When do children have the stuff to read?

Knowledge about the difference between words and pictures arises earlier than expected

Long before learning to read, children intuitively grasp the difference between words and pictures. © tim, annette / freeimages
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Intuitive Understanding: Kindergarten children understand much earlier than thought, which makes one word different from a picture. In the experiment they realized that a word always stands for a certain concept, but an image can also be called synonyms. A simple test could therefore help in the future to identify later problems with reading learning, the researchers in the journal "Child Development"

Reading is a fundamental skill. It is therefore all the more important to recognize children with a literacy spelling weakness at an early stage and to promote them in a targeted manner. In the meantime, it is known that a later reading weakness can be felt well before school age, for example due to altered brain functions and deficits in visual attention.

The "wrong" dog

From when children even learn to distinguish between mere pictures and written words, Rebecca Treiman from Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues have now studied more closely. For this, they repeatedly showed the word "dog" to 114 children between the ages of three and five and read it out. In the actual test, the children saw either the word or the image of a dog and a hand puppet said different terms - dog, puppy or even the name of a certain dog, Spot.

The interesting thing: If the word shown did not sound like the dog but one of the others, most of the children responded immediately. They shouted, "Wrong!". In the dog drawing, however, they let go through all synonymous terms. But this proves that the children even at kindergarten age already recognize that a word always represents a very specific concept, but an image can have quite a few similar meanings.

Unconscious knowledge

"Our results show that children understand the fundamental characteristics of writing at a surprisingly young age, " says Treiman. Until now, it was assumed that kindergarten children do not yet understand the connection between word and concept. For her, the flourish combination of the word "dog" was - as one believed - just as much a picture as a drawing of a dog. display

But as it turns out, a child does not yet have to read to at least unconsciously understand that writing represents specific words in a way that drawings do not. "This suggests that even smaller children have a greater unconscious knowledge of the internal structure of writing as a symbol than previously thought, " says Treiman's colleague Lori Markson.

Learned from the parents

The children are likely to catch this unconscious knowledge early on by their parents: Studies show that parents talk about mere pictures with their children differently than if words or phrases are considered together. "These experiences can help children learn that writing communicates its meaning in a different way than a picture does, " says Markson.

The new findings could also help to identify later problems with reading and writing in good time. Because, according to the researchers, this is one of the first studies to show a simple way to test the understanding of words as symbols in children. "Based on the results, it would be possible to find out at a young age which children are making good progress on the way to real reading and need extra attention, " says Treiman. (Child Development, 2016)

(Washington University, St. Louis, 07.01.2016 - NPO)