Linnea Ehri, Ph.D., distinguished professor emerita of education psychology at the City University of New York, published a benchmark science-of-reading study in 2014 summarizing decades of her work on how children learn to read. The article provides simple and straightforward practices for monitoring progress and teaching during the developmental phases of beginning reading and writing. Ehri’s theory and research maps out five phases of beginning reading from no reading to proficient reading of English generally expected by the end of first grade. It clarifies an upward developmental trajectory of phases that should be known by all beginning reading teachers for targeting instruction and providing data-based progress reports for administrators and parents. Moreover, the trajectory can even be used as an early marker for symptoms of dyslexia or learning disability (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
The Ehri study shows how formation of letter-sound connections in the brain bonds spellings, pronunciations, and specific words in memory. In essence, it shows how kids build a corpus of roughly 300 to 400 brain words they can retrieve for automatic reading expected by the end of first grade. The connections include automatic recognition and production of syllables and morphological (meaningful) letter chunks. In Ehri’s words, “It explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print.” (Ehri, 2014, p. 5)
While Ehri’s 2014 study is one of the most often cited beginning reading studies in the past seven years of reading research in cognitive science and neuroscience as well as a touchstone for landmark beginning reading studies such as the often-cited pathway-to-reading study by Ouellette & Sénéchal (2017), many beginning reading teachers do not understand, observe, or respond to the five critical phases of beginning literacy either for targeting instruction or for monitoring an individual’s progress when reporting to parents. It’s a science of reading study that is woefully underused.
It's important for beginning reading teachers, administrators, and parents to know about “Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning” (Ehri, 2014). Too often it takes seven years or more for an important research study in reading education to impact the classroom. This brief overview shows how Ehri’s research can impact beginning reading and writing in the classroom and lead to improved performance.
3 Major Principles Gleaned From Ehri’s Classic 2014 Study
1. The alphabet must be taught in order for kids to read and write words—so start early.
Phase 0 is the time to start teaching the alphabet. Ehri acknowledges that teaching the alphabet takes time and offers some tips based on her research.
Phase 0: Non-Alphabet Reading and Spelling
The predominant Phase 0 marker is that the child may be pretending to read but has no real reading. Awareness of sounds in words is limited. Writing looks like scribbles and the child cannot write her name.
Many children, especially in vulnerable populations for difficulty with literacy, come to kindergarten who cannot write their name—an easily identified marker for Phase 0. Writing and reading one’s own name is a giant confidence-builder and an important milestone on the pathway to literacy. This first giant step helps kids get the concept of what a word is, that words in English are made of letters, that the letters in English go from left to right, and eventually that the letters are pictures of sounds. For many kids, learning to write their own name is the first bridge between spoken and written language. Once they cross that bridge they are on the pathway to literacy.
Shockingly, I consult in huge districts with vulnerable populations for literacy where second graders are two years behind and begin grade two without adequate letter knowledge or fluency in writing the alphabet. Countless of these kids simply haven’t been taught the letters and sounds. In my experience, many districts are using expensive “balanced reading” commercial reading programs that focus on text-level reading without proper time or focus on teaching foundational word-level reading skills such as handwriting and spelling. (I provide a link to a review of some of these programs at the end of this post.)
2. Four Alphabetic Phases Follow Phase 0 (Ehri, 2014, Table 1, Page 8)
Commenting on automatic word-level reading, Ehri says, “The predominant connections that are used to remember the words change developmentally, from nonalphabetic visual features [Phase 0], [to prealphabetic connections, Phase 1], to partial alphabetic connections between some letters and sounds [Phase 2], to full grapho-phonemic connections [Phase 3], to consolidated grapho-syllabic connections [Phase 4]. These orthographic mapping processes underlie the emergence of students’ skill in reading words accurately and automatically from memory.” (p. 19)
In Phases 1 and 2, the developmental progression is clearly illustrated when many kids progress from Phase 1 often expected in the first half of kindergarten to Phase 2 in the second half.
Phase 1: Pre-Alphabet Reading and Spelling
The predominant Phase 1 marker is that the child “reads” by guessing or by cueing from pictures. She may read Mcdonald's by cueing on the golden arches or read the word Crest as “toothpaste.” Her invented spellings look like random letters with no sound to letter matches and may seem to float on the page with numerals or be mixed with scribbles.
Phase 2: Partial Alphabet Reading and Spelling
The predominant Phase 2 marker is that the child is decoding some letters into sounds—often using beginning or ending letters as cues. The child generally spells prominent sounds in words such as R for are, EG for eagle, and BD for bird. While limited, Phase 2 facilitates word reading ability more than guessing in Phase 1. But it’s not until Phases 3 and 4 that word reading makes extraordinary advances.
3. Grapho-phonemic and grapho-syllabic units are major contributors.
Phase 3: Full Alphabet Reading and Spelling
The predominant Phase 3 marker is that decoding involves blending a sound for each letter to create all the sounds in a word. This letter-by-letter grapho-phonemic processing though slow and laborious facilitates reading many more words from memory. At the beginning of Phase 3 spellings look like ATE for eighty, GATR for gator, POT for put, BOT for boat. More words are spelled conventionally. The child likely attempts to decode multisyllabic words such as interesting by sounding out i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g letter by letter. But English doesn’t work that way!
Phase 4: Automatic Consolidated Alphabet Reading and Spelling
The predominant Phase 4 marker is that the child moves to automatically recognizing many words by sight (brain words); automaticity in Phase 4 reduces the memory load and enables comprehension. Many grapho-syllabic units are consolidated so that a word such as interesting is recognized in chunks such as in-ter-est-ing. Invented spelling is processed in consolidated chunks of logical phonics patterns including morphological spellings and prefixes and suffixes such as un–, –ed and –ing. A self-teaching mechanism kicks in (see Share, 2004, 1999; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
While there are a few detractors, Ehri’s theory is overwhelmingly supported by research and aligns with the highly-touted simple view of reading as well as with Scarborough’s famous reading rope. These models will lead to improved performance in the classroom. But like a vaccine, they will not be effective until we get the shots in the arm. The shots include appropriate focus on word-level reading with explicit teaching of spelling, handwriting, and phonics following the science of reading practices.
Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:5–21. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356
Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77- 88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179
Share, D. (2004). Orthographic learning at a glance: On the time course and developmental onset of self-teaching. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 87, 267–298.
Share, D. (1999). Phonological Recoding and Orthographic Learning: A Direct Test of the Self-Teaching Hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72(2), 95-129.