Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Minimizing the Problems of Functional Illiteracy

by Gilbert Voyat - 1970

Reading, as a necessary skill to be acquired, is as old as Egyptian history, but even now, a significant portion of the population fails to acquire it. The problem, then, is to understand why.

Because the progress of Western society continues to be measured by its literacy, reading skills retain top priority among educators. When we learn, for instance, that in Portugal today 40 percent of the population is illiterate, we judge the country and the system which allow such a situation to continue backward. Underdeveloped, newly-independent countries all stress the importance of education and reading. Probably no other skill in an educated community is considered more vital.

Problems in reading may not be measured simply by rates of total illiteracy. Today in the United States reading is still a major problem. Children do learn to read, and there is no spectacular rate of illiteracy, but there is a severe problem of "functional illiteracy"—large numbers of Americans lack the skills to deal effectively with written language, and are thereby prevented from participating fully in the society. In our very advanced technological society such a handicap presents a paradox. Reading, as a necessary skill to be acquired, is as old as Egyptian history, but even now, a significant portion of the population fails to acquire it. The problem, then, is to understand why.

The reasons may lie in the teaching and the classroom situation (the practical sphere), the research and theories of development (the theoretical sphere), and perhaps the lack of interaction between the two. As E. Gibson notes:

The psychologists have traditionally pursued the study of verbal learning by means of experiments with nonsense syllables and the like—that is, material carefully divested of useful information. And the educators who found little in this work that seemed relevant to the classroom have stayed with the classroom; when they performed experiments, the method was apt to be a gross comparison of classes privileged and unprivileged with respect to the latest fad. The result has been two cultures: the pure scientists in the laboratory, and the practical teachers ignorant of the progress that has been made in the theory of human learning and its method of studying it.1

Yet before blaming teachers or psychologists or pointing to their lack of communication, it may be useful to ask why such a situation exists.

Usually around the age of four, five, or six, children begin to undergo some type of schooling. While the age may vary, it is a time when they have already learned to talk and have already made substantial acquisitions which probably prepare them for the development of reading. Surprisingly, in developmental psychology most of the experiments deal either with the young infant (before the development of the symbolic function), the period qualified by Piaget as the sensory-motor period, or with children four years of age and older. Relatively few experiments deal with the intermediary period between ages two and four.

There is the practical reason for such a situation: Children are more available in schoolrooms. And there is the theoretical and experimental reason: It is difficult to experiment with children at the beginning of the symbolic function. At this stage there is a problem of reliability of the answers given by a child, and it is difficult to devise situations where the children's actions and their performances are as discriminatively informative as infants' before interiorization takes place. After four years of age, communication with the child is again easy. For instance, when we were conducting experiments on the development of the idea of identity with very young children, we faced consistent difficulty in understanding what the child meant by "the same."2

Different Theories Other reasons for the paucity of research on children from two to four years of age stem from theories about the development from sensory-motor to representative intelligence. In this respect we may contrast two types of theories, although this classification is by no means exhaustive. The first type emphasizes the importance of language as the source of representative intelligence. Language and thought are fundamentally related, that is, language engenders intelligence. In fact, it is language which explains intelligence. Since language possesses its own logic, the logic of language constitutes not only an essential factor in the learning of logic but is, in fact, the source of all logic for the whole of humanity. These views are characteristic of such sociological schools as Durkheim's or the logical posi-tivistic approach. The consequence of such a point of view is that it sees as structurally discontinuous the pathway from sensory-motor to representative intelligence; language, by virtue of its role, implies such a discontinuity.

The second school of thought, of which Jean Piaget is a leading spokesman, allows that language plays an important role in the development of representative intelligence, but views language not as the source of logic but rather as an entity structured by it. Thus the origins of logic have to be found in the general coordination of actions beginning at the sensory-motor level. Theories such as Piaget's emphasize the idea of functional continuity within the development of a child.3

The differences between these views are not merely theoretical or academic. To cope with the problem of reading, it is, in fact, of crucial importance to understand the roots of abstractions. Surprisingly very little has been written about the possible relevance of Piaget's experiments in understanding the development of reading. There is still no real agreement concerning this period at a theoretical level.

