Letters As a Symbol System

The questions raised in this chapter regarding children's acquisition of symbols also are relevant to the early development of reading. In learning to read, children must master the relation between an abstract symbol system and its referents. Given the importance of the alphabet and the problems children may have in learning it, parents often turn to other means of making letter learning more concrete. For example, concrete objects such as alphabet blocks or magnetic letters potentially can provide a tactile means of teaching reading in much the way that mathematics manipulatives allow hands-on learning of mathematics. Like mathematics manipulatives, concrete letters transform the abstractness of graphemes and phonemes into familiar, perceptually rich objects. Although the use of manipulatives for reading instruction has not been investigated as the use of manipulatives in math education has been, it seems likely that similar caution is appropriate. Simply putting the letters of the alphabet on magnets or on other toys does not guarantee that children will learn to use them for reading and writing rather than as building blocks. In this section we briefly review what children must learn to understand letter-sound correspondences and consider the possible influences of using concrete objects on this process.

Understanding letters is difficult because letters are noniconic symbols (Bialystok & Martin, 2003; Tolchinsky, 2003; Treiman, 2000). Unlike pictographs, there is nothing inherent in the structure of letters that reflects what they represent. In essence, understanding letters as notational symbols requires that children appreciate nonanalogous, noniconic symbolic relations (Bialystok, 1992; Munn, 1998).

Bialystok (Bialystok, 1992; Bialystok & Martin, 2003; Bialystok, Shenfield, & Codd, 2000) proposed that children must relinquish their hold on the specific perceptual properties of objects to understand them as symbols. Symbol acquisition emerges in three stages as children's initially fragile understanding of symbols becomes more flexible. Children first learn a set of symbols without understanding their relation to what they represent. For example, they may first be capable of verbally reproducing a sequence of symbols (e.g., counting in a series or reciting the alphabet). They may then begin to observe the relation of these objects to their referents. In this second stage, children tend to assume that the relations between symbols and referents are iconic and analogous. For example, they may believe that the word "ant" is shorter than the word "elephant" because ants are smaller than elephants. Similarly, Spanish and Italian children associate bigger words with bigger objects, in spite of the fact that this relationship is even less perfect in both of these languages. Both Spanish and Italian use suffixes to demarcate diminutives of root words, so that longer words actually denote smaller objects (Ferreiro, 1985). For example, the suffix "ita" in Spanish indicates the diminutive. When children finally acquire full symbolic competence in Bialystok's third stage, they are capable of understanding that symbols may be noniconic and nonanalogous (e.g., "car" is shorter than "banana," even though cars are larger than bananas). Thus, Bialystok has demonstrated that the acquisition of symbols such as letters and numbers occurs in a gradual three-step process, not as an abrupt concrete-to-abstract shift.

Once children know the correspondences between the written forms (graphemes) and auditory forms (phonemes), they have the requisite knowledge to read and write any word in the language (Ravid & Tolchinsky, 2002; Tolchinsky & Teberosky, 1998). Learning individual grapheme-phoneme correspondences, however, is neither easy nor a guarantee that children will learn to read. In fact, several studies (Landsmann & Karmiloff-Smith, 1992; Tolchinsky, 2003; Tolchinsky-Landsmann & Levin, 1985) have found that children's understanding of letters as part of a notational symbol system does not necessarily co-occur with their understanding of how the letters are used in referential communication. For example, Landsmann and Karmiloff-Smith (1992) asked children of ages 4 through 6 to invent nonletters, nonnumbers, and nonwords. Children in all age groups imposed different constraints on what qualified as nonletters and nonnumbers, demonstrating their understanding that letters and numbers were separate domains of symbols but also that they are not in the same domain as drawings. For example, one child produced "tttt" when asked to generate a nonword. Only the older children, however, understood that symbols serve a referential role as well as a notational role. Rather than simply using strings of repeated letters to create nonwords, 5- and 6-year-olds generated nonwords that were unpronounceable and, thus, could serve no referential function.

These results reveal some of the challenges that young children face in learning to understand the symbolic properties of letters. Will making letters concrete facilitate children's understanding? According to the dual representation hypothesis, attempts to make alphabet blocks colorful and engaging as objects might detract the child from seeing the letters on them as symbols. The physical features or concreteness of the blocks actually may obfuscate the symbol-referent relation. Alphabet blocks, for example, typically are constructed in different colors, which facilitate children's perceptual differentiation of different letters when they are learning the alphabet early on. The elaboration of individual letters is similarly evident in the topical organization of Sesame Street, which typically focuses on only two letters of the alphabet per episode (i.e., "This episode brought to you by the letter 'E") and in different skits that are used to interest children in learning their letters (e.g., the letter beauty pageant). Such attempts to make individual letters interesting may distract from the collective function the letters serve within the notational system as a whole. Emphasizing letters as perceptually salient objects in their own right may, in fact, make it more difficult to see each letter as being a component of a word and as serving an equivalent notational role in the alphabet.

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