As one of the first skills learned in primary education, reading comes at early stages of cognitive development. Theories about the process of learning to read draw upon these stages and create systems for using the strengths of each stage to develop reading skills. Some theories can also be applied to later second-language acquisition in using prior knowledge for reading in a new language.

Skilled Reading Theory

A skill-based approach to reading development involves the decoding of letters and sounds, according to Lauren Weaver and Phyllis Resnick, authors of "Theory and Practice of Early Reading" According to their bottom-up theory, the reading process begins with learning symbols in the form of letters from the alphabet and assigning sounds to the letters. Children first learn to recite then letters of the alphabet, then learn to recognize those letters in print form, and eventually learn which sounds correlate to each letter and combination of letters.

Psycholinguistic Theory

In contrast to the skilled approach to reading that relies heavily on a series of steps that must be achieved to master reading, the psycholinguistic approach focuses on "oral language syntax, semantics, and phonological cues." The learner's success depends on her knowledge of oral processes, including word order and the use of words in context. As a top-down approach to learning reading, this theory focuses on the bigger picture of language and understanding rather than on letter and sound recognition.

Schema Theory

The schema theory of learning stems from the development of schemata, the systems in which the brain organizes information and experiences in long-term memory. This creates a base for developing new skills and acquiring knowledge. The schema theory relates primarily to comprehension, as learners activate both knowledge of the reading topic, and knowledge of the way language works. For example, as children read they begin to develop an understanding of basic sentence structure, which will help with decoding new texts.

Piaget's Theory

Psychologist Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development may also be applied to the process of reading instruction. Piaget's theory relies on the idea that learning is constructed by both the learner and the instructor. The theory stresses assimilation of material and eventual equilibrium of the new material in the learner's long-term memory. Similar to the schema theory, Piaget's theory uses the learner's own knowledge as a baseline for increasing both skills and information. In addition to the idea of assimilation, Piaget also focused on the developmental stages of young people, in which language — both oral and written — is learned during the second stage of development from ages 2 to 7.