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"Letter Imperfect" -- The Discovery Files

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New research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that children as young as 3 already are beginning to recognize and follow important rules and patterns governing how letters in the English language fit together to make words. The study provides new evidence that children start to learn about some aspects of reading and writing at a very early age.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Scrawl before you rock.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Awww. You got a note created by your favorite 3-year-old. It says "BCZMFL." "Oh, thank you, honey!" You coo as you try to find meaning in the seemingly senseless gibberish. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis say there may be more there than we thought.

The team analyzed the spellings of 179 3- to 5-year-olds. They found the spellings of the 5-year-old kids were actually more word-like than those of the 3-year-olds. Though the spellings didn't yet represent the sounds of words, the older kids were beginning to recognize and follow rules and patterns of word structure -- grasping things like word length, what letters frequently go together and the use of different letters within a word.

This is the first study to show children as young as 3 are formulating ideas about word structure prior to understanding phonetics -- the sounds words contain. That usually begins around age 5 or 6.

The researchers say exposing 3- to 5-year-olds to written words could help kids get off to a strong start in reading, writing and spelling. The findings could help educator's better measure progress at earlier ages.

"BCZMFL." That garbled note from a 3-year-old just got a lot more meaningful.

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