A model for the acquisition of reading and/or writing must explain how processes for the identification of words and the writing of words develop and how they are supposed to be exploited by fluent readers and spellers. Most of the models proposed to explain this process consist of a series of qualitatively distinctive, successive stages, each of which develops as a combination of knowledge developed in the preceding stage and the acquisition of new knowledge. Although these models have attracted a lot of criticism they have also provided an important reference framework for research over the last fifteen years into the child’s acquisition of reading and writing. 

Although the models differ with regard to the number of stages investigated and the precise nature of the processing at each stage, they all share the hypothesis that the development of reading and writing is characterized by a series of processing methods which are qualitatively different (e. g. Ehri, 1992, 1997, 1998; Frith, 1985, 1986; Marsh, Friedman, Welch & Desberg, 1981; Morton, 1989; Seymour, 1990, 1994). The mechanisms can be grouped in three main stages: the logographic, alphabetic, and orthographic. The names of these stages are taken from Frith (1985), probably the most cited authority.

1. The principal models for stages in the acquisition of reading and writing

a) Stage 1: Logographic

As soon as children start seeing written material they may be able to ‘identify’ a few words on the basis of some salient characteristics associated with them. This strategy corresponds to the phase which Marsh et al. (1981) and Harris and Coltheart (1986) call guessing by coarse features, Frith (1985, and Morton, 1989) ‘logographic’, and Ehri (1992) ‘pre-alphabetic’. This phase is marked essentially by the fact that the words are not yet objects of linguistic analysis: neither the identity nor order of the letters is taken into account. This is why they produce answers which betray a total lack of phonetic processing (for example, television for rhinoceros, Seymour & Elder, 1986), and do not notice the substitution of letters (for example XEPSI is identified as PEPSI) if the typical appearance of the word with respect to colour and logo is preserved, even if attention is drawn to the substitution (Masonheimer, Drum & Ehri, 1984). 

Morton (1989) insists on the fact that at this stage, visual treatment of words relies on pictorial rather than verbal meaning. In other words, just as a lemon must be yellow in order to be a lemon ‘Coca-Cola’ must be white letters in a special style on a red background. Access to the meaning of written words is of the same kind as access to the meaning of pictures.

b) Stage 2: Alphabetic

All of the models of stages agree that the development of reading and writing in an alphabetic system implies linking letters or groups of letters (graphemes) with the representations of their corresponding phonemic units. …this association cannot be made unless the child develops a capacity consciously to analyse the stream of words into phonemes. This capacity is itself stimulated by learning the alphabet in such a way that phonetic awareness and learning to read and write bring about bidirectional causal relations (Bertelson, 1986; Morais et al., 1979, 1987). 

The reading ability which develops from this point is characterized by paying attention to the identity of letters as well as their order. However the name used for this stage varies between authors: Frith (1985) and Morton (1989) talk of the ‘alphabetic stage’ whilst Harris and Coltheart (1986), and Seymour (1990, 1994) have ‘phonological decoding’. An important feature of Seymour’s theory is that the alphabetic strategy does not necessarily follow the logographic strategy. Rather both strategies develop in parallel, especially if the alphabetic code is learnt early.

Marsh et al. (1981) believe that this step itself has two successive stages: a first stage of ‘sequential phonetic decoding’ is marked by a treatment word-by-word; a second stage of ‘hierarchic phonological decoding’ shows that the child is able to take into account contextual rules and decode by analogy.

