Chapter 3 – The First Level of Reading: Elementary Reading


No aspect of schooling has been more severely criticized than reading instruction.

A young man or woman who cannot read very well is hindered in his pursuit of the American dream, but that remains largely a personal matter if he is not in school.


It is now widely accepted that there are at least four more or less clearly distinguishable stages in the child’s progress toward what is called mature reading ability. The first stage is known by the term “reading readiness.” This begins at birth, and continues normally until the age of about six or seven.

Reading readiness includes several different kinds of preparation for learning to read.  Physical readiness involves good vision and hearing. Intellectual readiness involves a minimum level of visual perception such that the child can take in and remember an entire word and the letters that combine to form it. Language readiness involves the ability to speak clearly and to use several sentences in correct order. Personal readiness involves the ability to work with other children, to sustain attention, to follow directions, and the like.

In the second stage, children learn to read very simple materials. … Basic skills are introduced at this time, such as the use of context or meaning clues and the beginning sounds of words.

It is incidentally worth observing that something quite mysterious, almost magical, occurs during this stage. At one moment in the course of his development the child, when faced with a series of symbols on a page, finds them quite meaningless. Not much later – perhaps only two or three weeks later – he has discovered meaning in them; he knows that they say “the cat sat on the hat.” How this happens no one really knows, despite the efforts of philosophers and psychologists over two and a half millennia to study the phenomenon. Where does meaning come from? How is it that a French child would find the same meaning in the symbols “le chat s’asseyait sur le chapeau”? Indeed, this discovery of meaning in symbols may be the most astounding intellectual feat that any human being ever performs – and most humans perform it before they are seven years old!

The third stage is characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and by increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context clues.

Finally, the fourth stage is characterized by the refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired. … This, the mature stage of reading should be reached by young persons in their early teens. Ideally, they should continue to build on it for the rest of their lives. … That they often do not even reach it is apparent to many parents and to most educators. … The very emphasis on reading readiness and on the methods employed to teach children the rudiments of reading has meant that the other, the higher, levels of reading have tended to be slighted.


We have described four levels of reading, and we have also outlined four stages of learning to read in an elementary fashion. What is the relation between these stages and levels?

It is of paramount importance to recognize that the four stages outlined here are all stages of the first level of reading as outlined in the previous chapter.

We mention all this because it is highly germane to the message of this book. We assume that you, our reader, have mastered the elementary level of reading, which means that you have passed successfully through the four stages described.

The difference between aided and unaided discovery comes into play here. Typically, the four stages of elementary reading are attained with the help of living teachers. … Only when he has mastered all of the four stages of elementary reading is the child prepared to move on to the higher levels of reading. Only then can he read independently and learn on his own. Only then can he begin to become a really good reader.


Traditionally the high schools of America have provided little reading instruction for their students, and the colleges have provided none. … they are not designed to take the student beyond the first level or to introduce him to the kinds and levels of reading that are the main subject of this book.

This, of course, should not be the case. A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers. … Often, however, three or four years of graduate study are required before students attain this level of reading ability, and they do not always attain it even then.

One should not have to spend four years in graduate school in order to learn how to read. … that adds up to twenty full years of schooling. It should not take that long to learn to read.

What is wrong can be corrected. Courses could be instituted in many high schools and colleges that are based on the program described in this book. There is nothing arcane or even really new about what we have to propose. It is largely common sense.