent sounds and has little capacity to “sound out” when reading words.
  • Child relies on pictures, logographic memory, or guessing.

Writing Example

Phase 1

Letters with no relationship to sounds say “a flock of butterflies.”


(The child should pass through Phase 2 by the end of kindergarten.)


  • Child exhibits expanding knowledge of the alphabet and ability to match beginning and prominent letters to sounds.
  • Child labels drawings or writes messages with a few letter-sound matches.
  • Child begins to make the voice-to-print match through finger-point reading.
  • Child writes more elaborate pieces when guided by appropriate instruction.
  • Number and sophistication of books read from memory grows in Phase 2, often reaching level C. (Fountas and Pinnel, 1996)

Writing Example

Phase 2

Abbreviated spellings with beginning and ending letter-sound correspondences say “Humpty Dumpty.” Child begins to spell some words correctly.


(Expected in preschool years.)


  • Reading, writing, and spelling occur by attending to one letter for each sound and by employing growing conventionally spelled, word-recognition vocabulary.
  • Child can read many books from memory.
  • Scores of words are recognized on sight, often enabling the child to move into mid-first grade reading levels and beyond.
  • Child is on the cusp of being an independent reader and has new strategies for figuring out unknown words, such as using word families and analogy as in mat, cat, sat, fat, hat, rat.

Writing Example

Phase 3

Spellings with a letter for each sound say: "Tooth Fairy. One night I was in my bed and the tooth fairy came." More words are spelled correctly.


(The child should pass through Phase 4 by the end of 1st grade.)


  • Writers show awareness of phonics patterns.
  • Words are spelled in “chunks” for example, billdings for buildings.
  • Child can read easy chapter books at Level I independently. (Fountas and Pinnel, 1996)
  • Child can recognize 100 or more words on sight and spell many words correctly.
  • Child transitions into second grade reading levels.
  • Child replaces memory reading with fluid decoding ability and automatic independent reading.

Writing Example

Phase 4

My feet are flesh. I wear size 3. My feet take me everywhere. My feet like to climb trees and buildings. I walk to school. My feet make me swim in water. My feet are tired at the end of the day.

Embrace baby/toddler reading. Engage parents with the expectation that all children will enter kindergarten ready for success with reading. Intervene at the beginning of kindergarten with children who are not ready. Provide intense intervention during the kindergarten and first grade year for any child who doesn’t meet spiraling reading benchmarks described in the chart above. It’s an easy formula for reading proficiency—and future success.


Juel, C. (1988). Learning to reading and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

Fountas, I. C. & Pinnel, G. S. (1997), Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.