Reading as an Abstract Activity Reading is an abstract and representative activity. A word consists of a string of letters and, as such, does not carry any direct relationship with the object it designates. Thus a word is a set of arbitrary signs which are to be made part of the code of the subject. For instance, the word "cat" does not bear any visible or direct relationship with the object that it defines. The word "cat" is an abstraction in itself, and to understand its acquisition by the child, it is useful to consider sensorimotor development. As Piaget states it:

The sensori-motor mechanisms are prerepresentational and behavior based on the evocation of an absent object is not observed until during the second year. When the scheme of the permanent object is in process of being formed, from about nine to twelve months, there is certainly a search for an object that has disappeared; but since it has just been perceived the search is part of an action already under way and a series of clues remains to aid the child to find the object again. Although representation does not yet exist, the baby forms and uses significations since every sensori-motor assimilation (including perceptual assimilations) already implies the attribution of a signification, of a meaning. Significations and, consequently, also a duality between signified (the schemes themselves with their content, that is the action) and "signifiers" are already present. However, these "signifiers" remain perceptual and are not yet differentiated from the "signified." This makes it impossible to talk about semiotic or symbolic function at this level. An undifferentiated signifier is, in fact, as yet neither a "symbol" nor a "sign" (in the sense of verbal signs). It is by definition an "indicator".... An indicator is actually undifferentiated from its signifier in that it constitutes one aspect of it (whiteness for milk), a part (the visible section of a semi-hidden object), a temporal antecedent (the door that opens for the arrival of mama), a causal result (a stain).4


This paragraph offers immediate consequences for us to bear in mind when we consider reading, since reading will be consigned to the realm of abstract signs. One should not confuse the natural development of powers of abstraction with the usual help which is offered to the child in order to develop his reading abilities. Providing a picture of a cat under which the word "cat" is written does not imply that the child will establish the relationship between the signifier (cat) and the signified (the picture of the cat). What we, as teachers or psychologists, would intuitively consider a simple activity (to establish the relationship between a picture and a word) is in fact a very complex process, and the result of a long developmental pathway, which presupposes many acquisitions and many levels of activity.

Indicators We may distinguish three different types of signifiers, which are successively acquired during the development of the child. The first type of signifier, and the most primitive (primitive in a developmental sense), comprises "indicators," or "cues." As Piaget states, an in-dictor is always a part of the object. For instance, when a pack of cigarettes is presented to a baby and then hidden partially, the remaining visible part serves as an indicator of the object. Yet it is not the entire object. Our adult life still contains many situations where we actually use cues. They can be of an auditory nature, the bell of a phone, for instance. It is immediately obvious why cues are the most primitive forms of abstraction; they do not imply any memory of evocation or any symbolic function. They can be achieved essentially through behaviors of recognition, since they are always in the direct grasp of the child.

Symbols The second type of signifier which appears as a tool within the symbolic function is the symbol, which is different from the object it designates and yet has some relationship to it. We may differentiate by function symbols which have a conventional or social meaning and symbols which have a meaning only for the individual. In fact, since symbols are motivated by the object, they may be created by the child himself and for his use alone. For instance, road signs are symbols whose meanings are conventional. The first symbols of the child's play are individual creations. Yet all symbols bear a nonarbitrary relationship with the objects they designate. This distinction is important; symbols can be socially shared, or they can be the result of the child's own creativity. Thus the symbol presents an intermediary situation in two respects. First, its individual or social meaning places it half in the realm of convention and half in the realm of the child's individual activity. Second, since the symbol bears a resemblance to the things signified, it situates itself in the middle of the process of abstraction. It is neither an indicator nor a cue, since it is not a part of an object, and it is not a sign. The importance of the acquisition of symbols in the development of reading can by no means be underestimated. Thus symbolic play, which is one of the main activities of a four-year-old child, is of utmost importance for later development of reading.

If the importance of imitation has been recognized by most psychologists as a vital factor in the development of abstractions, symbolic play, likewise, occupies a complementary and indispensable place. Imitation implies an accommodation to external models. Symbolic play does not refer to an adaptation to reality, but on the contrary, to an assimilation of reality to the self. Imitation and symbolic play are the necessary complements of a well-balanced development of the symbolic function, and consequently, of abstractions.

