2. TITZER, R. (1998, April). Evidence that 2- and 3-Year-Old Babies and Toddlers Can Visually Discriminate Written Words. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies. Atlanta, GA.
Converging evidence in the areas of reading education, language acquisition, brain development and infant research indicates that most of our nation’s reading problems could be prevented by teaching reading during the window of opportunity for learning language. Developmentalists have discovered that young infants have remarkable perceptual abilities (e.g., Baillargeon, 1986, 1991). In these studies, infants as young as 3.5 months old visually perceived differences in complex events.
Additionally, infants can also perceive figure-ground relationships (e.g., Bertenthal, 1993; Craton & Yonas, 1990). In a related area of study, neurobiologists have revealed that infants’ brains develop differently based on the age at which they learn a second language (Posner, 1997). Children’s brains were able to adapt and become more efficient when they learned the language before the age of four compared with learning later in life. Moreover, other studies suggest that infants learn language faster than older children (e.g., fast mapping).
Combined, all of this work suggests that infants are capable of learning to visually discriminate written language much earlier than age six and that learning to recognize written language during infancy may allow their brains to develop more efficiently for recognizing written words.
This study investigates 2- and 3- year old babies’ and toddlers’ abilities to visually discriminate written words.
Thirty-two children (ages 24 to 40 months, 18 African-American and 14 Caucasian) participated in this double-blind study. Half of the children viewed an interactive videotaped segment from the Your Baby Can Read video which displayed six words and video images representing those words for two minutes prior to beginning the test. First, the children viewed the word. An arrow moved from left to right under each word as the word was verbalized. Next they viewed images that represented the meaning of the word. The following target words were used: crawling, eyes, ears, smiling, clap, and gorilla.
The other half of the participants did not view the Your Baby Can Read videotape prior to being tested.
During the test, children viewed the target word and a novel word that were presented simultaneously. The target was either above or below the novel word in one test, and to the left or right in the other test. Children were asked to point to the target words. The children were tested two times on each word. The order of the positioning of the target words (right or left, up or down) was counterbalanced. For the first three words, the target word was displayed on the TV monitor while the child was tested. For the final three words, the monitor was turned off before the test words were presented.
The control group of 16 children did not recognize the correct words above chance. Both the two-year-old and three-year-old participants in the experimental group could recognize the written words above chance p < .05. This was true even when the TV monitor was turned off.
Children are able to visually discriminate words much earlier than what is currently accepted. This study suggests that 2- and 3-year-old babies and toddlers are capable of visually recognizing words. This is about 3 or 4 years younger than the current age at which reading is taught in the U.S.
Other studies support that very young infants may have the perceptual abilities to recognize written words and that exposure to language while the brain is rapidly developing may influence the effectiveness of brain connections.
A growing body of evidence shows that acquiring language skills in early childhood affects the long range performance of those skills. For instance, syntax ability (Coppieters, 1987), grammatical ability (Johnson & Newport, 1991), speech production (Oyama, 1976) and sentence processing skills (Mayberry, 1993) are better when learned in early childhood rather than in adolescence. Children who learned to read at age 3 and 4 read a couple of grades above same-IQ children who learned to read at later stages – this advantage continued throughout childhood (Durkin, 1970). In contrast, language deprivation during early childhood has lasting negative effects (Curtiss, 1977).
OVERALL CONCLUSIONS OF STUDY ONE AND STUDY TWO
The study, Evidence that 2- and 3-Year-Old Babies and Toddlers Can Visually Discriminate Written Words, demonstrated that children are capable of visually differentiating written words several years earlier than school age.
The longitudinal case study, Case Study of an Infant Exposed to Written Language, suggests that babies and toddlers who are frequently exposed to written language may learn this aspect of language at the same time as they learn auditory and spoken language. This study indicates that it is possible for an 18-month-old infant to read at a level that is higher than the average seven year old American. Neuroplasticity in Broca’s area appears more efficient when the child learns language skills in the first four years of life compared to age five or later (Hirsch, 1997). It is possible that the baby in the case study similarly developed efficient pathways for reading because she learned to read as an infant. Rather than utilizing a separate area of the brain for reading, it is possible that babies develop more efficient pathways more closely connected to spoken and receptive language areas.