Most children do not begin formal instruction in reading and writing until they turn five and enter kindergarten, but these findings suggest that children as young as three may be tested to see how well their understanding of basic language concepts is progressing.

"Our results show that children have some knowledge about the fundamental properties of writing from a surprisingly early age”, said study co-author Rebecca Treiman from Washington University in St Louis in the US."

The study was based on two experiments with 114 children ages three to five years who had not yet received any formal instruction in reading or writing. The children were tested to see how well they understood that a written word, such as dog, has one specific pronunciation ('dog') as compared with a simple drawing of a dog, which could be correctly labeled as the image of a dog, a puppy or even a pet named Spot.

The different results in the writing and drawing conditions indicated that even young pre-readers have some understanding that a written word stands for one specific linguistic unit in a way that a drawing does not.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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