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Strategies in early word reading and writing

Current models of how learners develop alphabetic writing systems distinguish several learner strategies in relation to the information processed in reading and writing, including information about grapheme-structure patterns, grapheme-phoneme correspondences, orthographic patterns and morphological rules (Gunther 2011: 18). It is important to note that the distinction of the strategies adopted by learners does not correspond with a natural acquisition sequence, and that changes regarding the information processed are commonly influenced by specific didactic measures (Durscheid 2006: 241; Wilbur 2000: 89). For example, learners might be asked to consciously analyse words into phonemes in various tasks, such as counting phonemes in a word, adding, deleting or rearranging phonemes (Penney et al. 2006: 116).

Typically, the use of a specific strategy is reflected in learners errors, whereby occasional errors reflecting previous stages reveal that learners do not give up “old” strategies completely. Indeed, some scholars remark on individual variation, particularly during transition phases, during which children’s productions might comprise unanalysed words, words that have been partly analysed and fully analysed words (Tolchinsky 2006: 91). These observations are well in line with what we know about language development in other domains (lexicon, syntax), where variation has been found to be related to reorganisation processes.[1]

The main strategies identified in the literature are the following (cf. Dur- scheid 2006: 241f.; cf. Gunther 2003: 42f.; Jimenez-Gonzalez & Muneton-Ayala 2002: 67f.).

Preliteral symbolic strategy. Prior to reading/writing, children develop general cognitive skills that constitute a requisite for their understanding of print, including its (general) symbolic function (they learn to draw and role-play, recognise pictures).

Logo-graphemic (also: logo-graphic) strategy. Children recognise that print is related to language. They recognise familiar words through a purely visual strategy, which hinges on marked (noticeable) graphic features of words, such as word length, capitalised initial letters or letter combinations (children have been found to recognise written words with their letters displayed in different positions). Written forms are associated with meanings, but not yet with sound sequences (Durscheid 2006: 242). The relevance of this strategy in terms of a learner’s first visual approach to the written language is traditionally underestimated, based on the argument that memory capacity is limited. However, findings about the capacity to store about 1000 and more words through this strategy prove this assumption wrong (Gunther 2003: 43). As pointed out by Gunther (2003: 43), the logo-graphemic strategy, qua visual strategy, is more useful in reading than in writing, where it can lead to problems. Typical errors related to the use of this strategy are letter reversals, or confusions of letter order. Example (11) from an advanced bilingual deaf learner illustrates the type of occasional error that might occur based on this strategy.

Alphabetic strategy. The alphabetic strategy is based on the isolation of sounds and their association with corresponding graphemes (grapho-phonemic links are assumed to be established through the recoding of grapheme sequences into phoneme sequences). Children develop the ability to read unknown words and pseudo-words. Traditionally, the use of the alphabetic strategy has been emphasised vis-a-vis other processes involved in the acquisition of reading and writing, although this strategy, too, is a temporary one. In addition, some authors remark that it is a time-consuming, cumbersome strategy, which might affect reading comprehension, pointing out also that young writers themselves find it hard to read their own written products (Kiedrowski 2004: 24).

Typical errors that reflect the use of the alphabetic strategy occur in the writing of words whose spelling does not adhere to the phonemic principle (e.g. *file instead of viele, ‘many’). Also, misspellings have been found to occur in the writing of some words that appeared in their correct form at a time when learners used the logo-graphemic strategy, such as *Babi instead of Papi ‘Daddy’ (cf. Gunther 2003: 48).

The errors highlighted in the text fragment in (12) (from Schafke 2005: 52, our transl.) illustrate the use of this strategy in advanced deaf learners.

In the educational area, special attention is paid to the learners’ ability to identify grapheme-phoneme correspondences, regarded as a fundamental skill for written language acquisition (note that the focus is put on the alphabetic strategy during the initial two years of primary education, Durscheid 2006: 243). The emphasis on the alphabetic strategy is criticised by Gunther (2003: 45, our transl., our emphasis), who remarks on the negative effects of this pedagogical practice:

The focus on the isolation of sounds and the assignment to graphemes, common to this day, is poison for children with spoken language development disorders - as it is the case in children with severe hearing and language development disorders, or with dyslexia - because it involves a demand of abstract metalinguistic performances in the phonemic domain that imply severe problems because of the disability.

Because the alphabetic phase can represent a grinding phase for the learner he argues in favour of an early (didactic) orientation toward orthographic patterns and morphemic rules (Gunther 2003: 48). According to Gunther (2003: 48) the alphabetical strategy is helpful, but may not be a necessary strategy. Furthermore, a phonemic strategy that would be oriented toward a segmentation of words into syllables is favoured.5

Orthographic strategy. The orthographic strategy involves the analysis of words into larger units (morphemic units, orthographic patterns). Learners now

Indeed, some didactic approaches developed in the 1990s concentrate on the syllable as a unit, which, as pointed out by Gunther, was already customary in the Roman reading learning concept. However, as some critics have remarked that the syllabic strategy does not hold of the learning processes of all languages, some authors have proposed that its use might be related to the phonological structure of the respective language (syllable-timed in Spanish or Chinese, but not so in English) (Tolchinsky 2006: 91).

master the spelling of words they could not capture through the alphabetic strategy. This strategy is particularly reliable in the case of writing systems that adhere to the morphematic principle (in addition to the alphabetic principle), whereby morpheme spelling remains constant despite changes in pronunciation, as it is the case of the German orthography (Gunther 2003: 49).[2]

The adoption of the orthographic strategy marks the end of the developmental process for learning to read and write words. At this stage, reading and writing commonly involve both the auditory-phonemic and the visuo-graphemic processing routes. Crucially, however, reading and writing processes are assumed to be successfully accomplished based on visuo-graphemic processing alone, in case of no or only limited access to auditory information (Gunther 2003: 50). The good literacy achievements obtained by those learners that adopt the orthographic strategy early on in their development provide support for the assumption that this strategy “... comprises the previous approaches in an integrating manner, without being dependent on their full development to the extent that it most consequently comprehends, structurally, the writing of the words” (Gunther 2003: 53, our transl.).

  • [1] The debate over whether learner strategies succeed each other (which would amount to a strictly sequential model) or are rather available simultaneously (Jimenez-Gonzalez & Muneton-Ayala2002: 64; Durscheid 2006: 241) is reminiscent of the controversy over the developmental problemin the acquisition of syntax (section 2.2.2). Basically, the controversy boils down to accountingfor transitional phases within sequential models that commonly regard the change from onestage to the other as an instantaneous event.
  • [2] According to Neef and Primus (2001: 368) this view is corroborated further by measures oferror frequency in children’s and adults’ productions. They also remark that “in language acquisition phoneme based derivation rules are more error-prone than constraints intrinsic to thewriting system.”
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