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Gisèle Gelbert

An Alphabet in Your Mind

Damien, 14, is illiterate. He can’t read or write. He is incapable of recognising letters, and he cannot spell words or syllables. He does not know that there is a relation between what is said and what is written: it is not even that there is a poor relation, in his eyes there is no relation.
Zacharie is also illiterate. Among other things, he is sure that the French vowel “é”(pronounced “Eh!” meaning “Hey!”) cannot be written. For him, it is the vowel sound to call someone and so cannot be written down. And at the age of 14, Zacharie still cannot write.
Jérémie, 8, thinks that when the vowel changes, the consonant must change too. For him, the stability of the consonant depends on the vowel’s. Unable to break words down into syllables, he invariably produces meaningless sounds — and cannot read.
For Damien, Zacharie, Jérémie and many others the acquisition of reading and writing skills is an impossible task because they do not possess an alphabet. In this sense, they are illiterate. The alphabet has not found its place in their linguistic development. And because it has not been correctly “installed” in their brains, they are incapable of proceeding from the oral to the written sphere or vice versa.
Based on the case histories of her young patients, Gisèle Gelbert shows that the alphabet may be at the root of aphasiac-type disorders. She also demonstrates, through numerous exercises and examples, how the alphabet can serve as an essential therapeutic tool to treat and cure difficulties in reading and writing.


Gisèle Gelbert is a neurologist specialising in aphasia. She is the author of Lire c’est vivre; Lire c’est aussi écrire and Le Cerveau des illettrés.