Reading Milestones by Age: A Guide to Literacy Development

Last Updated on 2 December 2022 by Dr. Sandro Cantoni

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Literacy development is one of the most crucial abilities learned in early childhood. Teaching a child effective reading strategies will benefit them their entire life. Support can help them read advanced literature, write strong papers in school, and communicate with peers.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or caregiver, it’s essential to understand reading milestones by age. Supporting a child’s reading journey can be difficult, but we’re here to simplify the process. We’ll go over everything you need to know about reading milestones, and the child in your life will be well on their way to reading success.

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What Are Developmental Reading Milestones?

Developmental reading milestones describe what reading development occurs at a certain age. They are a helpful way to see if your child or student is on the right track to reading.

Every child develops at a pace that is unique to them. Most children follow a linear path that begins by recognizing simple letters and progresses to reading more complex chapter books.

Speech, reading, and writing develop in tandem with one another. They also share similar milestones. Watch your child or student if they struggle to reach a milestone in one of these areas.

Children learn their native language through practice and listening. Reading is similar, but it requires more hands-on guidance. Providing an enriched environment can help your child move through these stages. Consider many using reading materials and positive encouragement.

As children age, it is crucial to observe if they are behind or ahead of their typical reading stages. Children behind their reading stage usually catch up if given a positive environment. In some cases, it can be a sign of developmental issues. Children ahead of their reading stage may need more challenging materials.

Developmental Reading Milestones by Age

Reading milestones include speaking, listening, spelling, and word recognition. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these developmental milestones occur for 75% of children. We’ll break down developmental literacy markers by the typical age they occur for most children.

Newborns (Age 0 to 1 month)

Literacy development starts early. You might not think infancy is a crucial time for developing reading skills, but it’s a vital precursor. An enriched environment with lots of sounds and language can help your infant develop the skills they need for later reading.

Have you ever wondered, moms and dads, when your newborn begins to communicate with you?

One thing that surprises many parents is this: babies start communicating with you from birth when you hold them close after delivery.

How does the newborn see?

Your baby is sensitive to light and sound from birth. As you may have noticed, within a few days of life, the baby turns his eyes toward a light source and closes them if there is a sudden bright light.

Your baby can’t adjust his distance and near vision until about three months. That’s why, to get his attention, an object or your face needs to be about 30 cm away so he can focus on it.

In fact, from the first weeks, you will notice that your baby’s eyes slowly follow your face.

It seems that newborns cannot distinguish colors due to the immaturity of the retina. In fact, they begin to distinguish them well from 3 months of life. As a result, the baby will be attracted to high-contrast, or black-and-white images.

How does the newborn hear?

The baby is already accustomed to the sounds of home and parents before birth while in the womb. As soon as it is born, these sounds are louder. Of course, the sounds your newborn prefers are the voice of mom, dad, and siblings. 

But you can also see how he begins to listen when you talk to him, sing to him, or read a book. Your newborn listens and absorbs every word you say or read, even if he doesn’t understand the meaning for now.

Also, these sounds are helpful for him to start developing brain neurons. And the connections between them, which increase in a few months. That’s why it’s essential to talk to him often, whether reading a book or newspaper or even while you’re on a walk or at home. Your baby will often calm down if you recite nursery rhymes or lullabies.

Very Early Infancy (Age 1 to 3 months)

By two months of age, infants usually interact with their parents and caretakers. They use emotional expressions and responses. Smiling, looking at your face, and reacting to loud noises are skills that will later help them learn to read.

If your baby is not interacting with people and does not react when picked up or talked to, the behavior may be a sign of developmental difficulties. Reach out to the child’s doctor if you have concerns.

How does the baby see, hear, and communicate?

Your baby looks at you longer and begins to smile.  When you look at him at about 30 cm away from his face, he starts to follow your face or eyes.  He likes black and white images or colors with strong contrasts.

When your baby smiles at you and starts to make a few sounds, he sees your happy and smiling face. So, he learns that communication is not one-way but a beautiful relationship.

You may have noticed that he often stops crying and tries to turn toward your voice when you pick him up and talk to him. He also increases his facial expressions when you speak to him.

