Reading Teacher

Developing Readers vs. Emergent Readers

Developing Readers vs. Emergent Readers

Emergent readers, developing readers, beginning readers: as a parent or teacher, where do you even begin?


Throughout the years, experts have developed a range of terms to describe readers in the earliest stages of their literacy journeys. Today, we’re clarifying the differences - and similarities - between developing readers vs. emerging readers, followed by a discussion of how this language shapes our understanding of how children learn to read.


Differences Between Developing Vs. Emergent Readers


Before we dig into the differences between a developing reader and an emergent reader, it’s crucial to answer: what is a developing reader? While definitions vary, we’ve identified a few key characteristics:


  • A developing reader is learning the basics of reading such as decoding, phonics, the alphabet, and sight words that are essential for long-term literacy.
  • A developing reader is making the transition to longer books with more complicated plotlines. Before they know it, they’ll bid goodbye to picture books and hello to chapter books.
  • Critically, a developing reader is evolving into a more skilled and confident reader.


Reading experts debate whether there is a significant difference between developing readers and emergent readers. Whereas the use of “developing reader” emphasizes that young readers are developing the foundational skills that will support lifelong literacy, an “emergent reader” is truly emerging into a new territory of reading potential. The excitement of an emergent reader is worth noting. While you might not remember the first time you read a book, rediscovering your zest for reading alongside a child is refreshing for all parties involved.

Developing Readers vs. Emergent Readers

The key characteristics of emergent readers are similar to those identified among developing readers. Parents and educators may notice that their emergent readers:


  • Recognize and point out high-frequency words, both in books and during everyday travel to school, home, and other familiar destinations
  • Write in scribbles and/or incoherent strings of letters
  • Show a strong desire to read and listen to others read


Ultimately, most experts agree that emergent readers fall under the category of developing readers: technically, anyone who reads could be considered a developing reader, as we are all strengthening our comprehension and writing skills well into adulthood. There may not be a significant difference between emergent readers and developing readers - and that’s perfectly okay. Because language used to describe reading development can be complicated, supportive adults are encouraged to meet their readers at “eye-level” with age-appropriate reading strategies.


Reading Strategies for Emergent Readers


For an emergent reader, struggling and overcoming are both part of the process. Emergent readers are working on lots of goals: they’re learning more letters of the alphabet, expanding their perspectives through new books, and taking big steps toward writing. To support an emergent reader, literacy experts suggest the following reading strategies to help them advance toward reading fluency.

Developing Readers

1. Identify the title, author, and illustrator of their favorite books.

Imagine yourself as a five year-old and take a good look at your child’s favorite picture book. For an emergent reader, there’s a lot of information to digest - and that’s only on the cover! Get your child used to reading the title, author, and illustrator of a book. This helps set the stage for what they’re about to read and helps them understand the basic purpose and structure of the book.


2. Use read-aloud books to help children increase their phonemic awareness.

By using books specifically designed for adults and children to read aloud together, emergent readers will gain a firmer grasp of the relationship between letters and sounds- otherwise known as phonemic awareness.


3. After the last page, talk about the book!

The end of the book marks the beginning of a meaningful discussion. Encourage your reader to talk about major events in the story, the resolution of any conflicts, and their favorite parts and characters. These concluding conversations will enhance their reading comprehension and overall engagement in the story.


Clarifying the difference between emerging readers vs. developing readers is just the beginning. Ultimately, these shifts in phrasing are usually more important for adults to understand than the readers themselves. When working with emergent readers, we’re regularly reminded that reading is an ongoing journey toward understanding & sharing stories with others.

Emergent Readers


  • The definitions of developing and emergent readers are mostly similar. While the phrases are often used interchangeably, educators emphasize that emergent readers are progressing toward the developmental stage of reading fluency.
  • Emergent readers are typically:
    • Learning the alphabet
    • Writing in scribbles
    • Reading and memorizing their favorite books with the help of an adult
  • Some helpful strategies for emergent readers include reading aloud, discussing books they’ve read, and finding the title, author, and illustrator to uncover the book’s basic structure.

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