The importance of symbolic play has also been recognized by many theorists. Among the principal investigators, K. Groos was the first to discover that the play of children and animals had an essential, functional value and was not simply a diversion.5 Piaget has been very influential in stressing the importance of those two poles of activity of the child, imitation and symbolic play.8

Signs The third type of signifier comprises signs, which are conventional, and therefore, necessarily collective. They do not resemble the object they designate and are essentially arbitrary. For instance, the word "cat" does not carry any direct relationship with the object it designates. On the contrary, this set of letters is of an extremely abstract nature. Its mastery implies some prerequisites, such as the mastery of cues as well as symbols. It is therefore quite natural that the child has difficulty in developing his reading abilities; he is asked to understand a code of a very abstract nature that he acquires through the intermediary of imitation, a result of external models. In fact, one can deduce that the acquisition of reading is strongly related to an harmonious development of the symbolic function itself.

Yet the symbolic function does not consist in the development of language alone. There are at least five behavior patterns which appear almost simultaneously and which are integral parts of the symbolic function. In order of increasing difficulty we may distinguish: 1) deferred imitation, imitation which starts after the disappearance of the model, 2) symbolic play, 3) verbal evocation, 4) drawing, and 5) mental image.

The importance of drawing has been recognized, too. G. H. Luquet, in his well-known study on children's drawings, has proposed stages and interpretations which are still valid today. The main point is that drawing, like the other properties of the symbolic function, serves an essential purpose in the development of abstractions.7 In fact, drawing is halfway between symbolic play and mental imagery. Like symbolic play, it implies an assimilation of reality to the self, and like the mental image, it is an effort to imitate the real. Since this symbolic activity is the result of the activity of the child himself, and since less coercion can be exercised in his performances, it is of utmost importance for the child to have the opportunity to draw on his own. Again, this activity is not simply a diversion, but an important tool for the understanding and the development of further abstractions.

Likewise, mental imagery is of fundamental importance. The mental image is a symbol, too, in the sense that, although schematized, it bears a more or less adequate relationship to the objects it symbolizes. As Piaget has recently shown, mental images appear at the symbolic level because they are the result of an internalized imitation and do not derive directly from perception alone.8

The point, then, is that reading is a complex activity which requires the successive development of several identifiable skills. To determine them one has to return to what is known as development. Thus the roots of abstraction, which are part of what reading is about, have to be found in the general coordination of actions within the sensorimotor period, and in the development of imitation and the symbolic function in general.

If our contention is true, then all aspects of development are crucial—deferred imitation, symbolic play, drawing, and mental imagery—since all are interrelated. Reading cannot be considered in isolation or in relation to only a few developmental factors. The child develops as a whole organism; it is necessary to consider all aspects of his development. Reading does not consist of simple associations between an image and a word, or in the recognition of simple letters by the child.

The pedagogical implications are then obvious. The classroom should provide opportunities to develop all aspects of the symbolic function rather than one in particular. Schools tend to limit themselves to associative materials, and can therefore respond only very narrowly to the complex development of the child.

Process of Decoding a Word Thus far, we have addressed ourselves to the problem of understanding the place of reading within the overall development of the child. We have stressed the importance of reading from a functional point of view and the understanding of words, sentences, and meanings as inherent parts of the act of reading. Yet to decode words and sentences, we must also understand what conditions are necessary. Our task is now somewhat more restricted and more specific. We wish to know the operations underlying reading skills.