Intellectual Development

During the first month, the baby will learn to distinguish between the words he hears from his parents versus those of strangers. It also distinguishes the sound of words from other household noises.

So, you can help him by talking to him often, singing, and telling nursery rhymes, for example, with the help of a book. This way, he will learn to recognize your voice’s music, sound, and tone.

Early Infancy (Age 4 to 6 months)

At four months of age, most infants begin making sounds like ‘cooing’ that will help them with spoken words later. Other milestones include reacting to your speech with sounds and chuckling.

How does the baby see and communicate?

Your baby looks at you longer and longer and follows your face and movements well. He also follows well a toy you present to him and tries to catch it. You’ll notice that he looks at his hands a lot, starts playing with his fingers, and maybe tries to clap his hands.

He smiles at you more and more when you interact with him. Too, he increases the sounds and vocalizations he tries to communicate with you or get your attention. He begins to imitate vowel sounds. He often laughs to himself as well. Your child is more expressive with their face and body and mimics your movements. 

The child reacts to everyday situations with smiles and vocalizations. And with exciting movements before pleasant moments such as feeding or bathing.

Finally, the child listens carefully to sounds or music or your voice and turns toward the source of the sound. He is attentive if you call him, and he turns around.

Which books and how to read to a baby from newborn to 6 months?

Any book for an infant or 1-2 months old will do fine. Of course, you’ll see that your baby looks at you more than at the pictures. But you can immediately start offering books with black and white images or a few colors. Or books with children’s faces, lullabies, or nursery rhymes.

How do I read to my baby?

Find a quiet place with your cell phone and TV turned off.  The baby will be more attentive when he is not too hungry or tired. For this reason, the best times are often in the morning or in the afternoon if the baby is a few months old. In fact, at this age, there is greater irritability in the evening.

Read regularly to start a routine. In fact, since the first weeks, the baby registers and adapts to all the activities that have a recurring character. Such as feeding, changing diapers, bathing, sleeping, walking, etc.

Medium Infancy (Age 6 to 9 months)

Around six months, most babies can have ‘conversations,’ alternating sounds when an adult speaks to them. Expect to hear squealing noises and laughs as other precursors to literacy skills.

How does the baby communicate?

Your baby laughs often and loudly and is interested in his environment. In fact, he tries to talk with you, producing sounds with the pronunciation of single syllables.

Imitation is an integral part of his communication. The baby sometimes repeats the same syllables for a few days before trying another sound.

The baby knows how to pick up a toy, and if it makes an interesting sound when he moves it, such as a rattle or a set of keys, he tries to reproduce the noise.

He begins exploration of the concept of cause and effect. He tends to repeat activities that are interesting and enjoyable to him. For example, he keeps throwing an object on the floor to see what happens (and his parent’s reaction).

This concept of cause and effect is also essential for reading. For example, suppose you turn it into a pleasant, non-obligatory moment where you interact with joy for even a few minutes. In that case, the child will want to repeat it again.

Also, the child learns the concept of permanence, that is, the object, or person, continues to exist even if it is outside the field of vision.

The child wouldn’t look for a toy hidden under a blanket. But, for example, he now shows that he wants to find it, if only with his eyes.

Then you can start playing with hidden objects or reading books with open doors or windows showing an object or animal.

Intellectual skills and socialization.

You will see that his personality and temperament begin to mature. For example, as your child acquires the ability to sit pretty well to manipulate things, he becomes much more attentive to the world around him.

He will begin to express requests to you, such as looking at you and vocalizing if he can’t reach a toy.

Besides, the child begins to manifest his temperament. So you can have a quiet, active child who likes to play some games and not others, and so on.

Late Infancy (Age 9 to 12 months)

Nine-month-old infants can usually make babbling sounds and respond to the sound of their name. Recall that children learn at their own pace, and your infant may not follow the steps we describe.

How does the child move and communicate?

Your baby is moving very well. He sits unaided and, if held, can stand.

He explores objects, such as board books, with his mouth and holds and turns them in his hands as he looks at them. Then, he tries to touch the pictures in the books.

