1.4: The development of reading

Clearly, the final aim of reading is comprehension, that is to extract meaning from words and text.

Similarly the final aim of writing in the broadest sense is to communicate meaning: the production of words, phrases and text which can be comprehended.

For the fluent reader, comprehension is a highly complex ability which mobilizes a whole series of processes including the recognition and understanding of words, general linguistic abilities, prior knowledge of the subject, inference skills, anticipation, and so on.

However, in order to understand what the written words say, it is absolutely essential that the learner develops adequate means of recognizing words rapidly and efficiently. The learner who reads fast and efficiently has to acquire automated mechanisms for identifying words.

As the researchers Alegria, Leybaert and Mousty stress, the fundamental role played by the identification of written words arises from the fact that it is logically inconceivable that you can understand a text without being able to recognise most of the words it contains. This applies even more as the text becomes longer and less predictable.

Studies show that good young readers rarely use context to identify a word because words are usually identified before contextual information becomes available. It is the poor readers who overly rely on context to identify words in order to compensate for weaknesses in recognizing them.

To prove the point, numerous studies have also shown that good readers who can identify words fast and accurately have more cognitive and attentional reserves with which to grasp and integrate the meaning of the words in order to understand the passage; poor readers who have weaker automatic mechanisms for identifying words have to allocate so much of their cognitive and attentional reserves towards word identification that they have difficulties in building the global meaning of the sentence or text. Overall understanding is then affected.

In sum, the establishment of automatic and fast recognition of words is a pre-requisite for being able to understand written texts, and explains why learners with dyslexia have trouble in appreciating the meaning of printed text.

For this reason we are going to start with the essential stages in learning how to develop mechanisms for identifying words before tackling the other processes which are involved in comprehension.