Cel­e­brat­ing chil­dren’s scrib­bles

Be­fore learn­ing ABCs, tots learn writ­ten words sym­bol­ize lan­guage in way draw­ings don’t: study

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FEATURES - BY LAU­RAN NEER­GAARD

Cel­e­brate your child’s scrib­bles. A novel ex­per­i­ment shows that even be­fore learn­ing their ABCs, young­sters start to rec­og­nize that a writ­ten word sym­bol­izes lan­guage in a way a draw­ing doesn’t - a de­vel­op­men­tal step on the path to read­ing.

Re­searchers used a pup­pet, line draw­ings and sim­ple vo­cab­u­lary to find that chil­dren as young as 3 are be­gin­ning to grasp that nu­anced con­cept.

“Chil­dren at this very early age re­ally know a lot more than we had pre­vi­ously thought,” said de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist Re­becca Treiman of Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis, who coau­thored the study.

The re­search pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment 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.

And tots’ own scrib­bling is prac­tice.

What a child calls a fam­ily por­trait may look like a bunch of grapes but “those squig­gles, that abil­ity to use lines to rep­re­sent some­thing big­ger, to rep­re­sent some­thing deeper than what is on that page, is the great open door into the world of sym­bolic thought,” Hirsh-Pasek said.

The idea: At some point, chil­dren learn that a squig­gle on a page rep­re­sents some­thing, and then that the squig­gle we call text has a more spe­cific mean­ing than what we call a draw­ing. “Dog,” for ex­am­ple, should be read the same way each time, while a ca­nine draw­ing might ap­pro­pri­ately be la­beled a dog, or a puppy, or even their pet Rover.

Treiman and col­leagues tested 114 preschool­ers, 3- to 5year-olds who hadn’t re­ceived any for­mal in­struc­tion in read­ing or writ­ing. Some young­sters were shown words such as dog, cat or doll, some­times in cur­sive to rule out guess­ing if kids rec­og­nized 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 un­der­stand that writ­ten words have a far more spe­cific mean­ing than a draw­ing, Treiman said.

Lan­guage is “like a zoom lens on the world,” said Hirsh-Pasek. This study shows “even 3-yearolds know there’s some­thing spe­cial about writ­ten words.”

It’s not clear if chil­dren who un­dergo that de­vel­op­men­tal step at a later age - say, 5 or 6 in­stead of 3 or 4 - might go on to need ex­tra help with learn­ing to read, cau­tioned Brett Miller, an early learn­ing spe­cial­ist at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Child Health and Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, which helped fund the re­search. But be­cause some chil­dren did bet­ter than oth­ers in the ex­per­i­ment, Treiman plans to study that.

Sci­en­tists have long known that read­ing to very young chil­dren helps form the foun­da­tion for them to later learn to read, by in­tro­duc­ing vo­cab­u­lary, rhyming, and dif­fer­ent speech sounds.

But it’s im­por­tant to in­clude other ac­tiv­i­ties that bring in writ­ing, too, Treiman said. Look closely at a tot’s scrib­bles. A child might say, “I’m writ­ing my name,” and even­tu­ally the crayon scrib­ble can be­come smaller and closer to the line than the larger scrawl that the tot pro­claims is a pic­ture of a flower or mom, she said.

“It’s very ex­cit­ing to see this de­velop,” she said.

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.


Chil­dren at Zion Ju­nior Kinder­garten draw pic­tures dur­ing a class. From left are Wyatt Arse­nault, Molly Forbes, Julie Toms, and Lach­lan Se­ward. Draw­ing is an im­por­tant step to learn­ing writ­ten words.

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