Your baby is improving at expressing himself and vocalizing to communicate his feelings. He also turns and reacts if you call him by his name.

He tries to draw attention to himself. Then, the child begins to imitate simple vocal games, such as kissing noises, coughing, and others (such as simple animal noises).

He’s interested in his surroundings. You’ll see that he looks at people and the books you offer him for several minutes.

Finally, your child can let you know if he’s bored or tired by pulling back, stiffening, crying, or whining. In this case, if you are reading a book, for example, better to stop.

What books and how to read to your baby from 6 to 12 months.

The child is starting to pick up well and put books in his mouth.

No problem with that, but best to buy sturdy, hardback books.

As with younger children, face books will be a great choice. Black and white ones with bright colors are also great.

You can also start proposing books with more complex images and texts with more defined drawings. For example, books with pictures of objects from everyday life (cars, animals, etc…).

In fact, towards the end of the first year of life, the child will be more and more interested in the illustrations of books. Especially around 9-12 months, he begins to look for hidden objects, so the child will also be interested in books with little windows to open.

Since he will begin to imitate you, books with simple animals also stimulate his participation.

Your child will always love nursery rhymes. They are crucial for developing the ability to understand the sounds and meaning of words.

How to read aloud to babies?

Try to talk to your child often as you share a book with them, even without reading the text or talking about the pictures in books without text.

This helps him learn the sound, the music, of your words. Remember, the more words your child hears, the more words he knows, and the better his language will be. Especially when, around 9-12 months, you begin the first “conversations.”

Besides, you’ll see that your child will be more interested in the book’s illustrations. That’s why it’s helpful to point at them with your finger when you describe the different parts of the picture.

To make reading more vivid, it is also helpful to vary the tone and speed of your voice as you read or talk to him.

As early as 9-10 months, you can try to play with him to imitate the sounds you make, such as animals or objects.

Early Toddler Years (Age 12 to 18 months)

The toddler years are a time of rapid language development leading to literacy skills. As with babies, you can provide a vibrant environment. You can read board books aloud and encourage toddlers by making sounds like babbling.

Movement 

At this age, your baby also crawls well on stairs. He’s starting to lift himself up and can even take his first steps (either held by hand or, more rarely, on his own).

Also, the child searches and grasps objects better, even those out of his reach. He explores objects and even books with his mouth, holding and turning them in his hands as he looks at them.

Communication

Your baby communicates with you by trying to say a few words while looking at you. In his vocalizations, he already has the typical cadence of his native language, with many vowels and consonants.

He imitates your vocal games or animal noises well. The child has already learned a few words, which he uses with great enthusiasm.

You try to talk to him often, including by reading books. In fact, this helps your child learn the sound and music of your words.

The more words your child hears, the more words he learns, and the better his language will be. Especially when, around 9-12 months, you begin the first “conversations” with each other. Most toddlers will have their first word around this time.

Common first words are ‘mama,’ ‘dada,’ or another name for a caretaker. You can encourage this development by repeating the word with the child and praising them. At 15 months, they may add another word or two and make connections between objects and their names.

Social Development

Your child often laughs while you play with him or even alone. With his behavior, he begins to answer the questions, “where is mommy ? where is daddy ?”. He shows you that he can understand some simple words in his context, such as dog, food, etc…

This is also why your child is more interested in book illustrations. He holds a small book well in his hand, points to the object pictured, and can start wanting to turn the pages. His attention span increases.

Children of this age will often have favorite books, and it’s normal for them to request the same books daily. This repetition helps them recognize familiar signs, letters, and words.

Toddler Years (Age 18 to 24 months)

At 18 months, toddlers might have three or more words in their vocabulary. They might also follow along with their eyes to a familiar book. When children turn two, they might be able to put two words together to make a short sentence.

Motor skills

Your baby stands on his own and has a good balance. Then the child can pick up and manipulate books, objects, and toys well. He also bends down to pick up a thing that has fallen.

Communication

The child explores the environment more and more actively. But he doesn’t have much of a sense of danger, so great care must be taken.

