Young Children's Knowledge of the Symbolic Nature of Writing

Treiman, R., Hompluem, L., Gordon, J., Decker, K. and Markson, L. (2016), Young Children's Knowledge of the Symbolic Nature of Writing. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12478.

This research study shows that even before learning their ABCs, youngsters start to recognize that a written word symbolizes language in a way a drawing doesn't — a developmental step on the path to reading. Two experiments with one hundred and fourteen 3- to 5-year-old children examined whether children understand that a printed word represents a specific spoken word and that it differs in this way from a drawing. When an experimenter read a word to children and then a puppet used a different but related label for it, such as “dog” for the word ‹puppy›, children often stated the puppet's label was incorrect. In an analogous task with drawings, children were more likely to state that the puppet was correct in using an alternative label. The results suggest that even young children who cannot yet read have some understanding that a written word stands for a specific linguistic unit in a way that a drawing does not.

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables