Handwritten notes, scribbled by a toddler, are priceless keepsakes. They can also be hard to read, thanks to spelling errors and tangled lettering. But all those mistakes forcing you to guess what they've scribbled are actually quite sophisticated markings.
You know, for a toddler.
And they mean a lot more than the words they express. New research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that children as young as 3 recognize and follow important rules and patterns that dictate how letters fit together to make words.
“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,” Rebecca Treiman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study, said.
The value of phonics is undeniable. Understanding how the letters in written words reflect the sounds used in spoken words is a significant part of learning how to read and write. However, this awareness doesn't typically show up until the age of 5 or 6—when children begin "sounding out their words" in school.
As they get older and more comfortable using this sound-based method of learning, their spelling improves. For example, in the beginning, the word "crumb" may be spelled "crm" and later changed to "crum." Eventually, they will learn about the letter 'b' and all of those tricky silent letters buried deep within the English language. But please ... baby steps.
What we know about education is that children are listening and doing their best to use letters to symbolize some of the words. The longer they do it, the better their spelling becomes.
But what about younger children who haven't yet mastered the art of phonics? Can they improve spelling then?
According to Treiman, it is possible. "Our study found improvements over this period, with spellings becoming more word-like in appearance over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds," she said.
The key here is exposure. Read to them, show them the words and do so often.
To find these results, the researchers analyzed the spellings of 179 children—ages 3 years, 2 months to 5 years, 6 months—all of whom were prephonological spellers (a fancy way of saying they sound it out). On average, older spellers were rated higher, because their spelling was more word-like on various measures, including length, use of different letters within words and combinations of letters.
For instance, the word "fepiri" was written by a 5-year-old when asked to spell “touch.” Sure, it’s not even close, but look at that structure—it's beautiful. When a 4-year-old was asked to do the same, "fpbczs" was produced.
Which one looks more like a pronounceable word? Specifically, the 5-year-old's spelling conforms more closely to our understanding of where vowels and consonants appear in words.
“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.
What does this mean for parents hoping to raise very literate future learners? The key here is exposure. Read to them, show them the words, and do so often. The more they see the written word, the stronger their foundation will be for understanding the complex world of spelling in the future.
And there is probably already an app for that, but it will mean a lot more coming from you (research shows that, too).