Ehri’s model (1992, 1998), which also distinguishes two phases within this stage, gives a more detailed description than the other models of a technique allowing the child to ‘own the code’. In a first phase, called ‘partly alphabetic’, the child uses its rudimentary knowledge of the name or sound of letters to make partial connections between written words and their pronunciation. Reading is based on certain clues in the items, ‘phonetic cue reading’, in contrast to the previous stage based strictly on visual hints, ‘visual cue reading’. Because this strategy always takes into account partial clues, it will often lead the child to make mistakes such as man for menthis for that, or horse for house (Ehri & McCormick, 1998, p. 145). In a second phase, called ‘completely alphabetic’, awareness of grapho-phonemic relations is sufficiently developed to allow the child rapidly to allocate a pronunciation to each of the graphemes making up the words.

c) Stage 3: Orthographic

In the orthographic stage the words are treated as units. The child has recorded in long-term memory specific information about the orthographic characteristics of the written words which he or she has met. In the models of Frith (1985), Marsh et al. (1981) and above all Seymour (1990, 1994), the orthographic strategy would result from the ‘fusion’ of the two strategies which develop separately during the two previous stages and which roughly correspond to the direct access system suggested by Coltheart (1978) for adults. Nevertheless it is clearly different to the logographic strategy because it is no longer founded on partial visual characteristics but on specific and complete lexical entry. It is also different to the alphabetic strategy because it no longer necessarily requires phonological decoding based on sub-lexical recoding but has more to do with units of sense, ideally morphemes. According to Frith (1985), the adoption of the orthographic strategy would result in the automatisation of the alphabetic strategy and the inability of the latter to read irregular words.

Ehri (1992, 1995, 1998) is resolutely against the idea according to which the identification of words in the child and adult does not pass through a pre-lexical activation of grapho-phonemic correspondences. On the contrary, this author believes that knowledge of the correspondences between graphemes and phonemes works as a mnemonic tool which permits the reader to retain information about specific letters and words. Representations formed in memory through reading would therefore be alphabetic and consist of graphemes associated with phonemes. The acquisition of orthographic representations involves the alphabetic system as well as a ‘calculation’ of the connections between graphemes and phonemes during the perception and reading of words. Repetition of this process associates the spelling of a word with its pronunciation and with its meaning, thus forming an amalgam. These non-arbitrary graphophonic connections, because they are derived from knowledge of the alphabetic system, enable children (and adults) to represent more and more words, each one in a unique way, in their lexicon and automatically select the best fit when they see the word later. (Ehri, 1997, 1998, p. 17, see also Perfetti, 1992; Plaut et al., 1996, for a similar idea.)

d) The development of writing in relation to reading

By analogy with the two circuits proposed to account for the processes used for identifying writing by the adult, a model for writing with two circuits is appealing when it comes to accounting for expert writers (e. g. Ellis & Young, 1988) or beginners (e. g. Brown & Ellis, 1994; Frith, 1980; Perfetti, Rieben & Fayol, 1997). Therefore two processes would allow the correct spelling for the heard stimuli: direct access in order to write non-predictable phoneme-grapheme correspondences, ‘knight’ for example, and a decoding path which would enable the correct writing of pseudo-words, ‘labbit’ for example.

As Ehri says in one of his papers (1997), ‘learning to read and learning to write is the same thing, or practically the same thing’. In the model suggested by this author, the development of writing is characterized by four stages, more or less similar and more or less simultaneous with those stages described for the development of reading. It is about ‘pre-communicative’ writing (equivalent to pre-alphabetic reading), ‘semi-phonetic’ writing (equivalent to partially alphabetic reading), ‘phonetic or phonemic’ (equivalent to consolidated alphabetic reading) and ‘morphemic’ writing (corresponding to the morphemic stage).

An original idea proposed by Frith (1985, 1986) was that the stages in reading and writing would be temporarily dissociated: reading and writing would in turn assume the role of the stimulator (‘pacemaker’) for the other capacity. Different levels of skill are defined for each process and it is only when a degree of expertise has been acquired in the use of each procedure that this skill would be transferred to the other domain. For Frith the logographic strategy develops first in reading and is then transferred to writing. In contrast, it is in writing that the process of phonological mediation develops, which is then transferred to reading. Such a progression takes into account findings that pre-school children are able to write words phonetically whilst being incapable of reading their own work later. (e. g. Bryant & Bradley, 1980; Frith, 1980; Read, 1986). Finally, the orthographic procedure would first be developed for reading, before being transferred to writing. 

