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Learning to Read: The Difference between Emergent and Beginning Readers

What's the difference between Emergent and Beginning Readers, and why does it matter?! Creative Reading Adventures explains the difference, and how it's important to know where your child is to support them as best as you can. Click to read the difference and how to support your little ones on their reading journey.

            Both Emergent and Beginning Readers acquire skills by being read to from parents, teachers, or even older siblings. They learn from your response to their questions and are encouraged by your interest in books and reading. Emergent readers could almost be considered pre-readers. They are starting to experiment with letters, they may know the letters in their name, but do not know all of the letters in the alphabet or the letter sounds. They may point to words but they do not know what word they are pointing to. Beginning readers have this all important concept of the concept of word. Beginning readers know their alphabet. They can spell many of the sounds in a word, and have a few sight words down. The best way to tell if you have a beginning reader is if your child has something that is called the concept of word.


Concept of Word:          

Concept of word is knowing that each word is a unit in the sentence. Children who have a concept of word can point to each word in a sentence independently. This is also sometimes known as tracking. They will also be able to go back to a familiar text or sentence that they just read and find an easy sight word, such as “the,” if they have a concept of word.



            Rereading familiar texts is important for both emergent and beginning readers. A lot of parents worry that their child has memorized the book and that they are not really reading. This could be true, but honestly, for emergent readers, they do rely heavily on their memory of what they just read. You could also try rereading a book only 4 to 6 times and then retiring the book (unless it is a favorite!) for a while. If you think your child is just reading the pictures, you could try covering the pictures up while they read and see if they are paying attention to the print.

Alphabet Activities:


            Any type of alphabet activity is going to help an emergent reader. Before they can understand words, they will need to learn those letters! Any direct alphabet activities should always start with the letters in the child’s name. I know lots of moms who want to do a “letter of the week” and they start with A and go right through to Z. Please start with the letters that your child is familiar with, which are going to be the letters in their name, your name, their siblings or friends names, and even your pet’s name. There’s no “rule” that says you must go in alphabetical order to teach the alphabet. In fact, you should NEVER go in ABC order to teach the ABCs. Start with capital letters but remember there are lowercase letters (and many look different!) that you’ll have to expose those emergent readers to as well!


          A lot of emergent reading material are those simple sentences where they can color in the picture and fill in how many penguins or bugs they see on a page. This is to get them familiar with print matching the pictures. A lot of preschool material that comes home to your house should be helping your emergent readers become familiar with print and pictures. Your Emergent Reader should always play with books, and experiment with markers, crayons, pencils, and paper. Their "writing" may look like scribbles at this point, but simply ask them to tell them the story they are writing. They know what it says!

Beginner vs. Emergent Reader:

           By the end of the Emergent Reader stage, your reader can “pretend” to read, can retell a story when looking at the pages of a book that you previously read to them, can name the letters of the alphabet and produce most sounds, and can print their own name. While everyone’s reading development is different, a typical reader usually enters Kindergarten as a Beginning Reader. They have acquired all the Emergent Reader skills and are ready to read!

           Tracking print happens when a child has a complete concept of word. They understand that letters make up words and that the spaces in between words make each word a separate unit. This is a HUGE concept for little ones to understand, and they pick it up simply from reading and being read to at an early age. It’s amazing to think of all that information coming together to understand what a word actually is. That is the concept of word.

Beginning Readers

  • have a concept of word

  • can “track” print

  • know many sight words

  • can “sound out” unfamiliar words

   Emergent Readers

  • learning their letters and sounds

  • can distinguish between print and pictures

  • “read” from pictures

  • “write” with scribbles, eventually write the letters in their name


            Beginning Readers are learning the relationships between letters and sounds. In this stage, the focus is on phonemic awareness (sounds), phonics (letters to sound), and decoding skills. Your reader will start to read simple text that has a lot of high frequency words and easy-to-decode words. You may hear your Beginning Reader “sounding out” new one-syllable words. While a lot of the focus for emergent and beginning readers is on letter sounds and decoding skills, you also want to remember the comprehension piece. Your child should also be understanding what you read to them or what they are reading to you!

How to Help Your Reader:

           When your emergent or beginning reader gets stuck on a word or seems to be struggling, what’s the first thing you want to do? Help them, right!? Intervene, tell them the word to help them out, or even read the whole page to them. I’m asking you to do a really hard thing: STOP. Don’t help. Wait a minute or two and let your child try to solve the problem on their own. This is so hard for us as parents since we are always trying to help and want what’s best for our kids! I’m telling you, what’s best in this situation, is to stop and wait. It’s very difficult to learn perseverance or how to reread to figure out the right words when someone is always correcting you.


            Obviously, if your child is truly struggling or you see them getting frustrated, step in. Here are some ways to help when they are substituting a wrong word without telling them exactly what the word is. These questions are from Johnston, Invernizzi, and Juel's Book Buddies book:

  • Does that make sense? Try it again.”
  • “Does that sound right?” Try it again.”
  • “Let’s look at this word again. What letter do you see at the beginning?”
  • “Try using this sound to say the word.” (Point to the first letter)
  • “Could this word be (say the word they said)? Why not?”
  • “What else could you try there?”
  • “(Their word) makes sense, but look at the first letter.”
  • “You’ve almost got it, let’s try again.” 

           Your Emergent and Beginning Reader is going to need a lot of support in developing their reading skills. The best way to help your reader is to read aloud to them! Expose them to lots of different types of books, discuss what's happening in those books, and spread a love of reading. You can download my favorite 10 Books to Inspire a Love of Reading in your child here.

           This blog will contain different ideas to help develop those beginning skills. It's important for you to determine what stage your reader is in so you can pick the best activities to help support them! If you're looking for more support from other busy moms and me, a certified reading specialist, head on over and click to join the Creative Reading Adventures Facebook group.

Do you have an Emergent or Beginning reader? Tell me about them in the comments!