Kids grasp words as symbols before learning to read

Many preschoolers accept synonyms for pictures but not for written labels, study finds

child reading

WRITE STUFF  Between ages 3 and 5, kids who cannot yet read nonetheless start to recognize that printed words have specific meanings, a new study finds.


Preschoolers read a lot into writing before they know how to read.

Youngsters befuddled by printed squiggles on the pages of a storybook nonetheless understand that a written word, unlike a drawing, stands for a specific spoken word, say psychologist Rebecca Treiman of Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues. Children as young as 3 can be tested for a budding understanding of writing’s symbolic meaning, the researchers conclude January 6 in Child Development.

“Our results show that young children have surprisingly advanced knowledge about the fundamental properties of writing,” Treiman says. “This knowledge isn’t explicitly taught to children but probably gained through early exposure to print from sources such as books and computers.”

Researchers and theorists have previously proposed that children who cannot yet read don’t realize that a written word corresponds to a particular spoken word. Studies have found, for instance, that nonliterate 3- to 5-year-olds often assign different meanings to the same word, such as girl, depending on whether that word appears under a picture of a girl or a cup.

Treiman’s investigation “is the first to show that kids as young as 3 have the insight that print stands for something beyond what’s scripted on the page,” says psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University in Philadelphia.

Preschoolers who are regularly read to have an advantage in learning that written words have specific meanings, suspects psychologist Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware in Newark.

Treiman’s group conducted two similar experiments with a total of 114 children, ages 3 to 5. Most kids came from white, middle-class families. Participants had not received any formal instruction in reading or writing.

In a series of 12 trials, some children saw a word for an animal or object, such as puppy, and were read the word by an experimenter. Other kids saw drawings of the same animal or object that was then described by an experimenter.

After presenting a word or picture, the experimenter took a Curious George puppet out of a small, cardboard house. Children had been told that Curious George would chime in on what words said and what drawings depicted. Curious George sometimes agreed with the experimenter, saying, for instance, that the printed word puppy was indeed puppy. On other occasions, Curious George labeled a word or drawing with a related word, such as dog in the case of puppy, or an unrelated label, such as tree instead of puppy.

Children understood the nature of the study, Treiman says. In both experiments, kids almost always accepted the puppet’s label for a word or drawing when it matched what the experimenter had said. Youngsters also typically rejected Curious George’s unrelated labels for words and drawings.

Crucially, children wrongly accepted the puppet’s related labels more often for pictures than for words. In the first experiment, kids treated related labels as correct for drawings in 78 percent of the trials, for instance, agreeing that the word dog described the picture of the puppy. For words, the kids said related labels were correct for just half the trials on average.  

A similar disparity between written words and drawings appeared in the second experiment. Preschoolers seemed more apt to treat written words as having specific meanings and drawings as having general meanings that can encompass various related words. In this experiment, but not in the first, words were written in a cursive style so that children couldn’t even identify letters in words.

Some children did better than others at recognizing that written words corresponded to particular spoken words. Treiman plans to explore whether kids who have trouble with this task experience difficulties learning to read later on. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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