Numerous tests have been devised concerning reading abilities and reading readiness. But these tests do not identify the mechanisms essential to reading. As A. Anastasi notes: "Diagnostic tests in reading vary widely in the thoroughness of analysis they permit, and in the specific procedures followed. They range from group tests yielding two to three subtest scores which serve little more than a survey function, to intensive clinical programs for individual case studies. Some provide detailed checklists of specific types of errors. The individual batteries frequently employ apparatus such as tach-istoscopes for controlling rate of exposure of printed material, and techniques for photographing the individual's eye movements while he reads."9 While not in themselves measures of intelligence, reading-readiness tests correlate quite highly with IQ scores. In this respect E. Milner's study on the relationship between reading readiness and patterns of parent-child interactions, where this correlation is shown to be effectively very high, is particularly appropriate.10 A typical example of a test of reading readiness is the Reading Aptitude Tests (primary form) designed by M. Munroe.11 The Reading Aptitude Test includes visual tests designed to measure orientation to form, oculomotor control, and visual memory; auditory tests to measure pronunciation, discrimination of sounds, and auditory memory; language tests; articulation tests; and tests of motor skills which include both speed and steadiness. Another, the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test, is an example of a group test used for the elementary school. This test also separates scores in reading comprehension, vocabulary, and several word recognition skills, including blending, syllabication, and sound discrimination.

Logic of Reading Tests We may distinguish several difficulties involved in such tests. The first, though not the essential, problem deals with the materials used, which present inadequate reliability coupled with high intercorrelations of the subtests from which separate scores are derived. Other problems are derived from the superficial level of understanding required by the reading comprehension subtests. Furthermore, in any one reading test the response set established by the directions may differ widely from one person to another.

Yet there are more obvious difficulties concerned with the logic of constructing reading tests. What do they measure? Essentially they measure capacities already more or less achieved, without actually giving any hints at how such abilities are constructed. In short, they provide a result, an outcome, rather than a process.

It is quite true that a child who presents difficulties in visual discrimination will have difficulties in reading. It is true that a child who has problems in auditory discrimination will likewise have trouble in reading, and it is equally true that we will understand neither the nature of his problems nor their potential solutions until we focus on the underlying mechanisms present in decoding a word or a letter. To comprehend these mechanisms can be a great help not only to understanding reading difficulties, but also to understanding the normal development of reading, and how to learn reading. In stressing this point we do not intend to imply new fads in the teaching of reading. Teaching fads have already been too much a part of school curricula. As E. Gibson notes: "The fashions which have led to classroom experiments such as the 'whole word' method, emphasis on context and pictures for 'meaning,' the 'flash' method, 'speed reading,' revised alphabets, the 'return to phonics,' and so on, have done little to change the situation."12 What we intend is not a new fashion, but an understanding of the normal development of the child and what in that development is relevant to reading. We will, at once, achieve three purposes. First, it will be possible to respect the child's own development and to know when to introduce certain concepts at a time when he is ready. Second, knowledge of the mechanisms underlying reading will be of great help in understanding the sequence in which new concepts should be introduced. Finally, such an understanding could provide new pedagogical means which could be useful for promoting the acquisition of reading.

As we have previously shown, the reading process is only part of the cognitive development. Within the reading process we may distinguish three different yet related phases: the differentiation of graphic symbols, the decoding of letters into sounds, and the use of progressively higher-ordered units of structures. We borrow this classification from Gibson, who notes that the differentiation of written characters from one another is logically a preliminary stage to decoding them into speech. The problem here is to discriminate and recognize a set of line figures, all very similar in a number of ways (i.e., all are tracings on paper), but each differing from all the others in one or more features as straight versus curved.

Experiments In one of her experiments, E. Gibson, working with children from age four to eight, investigated whether learning was necessary to discriminate figures.13 She designed an experiment involving several degrees of transformation for each group of standard letter-like forms comparable to printed Roman capitals. She included transformations from line to curve, transformations of rotation or reversal, and transformations of perspective and topology. The results were as expected: Visual discrimination of these letter-like forms improved with age. Furthermore, she found that the slopes of error curves were different depending on the transformations to be discriminated. As she notes: "Some transformations are harder to discriminate than others and improvements occur at different rates for different transformations."14

For our purposes it is of utmost importance to stress which transformations are involved. The young children made relatively few errors involving changes of broken or closed lines, and these types of errors were nil in eight-year-olds. Errors of perspective were very numerous at four years of age and still present at age eight. Errors of rotation or reversal were very numerous at four but almost absent at eight.

This experiment was replicated using the same types of transformations for real letters, and the correlation was found to be very high. Thus the effect of a given transformation is general and does not seem specific to a given letter form. As we will later see, Gibson's findings are of utmost importance for the problem at hand. Yet before proceeding to the implications that we may draw from those findings, we should consider another set of experiments, equally important, dealing with the detection of distinctive features.