He is fascinated by household objects and imitates simple everyday activities. Such as reading books, cleaning the floors, feeding a doll, etc.

He also expresses his intentions and begins to say a few words, although sometimes not entirely understood by a stranger.

Your child listens when you talk to him and tries to respond. He uses about 10 to 20 recognizable words but understands a lot more.

Book interest. 

In fact, he points with his finger to the colored figures on the page and can flip through the pages well.

He really loves nursery rhymes and tries to repeat them. Often the child imitates the animal’s sound while looking at its figure in the book.

Finally, he can answer you when you ask him simple questions about the images, such as where is the little girl’s mouth?

How to read aloud and which books for your 12 to 24-month-old baby?

At this age, your child may be able to pick up a book and give it to you to read. He also points to figures in books and can follow simple stories in nursery rhymes.

Begin imitating and repeating the animals’ sounds or saying the figure’s name if older.

To help, let him turn the pages, and when you read, say the name of the pictures by pointing at them with your finger.

What kind of books to read at this age?

Hardcover books and rhyming nursery rhyme books are excellent to read with your toddler. Books with objects or animals with their name written underneath are also good.

The child prefers familiar figures, such as animals, or everyday objects or actions, such as food, cooking, bathing, other children, and so on.

Favorite lyrics are always the ones that rhyme, like nursery rhymes.

Your child also likes books with flaps, little doors, or other movable parts that cover figures or animals, which your child can find by opening them.

Especially around 18 months, or even earlier, you can start asking your child things by pointing your finger. For example, “where is the little mouse? Who says woof?”

Often a child of this age begins to complete even simple texts. Especially if they rhyme.

Late Toddler Years (Ages 2 to 3 years)

At this age, the child begins to love books that illustrate the world around him. Books full of children and pictures showing everyday activities.

Movement and communication

By now, your child is running and playing all day long. Also, he handles objects, such as books, very well with both hands.

Your child begins to ask the first question, “What?” Then he starts to say “no.” He also expresses his intentions verbally and uses 20-40 words, and combine words to make sentences.

The child can say the name and understands simple orders. Indicates one or more body parts.

Intellectual development

So far, his intellectual development has been focused primarily on manipulating and listening. Now, he is beginning to develop thinking as well.

His memory and intellectual abilities improve and develop. As a result, he can understand even simple temporal concepts, such as “before or after.”

For example, first, you do this, and then you do that. These same concepts learn to understand in books. He also begins to learn the concept of numbers, and quantities, up to two or three.

What Books and how to read with your 2 to 3-year-old?

You can offer your child a wider variety of books. For example, about concepts and notions your child is beginning to learn, such as colors, numbers, letters, etc.

Children are also learning to deal with emotions and feelings at this age. So, you can read books about the experience and the most common emotions, such as anger, joy, etc…

Wordless books are just fine, too. Besides, their curiosity can be stimulated by unique books, for example, about monsters, fantastic places, etc.

Your child enjoys hands-on activities, so books with doors or windows to open or parts to touch with different textures go very well.

How to read and share a book with your child?

Children must repeat specific experiences to memorize them and keep them within themselves. So, the child may ask you to read the same book many times.

As you read, and play the various characters, vary your tone of voice, to create suspense. You can read slowly in some parts of the book, sounding out or repeating exciting words or phrases.

Also, when reading, stop often to comment, and talk with your child. Ask questions, and talk about pictures.

Encourage your child to take part in reading by turning pages.

The child can say the names of objects, characters, or animals. He can repeat nursery rhymes and phrases and try to guess what will happen and how the story will continue.

Take your time moving on and turning the page, but encourage looking closely at the figures, pointing to objects, and repeating the words.

Because of this, often ask, “what’s going on? What is this called? What animal is this?” To keep your child interested in the story. For example, “What do you think is happening now? Why?”

Preschool Years (Ages 3 – 4)

Children start formal literacy instruction in the preschool years. If you are a parent or teacher, you can sing the alphabet song to teach the basics of reading.

Early readers may start to learn sight words. You can encourage this development by repeating words with the child.

