Scene text recognition is a challenging task due to diverse variations of text instances in natural scene images. Conventional methods based on CNN-RNN-CTC or encoder-decoder with attention mechanism may not fully investigate stable and efficient feature representations for multi-oriented scene texts. In this paper, we propose a primitive representation learning method that aims to exploit intrinsic representations of scene text images. We model elements in feature maps as the nodes of an undirected graph. A pooling aggregator and a weighted aggregator are proposed to learn primitive representations, which are transformed into high-level visual text representations by graph convolutional networks. A Primitive REpresentation learning Network (PREN) is constructed to use the visual text representations for parallel decoding. Furthermore, by integrating visual text representations into an encoder-decoder model with the 2D attention mechanism, we propose a framework called PREN2D to alleviate the misalignment problem in attention-based methods. Experimental results on both English and Chinese scene text recognition tasks demonstrate that PREN keeps a balance between accuracy and efficiency, while PREN2D achieves state-of-the-art performance.