Even before they can read, children as young as three 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 may need extra help with reading lessons, suggests new research
from Washington University in St. Louis.
“Our results show that children have some knowledge about the fundamental properties of
writing from a surprisingly early age,” said study co-author Rebecca Treiman, PhD, the Burke &
Elizabeth High Baker Professor of Child Developmental Psychology in Arts & Sciences.
“Based on the results, it may be possible to determine at an early age which children are
progressing well in the learning of emergent literacy skills and which children may need
Forthcoming in the journal Child Development, the study is based on two experiments with 114
children ages three-to-five years who had not yet received any formal instruction in reading or
The children were tested to see how well they understood that a written word, such as dog,
has one specific pronunciation (“dog”) as compared with a simple drawing of a dog, which could
be correctly labeled as the image of a dog, a puppy or even my pet Spot.
In the first test, researchers read the written word “dog” to the children.
Later, when a puppet employed in the experiment read the word “dog” as “puppy,” many
children picked up on the mistake. In a similar task with drawings, children were more likely to
say that the puppet was correct in using the alternative label.
The different results in the writing and drawing conditions indicate that even young pre-readers
have some understanding that a written word stands for one specific linguistic unit in a way that
a drawing does not. While a written word should be read the same way each time, it is sometimes
appropriate to use different labels for a drawing, the researchers explain.
Most children don’t begin formal instruction in reading and writing until they turn five and
enter kindergarten, but these findings suggest that children as young as three may be tested to
see how well their understanding of basic language concepts is progressing.
“Our finding that preschool age children who cannot yet read have some understanding that written
words represent specific words in a way that drawings do not indicates that young children’s
knowledge about the inner structure of writing — how it functions as a symbol — is more
sophisticated than previously thought” said study co-author Lori Markson, PhD, associate
professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences.
The results are surprising given that some literacy development theories have suggested that
pre-readers treat written words as representing meanings directly, as pictures do.
More recent research, however, shows that parents often speak differently about pictures than
they do about letters and words, helping even very small children begin to understand the
writing something is in many ways similar to saying it.
“Such experiences may help children to learn, even before they can read, that writing conveys
meaning in a different way than drawing does,” Markson said.
While dozens of research studies have shown that reading to young children helps them build a
stronger cognitive foundation for later reading and writing, this study is one of the first to offer
a simple method for benchmarking how well children are progressing in their understanding of basic
concepts about how writing works as a symbol.
This understanding may be crucial to later success in formal reading and writing instruction.
For more information https://source.wustl.edu/2016/01/is-your-toddler-ready-for-reading-lessons/