Distinctive Features Two types of hypotheses concerning the development of the ability to discriminate distinctive features can be distinguished. The first assumes that the child builds a kind of model for each letter through repeated exposure to visual presentations of the letter. The second hypothesis proposes that the child learns by discovering how forms differ and then transfers his knowledge to new letter-like figures. The results of experiments dealing with discrimination18 show that, while children probably do learn prototypes of letter shapes, the prototypes are not the original basis for differentiation.

Important conclusions about the process of decoding a letter and a word can be drawn from the findings of these two experiments primarily because the results reveal a striking parallel to Piaget's findings concerning the development of space.16 Piaget in his experiments established that the first spatial intuitions are topological rather than projective, or euclidean. To age four, children generally draw squares, rectangles, or euclidean figures as closed curves without straight lines or angles. Crosses or 'arcs, on the other hand, are all represented by open curves. Yet at this same age children are quite able to reproduce correctly topological relations; they can copy correctly a closed figure with a circle inside. In the stage described by Luquet17 as "intellectual realism," where the child draws all that he knows about an object rather than all that he sees, we do not observe any awareness of perspective or metrical relationships, such as proximity, separation, enclosure, and so on. These topological intuitions are followed by the acquisition of projective intuitions and euclidean metric geometry.

Piaget's experiments were repeated by M. Laurendeau and A. Pinard,18 since some authors maintained that the distinction between rectilinear and curvilinear figures was just as primitive as the distinction between "inside" and "outside," etc. Laurendeau and Pinard's findings revealed that sometimes children did seem to distinguish curvilinear from rectilinear figures, but in every instance they were actually using topological relationships. In fact, this replication confirmed the primitivity of topological relationships and the succession described by Piaget: topological, projective, and euclidean. We ourselves repeated the experiments dealing with the development of spatial relations within a different cultural setting, that of the Sioux Indians,19 and found the same sequence.

If we consider these findings within the framework of reading, we find remarkable unity between those of E. Gibson and those of Piaget. The act of discriminating letters implies the mastery of spatial transformations, which in turn implies a deep relationship between reading and the development of spatial relations. To decode a letter, hence a word, is not a simple process of associations. Certain transformations are implied and we must understand how they occur developmentally. Gibson's findings not only confirm Piaget's experiments in space, but also identify sub-operations, the mastery of which is important for the process of reading.

Implications for Reading At this point our problem is twofold. First, in order to cope adequately with the mechanism underlying reading activities, we should try to understand the nature of the perception of spatial relationship, the origins as well as the development. Second, we should describe which type of hierarchical organization, hence which concepts to teach successively, can be found in such a development. This distinction is less academic than it appears at first glance.

The first aspect, spatial relationships, deals fundamentally with the problem of the relation among mental image, perception, and cognitive operations. Here we may distinguish basically two points of view: one would imply that knowledge consists essentially in copying reality, the other would conceive knowledge as constructing systems of transformations which become progressively adequate.

If knowledge is a copy of reality, then the teaching of reading can proceed through imposing a set of simple associations between a word and a picture. The main activity of the child will consist in correctly relating by some passive means, the picture, the symbol, and the word. According to such a viewpoint, the act of reading would require that vision, audition, and the general ability to discriminate be adequate in a way that concepts can be poured into the child as if he were a passive receptor. Tests of reading readiness tend, in fact, to imply such a conception. They tend to verify the accuracy of the receptors rather than the ability to think in operative terms. As Piaget notes:

... in order to make a copy we have to know the model we are copying, but according to this theory of knowledge the only way to know the model is by copying it until we are caught in a circle incapable of ever knowing whether our copy of the model is like the model or not.20

There are further difficulties in such a point of view, the simplicity of which is seductive only at first glance. If, in fact, to know means to copy, then knowledge is perceptual and passive. Teaching will then follow the logical assumptions that the main emphasis should be on adequate procedures and materials which will enhance associations and passive learning. Consequently, the role of the child will be reduced to an auditor or a "happy" receptor rather than actor, actively involved in the process of his own development.

