Prepping Your Readers: Sulzby’s Levels of Emergent Storybook Reading and Their Implications for the Classroom



It’s always at this time of year, sitting in my backyard, that I think of my mom.  She is a gardener extraordinaire.  Saying that she has a green thumb is an understatement.  She can make anything grow and bloom just by looking at it!  

A few years ago, I decided to go and watch my mom in the garden.  I had to find out what she did to make her yard look so great while I struggled to keep anything alive!  I watched her pull her garden tools out of the garage and go to work in her beds.  Right away, I noticed a difference.  As she forced her shovel into the earth, I saw that the dirt she pulled up was rich and black, loose and loamy, not gray, hard and clay-like as in my yard.   

“Mom!” I complained!  “No wonder your flowers grow so well!  You have much better soil than I do!!”  

My mom looked at me and smiled.  “That didn’t just happen,” she said.  “You have to prep your beds.”

To a gardener, “prepping your beds” means turning them over to loosen the soil and adding things, such as compost, bone meal and humus, to enrich it.  Flowers planted in these kinds of beds grow bigger and stronger.  They are vibrant.  They grow well.  The same flowers, planted in beds like mine, do not grow as big, if at all.  They do not produce as many blooms.  They grow weak and straggly.  

In some ways, this is similar to what we experience with our emergent readers.  Some students come to us with rich experience with printed text. They have had hundreds of thousands of words read to them since the day they were born.  They know story syntax and story structure.  They can relate to characters and predict what will happen next.  In short, their “beds” have been prepped by their prior experiences.  These students will find it easier to learn to read.  They will flourish in school.

Other students do not have books in their home.  They did not visit the library with their parents.  The only characters they know are the ones from their favorite TV shows.  The printed word is meaningless to them.  These students will find school and learning to read much more difficult.

Elizabeth Sulzby, a prominent reading researcher, studied the levels that emergent readers progress through as they move along the continuum of reading development.  She found that watching students interact with emergent storybooks can give teachers a lot of information about what they know about literacy.  This development starts long before students begin deciphering the written word.  It starts the moment they hear books read aloud.  Knowing where your emergent readers are along this continuum can help you to plan for instruction that will help “prep” them to be ready to read.  A summary of the levels and their implications for teaching can be found below.

Sulzby Classification Scheme of Emergent Storybook Reading

Levels/ Descriptions Implications for Teaching
Levels 0-2:

Generally preschool age, these students will refuse to “read” the book because they “don’t know how.”  Alternatively, they will point to pictures and name images, or talk about the pictures independently from the rest of the book.  No story evident.

In these levels students need to hear storybooks over and over again.  Similar to how one would read their child a bedtime story, teachers should interact naturally with the text and students, creating a relaxed and joyous atmosphere around reading and re-reading.  The goal here should be for students to hear lots of rich text and “storybook language” so they can internalize it and mimic it.
Levels 3-4:

Generally preschool/kindergarten age, these students will begin storytelling, but it will sound oral in nature rather than using “written language-like” syntax.  You may hear the child say “This one over here says” or “she goes” instead of “said Jane.”  Child may use voices to indicate when different characters speak.

In addition to continuing to read and re-read quality emergent story books, in these levels, teachers can also “read” wordless picture books to students.  Asking questions such as “What do you think is happening on this page?” and “What do you think will happen next?” will help children learn to connect pictures/stories across pages.  “Reading” the books with storybook language will help the students remember what that syntax sounds like.  
Levels 5-7:

Children in these stages are generally end of kindergarten age.  In these stages, the child moves toward telling the story in a written-story syntax.  The child may even have the story memorized.  Children may self-correct when they realize the story is off course.

Giving students time to write becomes extremely important in these levels, as it helps students understand that written words convey meaning.   

Shared reading also is very important.  Teachers should use this opportunity to point to the words as they read from the text to reinforce left to right and top to bottom directionality, one-one correspondence, etc.

Continuing to read (and re-read) aloud remains an important part of literacy instruction at these levels.

Levels 8-11:

Children in these levels are generally beginning first graders.  These children may refuse to “read” storybooks at the beginning of this band as they are finally understanding that the symbols on the page make words and they realize they don’t know what those words say.  This is different from the Stage 0 refusal, where students are completely unfamiliar with books.  As students progress through this band, they become more and more proficient in the reading process until finally, at Stage 11, they are independent readers of grade level texts.

Continue allowing students time to read and write during these levels.  They will begin to develop their concepts of print as they practice.  At these levels, Students will be ready for more sophisticated comprehension work.  You will want to begin retelling stories that you have read and that the students are reading.  Shared Reading and Read Aloud remain important as well.

Choosing which emergent storybooks to use with students is very important when introducing these concepts to young readers.  Books should be engaging, have a clear plot and rich language.  You can read more about good emergent storybooks on Elizabeth Moore’s blog.  TCRWP has compiled a list of good books that you can use as well.

To read more about these levels and Sulzby’s work, check out the following references.


Assessment of Emergent Literacy

Sulzby Classification Scheme Instructional Profiles

Please consider leaving a comment and letting me know your thoughts about this post!


2 thoughts on “Prepping Your Readers: Sulzby’s Levels of Emergent Storybook Reading and Their Implications for the Classroom

  1. Oh Tina, this is such an important post. Thank you for articulating both the power and the clarity that can come from teaching through the knowledge of emergent reading levels. This is a post I know I will share often! (And I can’t say it enough: your writing is simply beautiful. I hope you consider writing a book someday!)

    • Erin,
      Thanks so much for your kind words! It’s an area that I am still learning about too! Thanks for your suggestions about including classroom examples of this work in future blog posts. I am going to work on that!
      Thanks again for your comment and your support!

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