2. Evaluation of the models for stages

a) Function of the orthographic stage 

The logographic strategy plays an important role in the developmental dynamics of some models of stages (Frith, 1985; Seymour, 1990, 1994). In particular, a major feature of Seymour’s model, called ‘twin foundations’, is that the logographic and phonetic procedures work together to establish the orthographic lexicon. Seymour and Elder (1986) have tried to characterize logographic reading by looking at children in the first year of primary school (from 4 years, 5 months to 5 years, 5 months) learning to read through a method which was strictly global. Numerous findings seem to indicate that the children do not fall back on a phonological procedure to identify written words given in naming tasks. In particular they do not show the classic effect of word-length, which is supposed to be the mark of sequential processing. Furthermore, most of the mistakes were either a refusal to answer, or giving a word visually close to the target word or to another word learnt in class. The classic mistakes which would betray the exploitation of the process for phonological decoding were not seen. According to Seymour and Elder, the logographic strategy would allow the child to build a lexicon with as many as 100 words.

Numerous other studies would seem to indicate however that the logographic strategy is more optional than obligatory (Scott & Ehri, 1989; Ehri & Wilce, 1985; Stuart & Coltheart, 1988). More precisely, these studies suggest that even before acquiring developed skills for phonological decoding, children use their rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet to form non-arbitrary associations between written words and their pronunciation. For example, Ehri and Wilce (1985) taught children of 4 – 6 to associate visually different (e.g. ‘Fo’ for knee) or phonetically simplified (e.g. ‘NE’ for knee) spelling of words. The results show that only the pre-readers who do not yet know the alphabet and are incapable of reading a single word learn the visually contrasting spelling more easily than the simplified phonetically, whilst the inverse is seen amongst children who know at least a few letters and can read at least a few words.

Nevertheless we should note that the advantage seen for phonetic spelling could result from the fact that all the letters making up these words also belong to the conventional spelling of words with which they are associated, whilst no letter of the items visually contrasted belong to the words which they represent. Children able to read some words could then be finding some simplified phonetic spellings more familiar than the spelling visually contrasted. In order to confirm this possibility, Rack, Hulme, Snowling et Wightman (1994) compared learning performance for two kinds of spelling which differed by one letter only in children of third grade kindergarten who knew most of the letters of the alphabet and read some words. The findings show that the children learn spelling which contains a letter different to the target only in its voicing (e.g. TPL for table, KDN for garden) more rapidly than spellings with letters which are more distant phonetically (e.g. TGL for table, BDN for garden). These results corroborate the notion of reading based on phonetic hints (‘phonetic cue reading’) proposed by Ehri (1992, 1998; Ehri & Wilce, 1985).

In general, the idea that the logographic procedure plays a role in the development of reading skills is difficult to maintain (e.g. Alegria, Leybaert et Mousty, 1994). As Alegria et al say, this procedure is radically different to the following stages in two aspects: it is not generative (it does not allow for the identification of words which have never been previously encountered) and has nothing to do with the sub-morphemic level of language (no link is made between the parts of written words and the parts of spoken words). Numerous studies show on the other hand that the skills for logographic ‘reading’ are not correlated with skills for phonological decoding. (e. g. Jorm, 1981; Masonheimer et al., 1984). And so it is difficult to think how a procedure which is not linked to succeeding stages (Masonheimer et al., 1984), and which is only shown in some children (Stuart & Coltheart, 1988), and that only in some languages…, could be a developmental stage in the strict sense.