The second point of view, which conceives knowledge as the construction of a system of transformations, bears interesting implications for the teaching of reading. What is found in developmental psychology tends to corroborate this second perspective. We have tried to demonstrate it from two approaches. The first concerns the origin of abstractions. Abstractions do not stem from passive associations dealing with the logic of learning alone. On the contrary, we find their source in the primitive coordinations of the sensory-motor actions which are the result of the child's own activity. Thus if abstractions find their source in action, then teaching how to read should take-into account such a reality and should promote the child's own creativity rather than impose structures that the child must analyze to understand at all.

The second factual approach tends to show that reading is not a simple perceptual act. To decode a letter involves an understanding of a set of spatial transformations which are successively developed by the child and whose sequence bears important implications in any teaching procedure. The task, therefore, is to promote programs of reading which not only address themselves specifically to reading alone but which take into account this overall development of spatial representations and thinking. Given our knowledge, we may deduce that most of the failures of remedial reading programs are the result of a narrow perspective in regard to this activity.

There is also a circularity of thinking in remedial reading programs which emphasize the perception and the decoding of words alone. It goes as follows: Given a child who has trouble reading, one presents him with situations which make his program worse rather than better, since one continues showing him letters, symbols, and pictures when these areas are precisely where his difficulties lie! If we understand the relationship between reading, spatial transformations, and thinking in general, then the goal becomes to enhance what makes reading possible; in short, the necessary conditions and operations which have to be achieved first to facilitate reading. This perspective is more general and it enhances the child's own activity. The payoff should be better, not because this constitutes a new fashion, but because it respects the patterns of cognitive development. As an example to stress our point, H. Furth, in a newly-written book, proposes a "school for thinking" in which he emphasizes this idea of the child's own discoveries even in, and especially in, symbolic thinking. He writes:

When teachers are faced with the inappropriate use of words, their immediate reaction is to remedy this situation by trying to teach the specific concept... teaching a concept betrays a static view, as if a concept were an isolated bit of information. The children undoubtedly knew the usual meaning of the words "house" and "buildings," but they were not readily able to apply the appropriate meanings within a verbal context. There was a dearth not of words or information but of thinking. Having the children write sentences that use the word "house" in the two meanings of building and home would not change the thinking structure.21

The problem is to develop and enhance structures of thinking, not specific concepts or abilities. The same holds for reading, where we found that when teachers are faced with the inappropriate discrimination of symbols, their immediate reaction is to remedy this situation by trying to teach the specific concepts which, in the case of reading, consist of constructing reading programs which will make the difficulties more specific than they already are.

The Problems of Functional Illiterates Functional illiterates are numerous in the United States. They are for all practical purposes illiterate; although they have undergone some kind of schooling, they have, even as adults, severe difficulties in reading. This situation is not unfortunate. It is scandalous. When an advanced country allows school systems and educational procedures to be so unsuccessful that some people are unable to read newspapers, which usually correspond to an eighth-grade level (which is precisely the level that those individuals do not master), then one can begin to doubt the meaning of democracy and freedom. Not to provide adequate schooling for the greatest number is in reality denying basic freedoms. Our purpose, however, is not polemical. Functional illiterates can hardly function as full and active members of a society. The questions we would raise here consist in understanding the nature of functional illiteracy, the problems it reflects, and the possible remedial approach that could be taken,

To understand the nature of functional illiteracy, one should distinguish among three possible categories. The first category consists of children who present a general deficit in their cognitive development which will reflect itself in various intellectual activities. In particular, they will have difficulties in abstract and operational thinking. If this is true, they will encounter difficulties in many realms of knowledge, reading included. The first goal should be then to determine whether or not a teacher faces a real mental retardation. This distinction is not easy. B. Inhelder, the leading collaborator of Piaget, published a book which contains precious indications for conducting such a discrimination.22 IQ tests are very misleading, again because they describe an outcome rather than a process. In this differentiation we are essentially interested in understanding what potentialities the child has. Mainly, the presence or the absence of conservation is informative. The idea of conservation, which Piaget has extensively studied, is, in fact, fundamental for the development of intelligence. It consists in understanding that during a transformation (for instance a clay ball into a sausage as compared to a re-ferent clay ball which has remained identical) certain properties of the object remain constant. In fact, when Piaget distinguishes the two aspects of thinking, the figurative one, which deals with the imitation of states taken as momentary and static, and the operative one, which deals with the transformations from one state to another, he states the importance of the concepts of conservation as well as reversibility. The idea of reversibility consists in understanding that an action can be performed in two senses, that doing it backwards (returning to the initial clay ball in the former example) means a return and an identical operation. The point is that the operative aspect of thinking dominates the figurative one, since the abstract understanding of given states implies that one can relate them, and to do so, one needs conservation as well as reversibility. The operative sphere contains the cognitive operations which are in this sense essentially systems of transformations, whereas the figurative sphere includes such figurative functions as perception, mental imagery, and imitation.

