Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16: 99–122, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The role of output speech in literacy acquisition: Evidence from
Istituto di Fisiologia Umana, University of Parma, Italy
Abstract. A case study of literacy acquisition in a congenitally speechless child (SM)
is reported. In spite of a complete oral apraxia (due to bilateral focal brain damage), SM
developed normal intelligence and acquired complete mastery of reading and writing skills.
Furthermore, both his verbal memory and metaphonological skills were surprisingly pre-
served. However, he showed a relative impairment in writing non-words. The implications of
these ﬁndings for the developmental interactions between language and literacy are discussed.
Key words: Brain and reading, Congenital anarthria, Operculum syndrome, Reading and
Writing systems convey language in visible form by mapping sublexical
components into arbitrary (visual) tokens. The size and the combinatorial
space of these linguistic units varies across languages and this diversity is
reﬂected in their related orthographies (Klima, 1972; Harris & Hatano, 1999;
Leong & Joshi, 1997). Yet in spite of differences in the sublexical compo-
nents to be mapped (phonemes, syllables, morphemes or a combination
thereof) and in the nature of the relevant graphic symbols, all writing systems
seem to share a common computational mechanism. To quote De Francis’
phrase, writing systems display a “diverse oneness” (DeFrancis, 1989) and,
indeed, they all generate visible speech by means of computations upon the
representations of spoken language.
These features allow reading to be qualiﬁed as a “language-based skill”
(Mattingly, 1972) and bear straightforward implications for the acquisition of
literacy. Accordingly, most current research on reading disorders has focused
on the role of language and, particularly, on the skills required for performing
further computations upon phonological representations (for a review, see
Within this framework, the role of phonemic awareness has attained a
prominent position since conscious access to the phonology of the word is
regarded as a requirement for the acquisition of reading (Gombert, 1992).