New research has shown that children’s ability to distinguish between short words and simple drawings is an early indicator of their future reading ability. The study tested children aged from three to five without formal reading or writing instruction to assess their ability at understanding that written word, such as dog, has one specific pronunciation (“dog”), as opposed to a simple dog drawing which can be labelled as a dog or puppy or even a pet name. The study has shown that we may be able to make predictions from an early age as to which children are progressing well in the learning of emergent literacy skills and identify which children may require extra assistance.
According to the researchers, in their first test, researchers read the written word “dog” to the children. In the second test, children were shown words such as dog, cat or doll, sometimes in cursive to rule out guessing if kids recognised a letter. Other children were shown simple drawings of those objects. Researchers would say what the word or drawing portrayed. Then they’d bring out a puppet and ask the child if they thought the puppet knew what the words or drawings were. If the puppet indicated the word “doll” was “baby” or “dog” was “puppy,” many children said the puppet was mistaken. But they more often accepted synonyms for the drawings, showing they were starting to make a distinction between text and drawing, Treiman said.
Researchers examined 114 children and found differing results between the writing and drawing conditions pointing to the possibility that pre-literacy learners have some understanding that written words represent one specific linguistic unit and drawings do not. This indicates that children pre-literacy have some knowledge regarding the inner structure of writing and its function as a symbol which is more complex than previously believed.
The study suggests an additional way to consider reading readiness, beyond the emphasis on phonetics or being able to point out an “A” in the alphabet chart. Appreciating that writing is “something that stands for something else, it actually is a vehicle for language — that’s pretty powerful stuff,” said Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a specialist in literacy development who wasn’t involved in the new work.
Children also often scribble images which look nothing like what it is meant to represent, however this ability to use lines to represent something larger or deeper than what is on the page, is the beginning of symbolic thought.
This study has also brought about the question of whether children who reach these developmental step at a later age might fall behind on pre-literacy skills. The answer is unclear, however it is common knowledge that reading to very young children assists in forming the foundation for reading development through the introduction of vocabulary, rhyming, and a range of speech sounds.
Previous studies have shown it’s helpful to run a finger under the text when reading to a youngster, because otherwise kids pay more attention to the pictures,” Miller said. “If the words aren’t pointed out, they get less exposure to looking at text, and less opportunity to learn that sort of relationship — that text is meaningful and text relates to sound, he said. Make sure children see you that you write for a purpose, maybe by having them tell you a story and watch you write it out, adds Hirsh-Pasek. “That’s much richer than just learning what a B or a P is.
This study however, highlights the need to consider other activities that bring in writing as well. A child may initially draw a scribble and say it is their name and eventually these scribbles become smaller and closer to the line than the larger scrawl that then become labelled as a picture of a flower. This progression also opens up more room for questioning and research onto early literacy development.