+ Early Reading Skills: Letter Naming

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For parents who have read Dr Shaywitz’s book “Overcoming Dyslexia” and want to dig deeper, I recommend “Proust and the Squid,” by Maryanne Wolf.  The following is adapted from  Chapter 4: “The Beginnings of Reading.”

Letter Naming

One aspect of print awareness begins with the discovery that printed words go in one particular direction; while  English and European languages move from left to right, Hebrew and Arabic tracks from right to left, and some Asian scripts from top to bottom.

A trickier set of skills develops when a child recognizes the shapes and lines of individual colored letters, whether on the refrigerator door, in the bathtub, or on a piece of drawing paper. 

The brain’s ability to recognize the visual shape of say, a turquoise letter is no casual feat; it is based on an extremely fine-tuned visual perception system and considerable exposure to the same patterns and features in the visual world that allow us to regognize owls, spiders, arrows and crayons.

Before they learn to recognize a letter automatically, much less label it, children have to make some of their neurons “specialists” in detecting the tiny, unique set of features of each letter — exactly what the first token readers had to do. 

Those of us unfamiliar with Chinese characters find it humbling to try to look at one page of Chinese script and identify these characters on another page.

The sophisticated demands made on the young visual system is formidable: a child must learn that each of the tiny but important features in any letter of our alphabet conveys information.  Then they learn that letters consist of orderly patterns of these features that do not change — at least not much.

Here an important, early, set of conceptual skills comes into play: the recognition of “pattern invariance” which will facilitate learning letters.

As an infant the young child learns that some visual features (mother’s face, father’s face) don’t change: they are invariant patterns.  Humans have innate abilities that permit us to store representations of perceptual patterns in our memory, and pull them out to apply to each new learning situation.  From the start, children search for invariant features when they begin learning something new.

This helps them build visual representations and rules that eventually make it possible to identify any letter on a refrigerator, regardless of size, color or font.

The next step is something cognitively more elegant: the mapping of each letter name onto its grapheme (written form).  The “alphabet song” becomes a way of creating a “placeholder” list, and the process is gradual. 

Children learn that “elemeno” is NOT a long letter in the middle of the alphabet: children’s concepts of letters change right along with their developing language, their invisible conceptual development, and their use of specialized visual areas of the brain for letter identification.

The process of object naming in the young child begins the path to literacy.  At a simple level, recognizing and naming objects are the processes children first use to begin connecting their underlying visual areas to areas serving language processes.  Neuronal recycling makes it possible to enlist special portions of these same circuits in the cause of letter recognition and naming.

Wolf notes that Walter Benjamin, the brilliant German philosopher, held that naming was the quintessential human activity.  Learning to retrieve a name for an abstract, visually presented letter-symbol is an essential precursor for all the processes that come together in reading.

And it is a powerful predictor of a child’s readiness to read.  Wolf’s research indicates that the ability to name objects when a child is very young, and then to name letters as the child matures, provides a strong clue as to how efficiently the rest of the reading circuit will develop over time.

What Parents Can Do

Parents should be encouraged to help children name letters whenever they appear ready.  In addition, help them “read” environmental print: signs, familiar words on the stop sign or the shampoo bottle or the cereal box.  Note the letters in a child’s name, or the names of siblings and friends.

Many preschool children recognize “exit,” or “milk.”  It doesn’t matter if they want to argue that “Ivory” says “soap:” they and you will gradually sort it out.  Little by little each child in most literate cultures begins to acquire a repertoire of frequently seen letters and words before ever learning to write those letters.

This phase of reading is like a “logographic” stage in the child’s development — what the child is beginning to understand, as did our token-reading ancestors, is the relationship between the concept and the written symbol.

sole source: Maryanne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” Harper Collins, 2007.  ISBN 978-0-06-018639-5

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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