Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017 by Chuck Finder, Washington University in St. Louis
Credit: Washington University in St. Louis

Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

But new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that children as young as 3 already are beginning to recognize and follow important rules and patterns governing how letters in the English language fit together to make .

The study, published this month in the journal Child Development, provides new evidence that children start to learn about some aspects of reading and writing at a very early age.

"Our results show that children begin to learn about the statistics of written language, for example about which letters often appear together and which letters appear together less often, before they learn how letters represent the sounds of a language," said study co-author Rebecca Treiman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

An important part of learning to read and spell is learning about how the letters in written words reflect the sounds in spoken words. Children often begin to show this knowledge around 5 or 6 years of age when they produce spellings such as BO or BLO for "blow."

We tend to think that learning to spell doesn't really begin until children start inventing spellings that reflect the sounds in spoken words—spellings like C or KI for "climb". These early invented spellings may not represent all of the sounds in a word, but children are clearly listening to the word and trying to use letters to symbolize some of the words within it, Treiman said.

As children get older, these sound-based spellings improve. For example, children may move from something like KI for "climb" to something like KLIM.

"Many studies have examined how children's invented spellings improve as they get older, but no previous studies have asked whether children's spellings improve even before they are able to produce spellings that represent the sounds in words," Treiman said. "Our study found improvements over this period, with spellings becoming more wordlike in appearance over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds."

Treiman's study analyzed the spellings of 179 children from the United States (age 3 years, 2 months to 5 years, 6 months) who were prephonological spellers. That is, when asked to try to write words, the children used letters that did not reflect the sounds in the words they were asked to spell, which is common and normal at this age.

On a variety of measures, the older prephonological spellers showed more knowledge about English patterns than did the younger prephonological spellers. When the researchers asked adults to rate the children's productions for how much they looked like English words, they found that the adults gave higher ratings, on average, to the productions of older prephonological spellers than to the productions of younger prephonological spellers.

The productions of older prephonological spellers also were more word-like on several objective measures, including length, use of different letters within words, and combinations of letters. For example:

A 5-year-old who writes 'fepiri' when asked to write the word 'touch' might seem to know nothing about spelling, but this attempt looks more like a word than 'fpbczs' as produced by a 4-year-old. Credit: Washington University in St. Louis

A 5-year-old who writes "fepiri" when asked to write the word "touch" might seem to know nothing about spelling, but this attempt looks more like a word than "fpbczs" as produced by a 4-year-old.

"While neither spelling makes sense as an attempt to represent sounds, the older child's effort shows that he or she knows more about the appearance of English words," Treiman said.

The findings are important, Treiman said, because they show that exposure to written words during the 3-to-5-year age range may be important in getting children off to a strong start with their reading, writing and spelling skills.

"Our results show that there is change and improvement with age during this period before children produce spellings that make sense on the basis of sound." Treiman said. "In many ways, the spellings produced during this period of time are more wordlike when children are older than when they are younger. That is, even though the spellings don't represent the sounds of words, they start looking more like actual words."

"This is pretty interesting, because it suggests that children are starting to learn about one aspect of - what words look like - from an earlier point than we'd given them credit for," she said. "It opens up the possibility that educators could get useful information from 's early attempts to write- information that could help to show whether a child is on track for future success or whether there might be a problem."

Explore further: A child's spoken vocabulary helps them when it comes to reading new words for the first time

More information: Rebecca Treiman et al, Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers, Child Development (2017). DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12893

Related Stories

A child's spoken vocabulary helps them when it comes to reading new words for the first time

July 19, 2017
Children find it easier to spell a word when they've already heard it spoken, a new study led by researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD) at Macquarie University has found. The findings ...

The number of illustrations in storybooks influences children's word learning

July 12, 2017
New research shows that the number of illustrations presented in a storybook can influence preschool children's ability to learn words from shared reading.

Is your toddler ready for reading lessons?

January 6, 2016
Even before they can read, children as young as 3 years of age are beginning to understand how a written word is different than a simple drawing—a nuance that could provide an important early indicator for children who ...

How the brain changes when we learn to read

May 11, 2017
Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a ...

Picture overload hinders children's word learning from storybooks

June 30, 2017
Less is more when it comes to helping children learn new vocabulary from picture books, according to a new study.

Recommended for you

Greening vacant lots reduces feelings of depression in city dwellers, study finds

July 20, 2018
Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences ...

People love to hate on do-gooders, especially at work

July 20, 2018
Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be a do-gooder, according to a new University of Guelph study.

New study questions use of talking therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia

July 20, 2018
The findings of the first meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis (CBTp) on improving the quality of life and functioning and reducing distress of people diagnosed with schizophrenia ...

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

betterexists
not rated yet Jul 25, 2017
Make sure The toddler's eyes are protected from that weapon in the hand.
Can you make 2-yr old or little bit older toddler to write Capital Letter A in 3 Steps ?
Start with Teaching to write / first, Then \ and Finally Horizontal -- in the Center !
mashabell
not rated yet Jul 26, 2017
Quite a few children learn some of the main English spellings from shop signs like Tesco, Next and Boots, or road signs like STOP and No Entry. Their early spellings demonstrate their ready grasp of the main English sound-to-letter relationships, e.g 'frend, sed, bruther'. Sadly, we insist that that they must learn to spell thousands of words illogically instead (see EnglishSpellingProblems blog), wasting much learning and teaching time. We could easily reduce this need for enormous expenditure of effort by reducing at least some of the most labour-absorbing irregular spellings, such as 'blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too'.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.