Desktop version

Home arrow Health arrow Dyslexia and other learning difficulties


How reading is learned

The previous description deals with the competent reader. The subject of how this skill is acquired by a child is even more complicated.

As we have seen, competent reading relies on an in-built lexicon that can recognize familiar words. When an individual has a well-furnished lexicon and can use this for word recognition, he is at the automatic (or orthographic) stage of reading. Most normal children do not reach this stage until eight to 10 years of age. After this, they continue to improve the efficiency of their reading, but the processes involved remain the same.

How does a child reach this stage? We have only recently begun to understand this. Children need to go through two preparatory stages before they can reach the stage of automatic reading.

The first stage is the visual memory (or logographic) stage. This does not involve the lexical system (the lexicon is empty). Instead, words are recognized as if they were familiar people or objects. For example, the word ‘Bill’ is short and has two little ‘sticks’ on the right. ‘Help!’ may be recognized simply by its exclamation mark (and therefore ‘Bang!’ may be read as ‘Help!’ at this stage).

Eventually, this system must be superseded. Many words are too similar in shape and length for a purely visual recognition system to differentiate between them. In addition, spelling cannot advance beyond a very rudimentary stage if visual recognition alone is relied upon.

The next, very important stage, is the phonological (or alphabetic) stage. Normal children usually enter this stage at six to seven years. At this stage, children bring into play a special system for reading that is essential if they are to furnish their lexicon so that they can progress to the automatic stage. The system used is an alternative pathway to the lexical system. It is called the phonological system, because words are broken down (segmented) into their component sounds (phonos means sound).

The smallest units of sound are called ‘phonemes’. The English language has 44 different phonemes. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, so some phonemes are represented by combinations of letters (for example, ‘ai’ in ‘rain’). Any letter, or group of letters, that corresponds to a phoneme is called a ‘grapheme’. As the poem at the beginning of this chapter illustrates, the same group of letters (graphemes) may correspond to different phonemes, depending on the word. This reflects the complex history of the evolution of written English.

Phonological reading is, therefore, not just a simple one-to-one matching process; knowing the correct phoneme means that the brain must learn the 577 grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences in the English language. It must learn to look at the word as a whole and evaluate the letters in the light of learned rules about phonemes. Sometimes, in order to know which phoneme is appropriate, the context in which the word is used must be taken into account. As children acquire more ability to translate the graphemes they see on the page into the correct phonemes, they start filling their brain’s lexicon with words. When this happens, they can start bypassing the phonological system and access the lexicon whenever they read a familiar word. Soon, they rarely use the relatively slow phonological system, and are reading automatically like an adult.

At one time it was not realized that children had to go through this phonological stage, because in the normal child this stage is not obvious. Although they are reading by ‘sound’ rather than by ‘sight’, they do not actually need to sound the words out. The phoneme segmentation and recombination occur in the brain, silently and rapidly.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics