PhotoEven before the age of three, children have reached many milestones: the ability to take turns, play make believe, and even kick a ball. Their budding desire for independence sets the stage for many accomplishments — among them, research suggests, is the ability to understand how reading works.

According to one study, children as young as three years old are already beginning to understand how a written word differs from a drawing. This nuance could provide an important early indicator for children who may need extra help with reading lessons.

“Our results show that children have some knowledge about the fundamental properties of writing from a surprisingly early age,” said study co-author Rebecca Treiman, PhD, the Burke & Elizabeth High Baker Professor of Child Developmental Psychology in Arts & Sciences.

“Dog” vs. drawing

Children were tested to see how well they understood that a written word, such as dog, has one specific pronunciation ("dog") as compared to a simple drawing of a dog, which could be correctly labeled as the image of a dog, a puppy, or even a pet named Spot.

Researchers read the written word “dog” to the children. Later, when a puppet employed in the experiment read the word “dog” as “puppy,” many children picked up on the mistake. In a similar task with drawings, children were more likely to say that the puppet was correct in using the alternative label.

The different results in the writing and drawing conditions indicate that even young pre-readers have some understanding that a written word stands for one specific linguistic unit in a way that a drawing does not.

Reading before kindergarten?

Reading and writing instruction usually begins when children turn five, but these findings suggest that children as young as age three may be tested to see how well their understanding of basic concepts is progressing.

“Our finding that preschool-age children who cannot yet read have some understanding that written words represent specific words in a way that drawings do not indicates that young children’s knowledge about the inner structure of writing — how it functions as a symbol — is more sophisticated than previously thought,” said study co-author Lori Markson, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences.

Contradicts theories

Given that some literacy development theories have suggested that pre-readers treat written words as direct meanings (the way pictures do), the results of this study are surprising.

More recent research, however, shows that parents often speak differently about pictures than they do about letters and words, helping even very small children begin to understand the writing something is in many ways similar to saying it.

“Such experiences may help children to learn, even before they can read, that writing conveys meaning in a different way than drawing does,” Markson said.

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