Ehri (1992; Ehri et Wilce, 1985; Ehri & Sweet, 1991) also reject the notion of a logographic stage as defined by Frith (1985). Even so she maintains the idea according to which the child would pass through a developmental stage during which the identification of words is made on the basis of partial cues before the development of phonological decoding and direct access skills in order to proceed to the phonological stage. In fact, the child only processes one letter, and rarely two (e.g. he realizes that ‘b’ is pronounced /b/ on being confronted with ‘beak’), which will lead him to make several mistakes (e.g. reading ‘beak’ for all the words starting with ‘b’). It is worth recalling that, for Ehri, entry to the partially phonetic stage requires knowledge of some grapheme-phoneme correspondences, as well as a form of rudimentary phonemic awareness and the ability to use contextual information to generate the right pronunciation from partial cues.

b) Succession of phonological and orthographic stages

The dynamic development posited in the models of stages (see especially Marsh et al., 1981; Frith, 1985) implies that when learning to read and write the child pronounces the written words by a sequential process of converting graphemes into phonemes (phonological decoding) in order finally to abandon this procedure in favour of an orthographic strategy (direct access).

Some transverse studies comparing the reading performance of children of different ages clearly suggest that the older readers rely on an orthographic strategy for reading whilst younger or less skilled readers fall back on phonological processing (e. g. Backman, Bruck, Herbert & Seidenberg, 1984; Doctor & Coltheart, 1980; Reitsma, 1984; Seidenberg, Waters, Bernes & Tannenhaus, 1984; see Barron, 1986, for a revue). For example Backman et al. looked at reading strategies for regular and irregular words, as well as pseudo-words, in good readers in the second and fourth year of primary and also poor readers in third and fourth years of primary. The results show that the younger good readers and the older less competent are more inclined to employ phonological processing than the older good readers (more regularization mistakes) even if they use this strategy less successfully than the latter (a higher level of total errors). In the same line of investigation, Seidenberg et al. showed that children in the second year of primary have more difficulties in reading irregular words than regular words whatever their frequency, whilst children in the sixth year of primary only show the regularizing effect for rare words. This interaction between frequency and regularity is typically seen in adults (see Seidenberg, 1985).

These results contrast with those of Masterson, Laxon and Stuart (1992) who report that children in the second year of primary school do not seem to show effects of regularity for frequent words, as well as with other studies suggesting that, even in the first year of primary school, some children seem to identify some written words through the lexical access procedure (e. g. Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Kimura & Bryant, 1983.

To account for these apparently contradictory results Share (1995) points to the fact that studies which show that young readers have recourse to the procedure for direct access used lists of only a few high frequency items, whilst studies showing that direct access was used only by the older readers included non-familiar words of low occurrence or pseudo-words. But other studies have shown that only a little exposure is enough for children in the second year to retain specific orthographic information (e.g. Manis, 1985; Reitsma, 1983). From this one could imagine that some high frequency words can be processed by the lexical route from the first stages of learning to read. It seems therefore that the procedure for direct access happens much earlier in development than most of the models of stages describe (see especially Frith,1985). On the other hand, the exploitation of a procedure for direct access in older readers does not seem to exclude the involvement of phonological processing…

c) The relation between procedures used in reading and writing

The idea according to which the development of reading and writing depends on the acquisition of comparable awareness and which initiates similar developmental processes is corroborated by many studies showing high rates of correlation between performance in reading and writing at different times of development (e.g. Juel, 1988; Stage & Wagner, 1992). Foorman and collaborators have also seen the same regularization effects in young readers/writers of the second year primary (Foorman, Jenkins & Francis, 1993; Foorman, Francis, Novy, & Liberman, 1991). The same is true of studies in which sub-groups of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ readers/writers were separated show that the second group show weaker understanding than the first in both reading (grapho-phonological correspondences) and writing (phono-graphemic correspondences) at the same time (e. g. Waters, Bruck & Seidenberg, 1985; Bruck & Waters, 1988; 1990). It should be added that this general tendency is not systematic because some good readers are nevertheless poor writers (e. g. Frith, 1980; Bruck & Waters, 1990). This pattern is not surprising when one considers the characteristics which differentiate the two activities. In fact, reading implies the recognition of what is in front of the eyes and this recognition could be made on the basis of partial clues whilst writing requires the recall of awareness stocked in memory and this knowledge must be detailed to furnish the correct response (e.g. Frith, 1985).