Early preschool is all about expanding vocabulary and recognizing letters. The child’s teacher might have poster lists of unfamiliar words on the wall, and the child will learn new words daily. The main theme of story reading at this age is to get children used to new words that will become sight words. Starting with a few pages a day can enhance kids’ skills.

In late preschool, kids develop the skills to make sentences of more than four words. Around four years, children may recite some sentences by rote, like a nursery rhyme or a phrase with familiar words.

The classroom environment will also help children interact with other kids, answer questions, and story identify to practice word recognition. Kids in preschool will hit many developmental milestones, and they might even learn to recognize the first letter of their name.

What does the child do at age 3?

The child can hold a pencil, in the preferred hand, between the first two fingers and the thumb. He uses it to draw and scribble with reasonable control.

He can copy circles or even letters and imitate a cross. He learns to draw a person with a head with a line or two underneath to represent body parts.

Then you can already take advantage of it by showing him some simple figures from a book and copying them together.

He knows colors. Can already play and paint with simple colors, usually red and yellow, but can confuse blue and green. May know the names of the colors.

Communication and intellectual development

His vocabulary always increases, and his speeches are now well-understood, even by strangers.

The child can say his name, gender, and sometimes age. He uses personal pronouns and plurals correctly. But, his sentences may have errors and incorrect grammatical forms.

Besides, the child can briefly describe their activities and past experiences. Finally, he asks several questions, beginning with what? Where?, Who?

That’s when reading even the most complex story becomes very engaging, with constant questions and answers.

The child always likes rhyming nursery rhymes, which he begins to memorize and repeat, even singing.  Then he likes to help adults with household tasks, such as gardening, shopping, cooking, and more.

He loves making-believe games, such as pretending to cook or playing with toys and small animals. That’s when reading books, even with fantastic stories, help him to develop his imagination and creativity.

She also likes to play with other children. She expresses joy, sadness, affection, and sometimes jealousy, for example, toward her younger brothers.

What does a 4-year-old do?

The child uses pencils and paints with reasonable control in an adult-like way.

Then he copies some crosses and letters. Also, he can draw a person with the head, legs, and torso and often with the arms and fingers. He can also draw a house or other objects and recognize and name the four primary colors.

Communication

At this age, the child speaks quite well. He can talk about recent events and experiences. While reading the books, the child continually asks questions about the meaning of the words.

He also listens to long stories, which he can repeat. In addition, he may know several nursery rhymes.

How does the child play and socialize?

He plays well with other children but can also discuss and bargain, for example, if they want the same toy.

Pretend games are becoming more sophisticated. In addition, the child begins to show a sense of humor in speech and activities.

He shows interest and concern for younger siblings and sympathy for children or classmates in need. the child understands the concept of past, present, and future. Then he start copying the letters and numbers. While reading, your child can correct you if you skip the page or read incorrectly.

What Books and how to read with your 3 to 5-year-old?

The child is attentive to illustrations, so you can propose high-quality books with detailed images. Even complex and rich in detail.

Your child’s imagination is developing. So fantasy stories with imaginary animals, or talking animals, are also acceptable. The child is learning the sound of the letters of words. That’s when books with poems, rhymes, and alliteration are just fine.

At this age, the child will always love books that illustrate the world around him. Books full of children and pictures showing everyday activities. The child has learned to deal with emotions and feelings. Books about the experience and the most common emotions, such as anger, joy, etc., are helpful.

Also, the child participates in the reading and describes what they see in the pictures. That’s why wordless books are just fine, too.

Kindergarten Years (Ages 5 – 6)

Kids will learn more spoken and written words during kindergarten, and their reading skills will increase. They will likely start recognizing common words and can name familiar objects.

Speaking reaches a peak in kindergarten, and most five or six-year-olds can communicate well. They start to repeat stories they have heard with at least two events and can converse with many exchanges.

Around age five, children in kindergarten learn creative speech and can make up a story by themselves. Such stories usually have a few events. But, this milestone is a significant marker in literacy development.