If this relationship of subordination of the figurative aspect of thought to the operative one is correct, then the problem of distinguishing between pseudo functional illiterate and truly mentally retarded children is of crucial importance. If the dominant and essential sphere of cognitive functioning is affected, which will be reflected in a lack of reversibility and conservation at the time when such concepts are usually established, then remedial work should begin to enhance the development of the operative sphere and progress later to specific concepts such as reading. But the accent should be put on an overall operative education rather than particular concepts, since these children lack the essential features for the development of abstract thinking. If the teacher faces a pseudo-mental retardation, he will usually find that these children possess and master some types of conservations, some types of reversibility, and are essentially heterogeneous in their performances. The prognosis in this last case is better than in the first one, since this last group includes mental phenomena which appear as mental retardation at a first glance only.

The second category of functional illiterates comprises children with specific difficulties in spatial organization, without impairment of their overall intellectual operations. In a realm such as reading these children will, for instance, demonstrate inversion or dyslexic problems. Yet in this case, too, it is important to understand which part of their cognitive function is affected. Usually such children will show strong heterogeneity between the mastery of operations dealing specifically with space and operations dealing with elementary logic such as classifications and seriation.

In this respect it is interesting once again to consider the results of E. Gibson, who found that topological transformations were mastered easier and earlier than perspective and reversal transformations. Reversibility is usually acquired around age eight, but children with spatial configurational difficulties, Gibson found, still commit errors in this area at a time when their other problems have disappeared. We can deduce, therefore, that reversibility, which is present in operative thinking as well as in the discrimination of letters in terms of reversals, plays a fundamental role in the development of reading. Thus to enhance the overall cognitive development in spatial and operational thinking certainly will help the development of reading skills, especially for those children who present specific difficulties in the realm of spatial organization.

The third group of functional illiterates contains children who present problems with the symbolic function in terms of mental imagery, imitations, and so on. These children naturally have difficulties in reading, but these problems are associated with an overall difficulty in the symbolic function. Such a situation should be carefully investigated. The problem then becomes to distinguish whether these children have the main difficulty in accommodation or in assimilation. If the accommodative sphere is affected, then symbolic play should be enhanced; if the assimilative sphere is the trouble, then imitations should be enhanced.

We do not pretend to have exhausted all possible cases. Yet a careful investigation into the reasoning potential rather than the simple outcome of thinking could be of great help in minimizing the problems of functional illiteracy.

Conclusions Reading is not an easy task either for the teacher or for the child. As we have seen, it is a highly abstract and complicated process which takes time to be achieved. We have tried to relate reading to overall cognitive development because of our belief that neither in the world nor in the child are things isolated from each other. One can speak only with difficulty of reading as a specific concept. Undoubtedly, reading as an activity is specific and requires specific methods of teaching, but it is equally true that reading encompasses much more than the simple decoding of letters, words, and so on. It is an expression of an overall intellectual activity. The child does not develop concepts or ideas in isolation. He is constantly a whole organism, and our theoretical distinctions are useful only to the extent that they lead us to a better understanding of the processes and the mechanisms involved.

We have not talked about emotions and affects. Certainly they play a role in the acquisition of reading to the same extent that the lack of love from a mother can inhibit the development of intelligence. Such realities as the relationship between the teacher and the child, the quality of their interaction, the nature of their exchange also play a fundamental role in the acquisition of reading, or for that matter, the acquisition of any concept. Yet we wanted to limit ourselves to the realm of what could be deduced from our experimental and theoretical knowledge in relationship to reading.

