Young children's understanding of written words as representations
On the moving word task 3- to 4-year-olds judge that a face-up written word changes
in what it 'says' when moved from alongside a matching object to a nonmatching object.
Bialystok (2000) interprets these errors as symptomatic of a misconception that words'
meanings are flexible, and argues that surmounting this misconception is a prerequisite to
reading. On the false word task 3- to 4-year-olds judge that a face-down word changes in
what it says in line with a change to its referent. Thomas and colleagues (1999) argue that
children make these errors because they assume that words physically change.
Two experiments compared 3- to 5-year-olds' performance on face-up and facedown
versions of the two tasks. Consistent with Bialystok's interpretation, children made
errors on both tasks for face-up words, and consistent with Thomas and colleagues'
interpretation, children were more likely to make errors for face-down words on the false
word task and the moving word task employed in Experiment 2.
Six experiments compared 3- to 5-year-olds' performance on the face-up moving
word task with modified tasks. Children were less likely to treat face-up words' meanings
as flexible on three new tasks: in the reverse task a word was moved from alongside a
nonmatching object to a matching object; in the word exchange task two words were
exchanged from matching objects to nonmatching objects; and when asked to make print
say something different in the card tum task, children responded as if they assumed that the
word's physical form needed to be changed rather than its pictorial context.
The findings suggest that errors for face-up words are not indicative of a
misconception, instead, they are maximised by demands intrinsic to the task. It is argued
that, as with other representations, young children assume that words' meanings are fixed,
but this understanding is fragile and can be overridden. With increasing familiarity with
written words, children become better able to resist making errors for face-up words.