Learning to read: what challenges does this represent for primary school pupils?


Entry into primary school coincides with the discovery of fundamental knowledge which will structure the lives and personalities of students. Reading involves going through a relatively long learning process, over several years, and more or less difficult depending on the students, which represents a growing challenge in a society characterized by an accelerating movement .

Learning to read can be thought of as a two-stage rocket. The first involves learning to decode, that is to say, to recognize each of the words. The second floor allows children to understand what sets of words mean in the form of sentences and texts.

This dichotomy between decoding and comprehension is not arbitrary, it is based on the “simple model of reading” proposed in the 1980s by researchers Gough and Tunmer .

Let’s describe what these two stages involve from a cognitive point of view and look at some activities to facilitate their progress or acquisition.

Decoding, or learning to recognize words

A crucial step in learning to read consists not only of learning to know and then visually recognizing each letter of the alphabet as having its own identity but above all of associating its shape with its own sound. This latter process is called “grapheme (written form)/phoneme (sound form) conversion”.

Parallel learning to write in handwritten form will allow children to create a stronger, more durable and more easily movable representation of these letters. In addition to writing, there is the possibility of manipulating letters in the form of real objects distinguished by their color, texture or weight, which will enrich the child’s representation.

Since the link between the written form of letters and the corresponding sound is arbitrary in nature, grapheme/phoneme conversion involves complex learning. From a cerebral point of view, it is notably accompanied by the development of part of a bundle of white matter fibers (a sort of cerebral highway) connecting an occipito-temporal area involved in the processing of the visual form of letters to a more dorsal area involved in sound processing.

The grapheme/phoneme conversion process will rely on the ability to associate visual representations of letters with sound representations. It is for this reason that, in a seemingly paradoxical way, the ability to discriminate and manipulate the sounds of language , what we call “phonological awareness”, will play an important role in learning to read, an activity appearing at first glance to be exclusively visual.

There are different ways to train this phonological awareness, starting in kindergarten. For example, we can use nursery rhymes with rhymes, assonance or alliteration, do exercises involving manipulating the sounds of words (recognizing the first sound of a word, recognizing a sound common to several words, etc.) .

It is also possible to use images on which an animal or an object whose name begins with the sound of the letter is represented (for example a snake for the letter S ) . The ability to touch letters with a certain relief will also make it easier to learn grapheme/phoneme conversion .

It will then be a matter of learning to convert increasingly large groups of letters into corresponding sounds (“OR” in [u] for example) to ultimately succeed in decoding entire words. This so-called “graphophonological” route (or “indirect” because it involves a conversion of visual information into phonological information) will make it possible in particular to decode regular words, for example sink .

Another path, called “orthographic” (or “direct”), will develop in parallel and will make it possible to recognize words based on their spelling. It will be particularly useful for identifying irregular words such as the word woman .

Understand or activate mental representations

Once decoding skills are sufficiently developed and automated, the student will be able to start reading sentences and texts of increasing complexity. According to the cognitive model of Construction-Integration proposed by Walter Kintsch and which is authoritative in relation to the study of comprehension, children will learn to activate, during the reading of sentences and texts, two forms of mental representation: the basic of text and the situation model .

The text base includes:

  • the so-called “surface” elements, that is to say the individual words (each word has a written form corresponding to a combination of letters and one or more meanings) and the way in which these words are ordered in each sentence according to a particular syntax;
  • and propositions that can be defined as being the association between a predicate (verb, adjective or adverb) and one or more arguments (in general, a noun or a noun); for example, the sentence “The fox looks at the hen” contains a proposition that associates the predicate verb “looks” with the arguments “fox” and “hen”.

The second form of mental representation, the situation model , will gradually emerge during reading from the continuous interaction between the information in the text and the students’ own knowledge and memories. This will involve learning to mobilize relevant knowledge and memories during reading to represent in a personal and subjective way what is described in a text (a character, a landscape, etc.).

And that’s not all. Students will have the opportunity to make inferences while reading a text, that is to say, to activate information which is not expressed explicitly but whose production will strongly contribute to the establishment, maintenance or the restoration of the coherence of the mental representation of the text read.

For example, simply reading the sentence “He hates this singer and he bought a ticket for her concert” requires making an inference to restore consistency: the character can in fact buy a ticket for this concert because it would be a gift for a friend who loves this singer, even if he doesn’t like her himself.

In other words, reading a text involves activating a representation comprising different kinds of information (propositions, knowledge, memories) more or less well connected to each other. There will be an effective understanding of this text only if there is coherence, that is to say if the relevant information is connected together within the activated network.

Good reading comprehension ability is thus based on the ability to decode individual words well, to activate relevant propositions, knowledge and memories and to make good inferences when necessary.

In a study published in 2011 , Jarrod Moss and his colleagues showed that learning the combined use of five cognitive strategies in addition to a general self-explanation strategy allowed students to better understand documentary texts than ‘They were reading. These five strategies were:

  • Checking your understanding  : assessing your own understanding while reading
  • Paraphrase  : reformulate the text in your own words to activate relevant semantic knowledge
  • Elaboration  : making elaborative or associative inferences to facilitate understanding of the text using one’s own knowledge
  • Reconciliation  : creating links between sentences to facilitate understanding of texts
  • Prediction  : making predictive inferences at the end of a sentence or paragraph about information that might appear later in the text

Obviously, it is not desirable for students to learn to use so many strategies in a combined way right away, but rather to take the time so that they can learn to use some of them (the most relevant) one after the other. other before you start considering combining them.

But you don’t have to wait until you know how to decode words before you can start applying them. Indeed, children can be made aware of it from kindergarten through stories that will be read to them by teachers or, earlier, during shared reading sessions with parents.

Author Bio: Frédéric Bernard is a Lecturer in neuropsychology at the University of Strasbourg