Search icon


25th Jul 2017

Toddler literacy begins much earlier than we thought

Children as young as three can recognise important letter rules.

Alison Bough

Toddler reading writing literacy age

Children as young as three can recognise and follow important letter rules and patterns.

Toddler reading writing literacy age

Many parents stick their toddler’s first attempts at writing proudly on the fridge for all to see. But scientists have discovered that the seemingly random mish-mash of scrawled ‘letters’ are not so random after all.

New research from Washington University in the US suggests that children as young as three are already beginning to recognise and follow important rules and patterns relating to how letters in the English language fit together to make words.

Dr Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology, says the findings, published this month in the journal Child Development, provide 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.”

Toddler reading writing literacy age

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 at around five or six 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 symbolise some of the words within it, Dr Treiman says.

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.

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.”

Toddler reading writing literacy age

Professor Treiman’s study analysed the spellings of 179 children from the United States (age three years, two months to five years, six months) who were pre-phonological 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 normal at this age.

On a variety of measures, the older pre-phonological spellers showed more knowledge about English letter patterns than did the younger pre-phonological 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 pre-phonological spellers than to the productions of younger pre-phonological spellers.

The productions of older pre-phonological 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 five-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 four-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.”

Toddler reading writing literacy age

The findings are important, Dr Treiman says, because they show that exposure to written words during the three-to-five-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. In many ways, the spellings produced during this period of time are more word-like 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.”

The psychologist says this new information opens up possibilities when it comes to early literacy:

“This is pretty interesting, because it suggests that children are starting to learn about one aspect of spelling – what words look like – from an earlier point than we’d given them credit for. It opens up the possibility that educators could get useful information from children’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.”