No machine will replace a useful interaction between the child and his teacher. No machine will induce the child's own creative activity as much as parents, teachers, peers, or friends. As Frank Jennings notes:

From the time that the lifelines of social culture were lengthened through the use of written symbols, deliberate education employed the social shortcuts of secondhand experience by the printed word rather than in the participated act; younger generations were forced to commit to memory those literary aspects of their heritage without always knowing what they were all about. This watered-down remembrance of things past is weak stuff, said Pestalozzi (1745-1827). (If a third person knows something and then puts his words in my mouth, which he has used to make his ideas known to others equally well educated, it does not follow that I understand anything at all of what he is writing about.) Some teachers and many writers of children's books forget that injunction every time they face a child.23

Today there is even less reason to promote such neglect. Our knowledge has become better. People such as Piaget and others have really begun to observe children, not in an adultomorphical sense but according to their own world. We have gained from these observations. We have learned essentially that the child is not an adult in reduction. But what we tend to neglect is that pedagogical methods should and could be devised accordingly.

Our conservatism in teaching is rooted in our own egocentrism. Since we have been taught in a certain way (and it worked), why should we change? This attitude implies the self-perpetuating teaching method characterized by the Calvinistic sense of having-to-suffer-to-learn-well. Reading is a creative activity and as such should be promoted.


1 E. Gibson, "Learning to Read," in Contemporary Issues in Developmental Psychology. Norman S. Endler, Lawrence S. Boutler, Harry Osser, eds. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1968.

2 J. Piaget et Gilbert Voyat. "Recherche sur 1'identite, in Epistemologie et Psychologic de 1'identite," Chapter I. Etudes d'Epistemologie Getietique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968.

3 Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder. The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books, 1969. Or Jean Piaget. The Language and Thought of the Child. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1926.

4 Piaget, of. cit.

5 Karl Groos. The Play of Animals. Translated by Elizabeth L. Baldwin. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898.

6 J. Piaget. Play Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: The Norton Library, 1962.

7 G. H. Luquet. Le Dessin Enfantin. Paris: Alcan, 1927.

8 Jean Piaget et Barbel Inhelder. L'image Mentale chez I'Enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1966.

9 A. Anastasi. Psychological Testing, 3rd ed. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

10 Esther Milner, "A Study of the Relationship Between Reading Readiness in Grade One School Children and Patterns of Parent-Child Interaction," Child Development, 1951, Vol. 22, pp. 95-112.

11 M. Munroe. Reading Aptitude Tests, primary form. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.

12 E. Gibson, op. cit.

13 E. Gibson, J. Gibson, A. D. Picks, and H. Osser, Journal of Comparative Physiology and Psychology, Vol. 55, 1962, pp. 897-906.

14 E. Gibson, op. cit.

15 E. Gibson, op. tit.

16 J. Piaget and B. Inhelder. The Child's Concept of Space. London: Rutledge and Paul, 1956.

17 G. H. Luquet, op. cit.

18 A. Pinard et M. Laurendeau. "Le caractere topologique des premieres representations spa-tiales de 1'enfant: examen des hypotheses de Piaget," Intern. J. Psychology, 1966, Vol. 1, pp. 243-245.

19 Gilbert Voyat. The Forgotten People: Study of the Cognitive Development of Sioux Indians. In Press.

20 J. Piaget. Genetic Epistemology. Woodbridge Lectures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

21 H. Furth. Piaget for Teachers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1970.

22 B. Inhelder. Le Diagnostic du Raisonnemem chez les Debiles Mentaux. Neuchatel, Paris: Delachaux et Nestle, 1943.

23 Frank Jennings. This is Reading. New York: Delta Book, 1965.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 72 Number 2, 1970, p. 171-186
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1663, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 2:50:45 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Gilbert Voyat
    Yeshiva University
    Gilbert Voyat teaches psychology at Yeshiva University. He did his doctoral studies with Jean Piaget in 1964 and is currently at work on a book dealing with the cognitive development of the Sioux Indians.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue