Kids reading
Children read a story book about the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a writing workshop at the 4F military fort in Caracas December 14, 2014. The Communication Ministry held the writing workshop for children last weekend to promote the legacy of the socialist leader who ruled Venezuela for 14 years until he died of cancer in 2013. Picture taken December 14, 2014. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Children as young as three years old already begin to understand how a written word is different than a drawing even before they can read. A new research from Washington University in St. Louis says that this is a hint that gives a crucial early indicator for kids who may need help with reading lessons.

Co-author Rebecca Treiman, a professor of Child Developmental Psychology, said in a press release that the results show that children have some knowledge about the fundamental properties of reading and writing from a surprisingly early age. Treiman added that this may be possible to determine which children are progressing well in the learning of emergent literacy skills. Additionally, better teaching strategies can be developed to help children who may need extra attention with the skills.

The study involved analysing data from two experiments with 114 children, aged three to five years, who have not yet been taught to write or read. The researchers tested how well these kids understood how any written word, like the word “dog,” for example, has a specific pronunciation as compared to a simple illustration of a dog. The team then allowed the image of the dog to be labelled as simply a dog, puppy, or even a pet called Spot.

Initially, the experts read the word “dog” to the children. They found out that children noticed the mistake of mislabelling the animal when a puppet misread the same word as “puppy.” In another task, when a puppet said “puppy,” the children were more likely to say that the puppet was right in using this alternative word to identify a drawing of a dog.

Co-author Lori Markson stated that these results suggest that even young pre-readers already understand that written words and drawing each represent different things. The children know that the word should be read in the same way constantly, while different terms can be used to label a drawing. It suggests that most children may already be tested to see how well they understand basic language concepts before they turn five and enter kindergarten to receive formal reading and writing instructions.

This study is one of the first to give a simple method in benchmarking children’s progress of understanding the basic concepts of reading and writing. The experts conclude that this may also be important to success in formal reading and writing skills later on.