Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
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Over the years, a number of researchers have developed models of reading development based on stages (Chall, 1979; Ehri, 1993, 1994; Frith, 1985). Are they worth knowing about? Is the attainment of literacy somehow related to successful negotiation of these stages? Even if there is no consensus about whether or which stages are important, might the stage approach still provide useful information to guide intervention? Can student progress and success be hastened through such information? Alternatively, might it be that a focus upon stages merely reflects a kind of educational voyeurism with no implications for practice? If this latter were the case, then the issues raised might be of academic interest but perhaps not assigned a high priority for curriculum attention.
Some have argued (e.g., Smith, 1973) that children have an innate propensity for reading, and require only a literate environment for reading to flourish. If this were true, then attention to stages would have neither instructional consequences nor any great appeal. However, it is now generally acknowledged that learning to read involves processes that are not equivalent to those involved in learning to speak (Liberman, 1997), and that it is, for too many children in our education system, a frustrating and fruitless pursuit.
The consequences for such children have been well documented. At the minimum, failure to read presents a major hurdle to educational progress (Binder, 1996; Lewis & Paik, 2001), a fast-acting self-esteem depressant (Chapman, Tunmer, & Prochnow, 2000), a cause of depression and anxiety (Nelson & Harwood, 2011; Sideridis, 2007). In fact, it is associated with every negative experience of anindividual’s life subsequently (National Institute for Literacy, 1998). “More suffer life-harm from illiteracy than from parental abuse, accidents, and all other childhood diseases and disorders combined” (Whitehurst, 2003).