Communication literacy improves at age five. A child learns to answer questions about stories they have heard and think creatively about situations in longer books. Reading familiar stories is an easy way to encourage this milestone.

You can also ask a five-year-old to predict what may happen in a story. Children at this age can usually answer as long as the questions include relatively simple words.

Five-year-olds can learn to rhyme, a vital step in literacy development. This skill allows them to expand their vocabulary and prepare effectively for reading.

Children may also start recognizing words in isolation, such as their names or names of animals or colors. Try writing down the names of their stuffed animals to help them with word recognition in a fun way!

How to read together?

You can interact more and more as you read together. Also, ask them to tell you the story, especially after a book you’ve read many times.

You can begin introducing the book by reading the title, author, and illustrator. Then look at the cover, and talk about it. To help your child understand the book’s grammar, you can hold your finger under the text as you read, pausing at the end of the sentence.

Early Elementary School Years (Ages 6 – 7)

In first grade, children are beginning to read pages on their own. The first texts they read will probably be stories that parents have read to them before. Stories with familiar pictures can also help children when they are first learning to read.

Speaking is a significant pillar of reading at this age. Teachers may ask first graders to sound out words verbally to identify what they are, and parents can support speaking abilities at home by having many conversations with the child.

Six-year-old children can read words they have learned through vocabulary training and start recognizing more words at this age. Parents and teachers can begin reading longer books to kids as their attention spans increase at this age.

Six-year-olds can also write words in large font with capital letters. Around seven years, many children can spell using lowercase letters and common punctuation, and they can copy unfamiliar words over several pages.

Second graders can put individual ideas into their writing. Parents and teachers can support them by assisting with spelling.

Kids can recognize writing mistakes in a story. They may also start to write stories with a coherent beginning, middle, and end.

Around age seven, kids can use familiar pictures to help them read and recognize words. Second graders also start to feel confident in their literacy abilities. They may become interested in creative writing about things that interest them.

Kids in second grade might also have fun reading longer books. Many kids still struggle with longer books at this stage. If your child has difficulty, it’s not a reason to worry.

Late Elementary School Years (Ages 8 – 10)

In late elementary school, reading becomes a fun and integral part of everyday life for kids. They often encounter reading in their other classes and start to write short essays with fewer mistakes. Children still need plenty of help spelling, but their creative ability to make a narrative by themselves is one of the most significant milestones at this stage.

Kids can recognize more complex words at around eight to ten years. In third grade, students can usually answer questions about complex texts, and most fourth-graders can read longer books like chapter books or plays or describe story themes to a teacher.

Are Reading Milestones an Exact Science?

These reading milestones are not an exact science. They provide a general framework of an average child’s progression but are not a perfect standard.

Most children follow these reading milestones. Each stage builds upon the previous one. Different children spend varying amounts at each phase, and variation is normal.

Some children may even progress through the milestones in varying order. For example, some kids might learn to speak yet struggle to read. Some elementary school kids may read books with many pages, and others may read a few. These variations are normal in different kids.

If a child in your life struggles with literacy or language skills for some time, it may be appropriate to contact a reading specialist and get your child back on track. Or, you can schedule an appointment with the child’s doctor to assess possible developmental issues.

Final Thoughts

Understanding reading milestones by age is a way to measure a child’s progress on their journey to learning to read. These landmarks include everything from first words to reading longer books, and every child hits milestones at different rates.

Reading milestones is not for diagnosing purposes. But they can help assess if your child might need to see a doctor or reading specialist for further testing. Keeping track of literacy skills by age is an excellent way to celebrate your child or student’s achievements. You can also find areas where they might need help.

References

Horowitz-Kraus T, Schmitz R, Hutton JS, Schumacher J. How to create a successful reader? Milestones in reading development from birth to adolescence. Acta Paediatr. 2017;106(4):534-544. 

Rvachew S, Savage R. Preschool foundations of early reading acquisition. Paediatr Child Health. 2006;11(9):589-593.

Dosman CF, Andrews D, Goulden KJ. Evidence-based milestone ages as a framework for developmental surveillance. Paediatr Child Health. 2012;17(10):561-568.