The results of studies aimed at measuring the speed of acquisition of orthographic representations in reading and writing also clearly demonstrate this asymmetry. In Dutch for example, whilst only four exposures seem to be enough for children of second year primary to acquire the orthographic information specific to the stimuli (Reitsma, 1983), at least nine presentations seem to be necessary (amongst children at the end of primary) to bring benefits in writing. (Bosman & De Groot, 1991, 1992). This asymmetry is probably even stronger when the grapho-phonemic correspondences are more predictable than the phono-graphemic, which is the case for example in French. When starting to learn, a Francophone child who knows that the graphemes ‘in’ and ‘ain’ correspond to the phoneme /∑/ will be able to read “matin” [day] and “demain” [tomorrow], but will probably make a mistake in writing the second one (“demin” instead of “demain”). Alegria and Mousty (1996) have in fact shown that Francophone children seem to tackle writing by exploiting a restricted set of rules for common correspondences. These rules are probably acquired in an explicit manner rather than by the experience of reading as in the beginning their use does not seem to be influenced by the statistical properties of the orthographic system nor by the frequency of the words the words implicated. Finally, writing is also rendered more difficult than reading in languages where the supra-segmental structure affects the quality of segmental information, as in English. Treiman, Berch et Weatherston (1993) have shown that in tasks for writing pseudo-words, children in first year of primary made more mistakes (substitutions and omissions) in writing vowels and consonants in non-accented syllables (but including open vowels) than writing the segments making up accented syllables. (See also Kreiner & Gough, 1990, for comparables effects in writing words amongst adults.)

The outcome of all these results is compatible with the following idea in which orthographic representations are first acquired by reading before being transferred to writing. Studies conducted by Cunningham and Stanovich (1990, 1993) also supports this notion more directly. In fact these authors showed that the quantity of reading done by children in first, second and third grades took account of an important amount of variance in orthographic awareness, as measured by writing tasks, and this was shown even when phonological processing was controlled for. The results suggest that exposure to words in reading leads the child effectively to develop orthographic representations which are then used in writing. It is also useful to add that, contrary to the predictions which one should be able to draw from most of the models for stages (e.g. Frith, 1985; Marsh et al., 1981), children are sensitive to orthographic regularities and the correct position of double consonants from the first stages of learning (e.g. Treiman, 1993; Cassar & Treiman, 1997; Pacton & Fayol, 2000; Pacton Perruchet, Fayol & Cleeremans, 2001).

3. Conclusion: the notion of development in stages

The model of stages has sparked off numerous studies, probably owing to the fact that the characterization of successive stages each defined by a single mode of processing lends itself more easily to an experimental approach because it allows the formulation of precise predictions concerning the processing procedures deemed to be exploited at each stage of development (Share & Stanovich, 1995). 

The description of acquisition by stages as envisaged by some authors (see above all Frith, 1985 ; Marsh et al. 1981) does however impose striking limitations on the models (Sprenger-Charolles & Casalis, 1996). It implies in fact that the order of the stage is fixed and identical for all subjects, that no stage can be skipped, and that proceeding to the next stage results form mastery of the previous stage, that performance in the middle of each stage is homogenous, and that progression is characterized by qualitative changes since the method of processing differs radically from one stage to the next.

The results reported in the sections above clearly show that the development of reading and writing cannot be seen solely in these terms. An additional problem about the models of stages resides in its descriptive character: the factors needed by the passage from one stage to another are not generally sufficiently specified to take account of the dynamic nature of development, whilst it is this very aspect which constitutes the aim of a developmental model… the results of several longitudinal studies have allowed the formulation of more precise conjectures about the processes for forming the progressive construction of the orthographic lexicon. 


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