If you think students start learning to read from the moment they enter kindergarten onward, think again! Children naturally develop pre-reading skills much earlier–even in infancy, the way babies experiment with language can become the building blocks of literacy later on. Because of this, a student’s reading ability comes from experiences outside the classroom as much as it does inside it.

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The majority of teachers (87%) agree that many students face learning barriers that come from outside of school.<1> But when asked what these factors might be, fewer have concrete answers. Early literacy development is complex and, while no one thing leads to success or failure, both social and cognitive elements contribute to it. Educators, however, can learn a few common factors their students might identify with to provide the best support possible.

Read on to learn the five stages of literacy development and how sociocultural factors or learning disorders can affect your students’ reading comprehension. Then, discover how a growth mindset and the right strategies can help struggling readers make academic gains in literacy.

How Children Develop Reading Comprehension

Understanding how literacy and language development in early childhood works can help you learn why certain factors can change it. One of the most popular theories comes from Dr. Jeanne Chall, an esteemed Harvard University educational researcher. After decades of studying how students learn to read, she pinpointed five crucial stages of reading development that students should reach throughout their educational career.

Chall’s five stages of reading development are:

Emerging pre-reader (6 months-5 years)Novice reader (6-7 years)Decoding reader (7-9 years)Comprehending reader (9-15 years)Expert reader (16 years and up)

While the final three stages are all crucial for mature literacy development, the first two (emerging and novice) are essential stages of development for early students. Emerging pre-readers are mostly focused on skills that lead to reading later on, like learning the letters of the alphabet or becoming familiar with printed text.<2> While they don’t necessarily start reading until they begin school, children are already picking up traits that contribute to it later on. Any exposure to books, especially being read aloud to, can help them pick up literacy faster later on.<3>

One link between socioeconomic status and education, for example, is that there’s often a vocabulary gap between low- and high-income students. By second grade, low socioeconomic status (SES) students know about 4000 less words than their high SES peers. The reason isn’t because low-income students aren’t as capable of learning words but that they’re less likely to access early education programs because their family cannot afford it.

According to Dr. Duke, a literacy achievement gap in education is “not any fault of family, not any fault of children–it’s the fault of a system that isn’t providing equitable access to quality preschool.”<7> Because one in five children in the United States live on or below the poverty line, finding ways to supplement these deficiencies is a core responsibility for educators.<8> The more access students of all SES levels have to classroom and at-home resources, the more vocabulary gaps close.<9>

Another cultural factor that can affect a student’s reading comprehension is whether they’re learning a second language. English language-learning students, for example, may have trouble learning to read in English if they haven’t achieved oral fluency yet. Once a student has reached bilingualism, however, they’re actually at a cognitive advantage for learning to read.<10> By nurturing pre-reading skills in a bilingual classroom, your students’ academic gains can reach or even exceed their monolingual peers.

Types of Learning Disabilities Linked to Reading

Beyond sociocultural factors, certain conditions or developmental issues can result in reading disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, is one of the most well-known types of reading disabilities. It is also the most common learning disability in general, affecting about 20% of all students.<11> Although no specific gene has been pinpointed as the cause of dyslexia, researchers believe a combination of genetics and how the brain processes words can lead to this disorder.<12>

How dyslexia affects reading varies for all students, but it usually impairs the way students see letters or connect them with sounds. Some students may have trouble seeing certain letters, while others might struggle to learn which sounds pair with which letters. If you have a dyslexic student in your class, work with their parents to determine the severity of the disorder and how you can best reach the student’s needs.

Although dyslexia is the most popular learning disability linked to reading, there are several others educators should be aware of. Dysgraphia, for example, is a learning disability that affects a student’s handwriting, as well as how a student writes letters or learns to spell. Another, language processing disorder, can stunt a child’s ability to attach meaning to words or sentences. Even math literacy can be affected: dyscalculia is a learning disorder that can hinder a child’s ability to read numbers and mathematical equations.

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Other medical conditions may also lead to difficulties learning to read. Studies have found a link, for example, between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and reading disabilities.<13>