How building your child’s spoken word bank can boost their capacity to read

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Children benefit from previous understanding of spoken words before reading them.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Children’s oral vocabulary – their knowledge of the sounds and meanings of words – is strongly positively associated with their reading all the way through school. Understanding this relationship is important for making children’s reading as strong as possible.

Our new research has pointed to one mechanism underlying this association: when primary school children know a spoken word, they form an expectation of what that word should look like when it is written down – and they do this even if they have never seen it before.

Using eye-tracking technology, we demonstrated that these expectations can help children to process orally familiar words more quickly when they read them for the first time.

The tech: understanding eye-tracking

Advances in technology have made it much easier to use eye-tracking with children. Unlike old systems that were mounted on participants’ heads, new systems (shown below) sit on the desk in front of the child. The eye-tracker finds a small target sticker on the child’s forehead and uses it to work out where the child’s eyes are.

Eye-trackers are special cameras that can follow the movement of the eyes as children read in real time. They provide information about where children look and how long they look for, giving insight into what is happening when children read.

When the properties of a written word are changed (for example, how many letters it has or how frequently it occurs in written language), this influences how easy or difficult those words are to process.

Put simply, when processing is easy, looking times are shorter. When processing is hard, looking times are longer.

The experiment: from hearing to seeing

In order to form expectations about written words that have not yet been seen, children require a combination of knowledge about:

  • the pronunciation and meaning of a spoken word; and
  • the links between the sounds in spoken words and the written letters that represent them.

The figure below illustrates that by drawing this information together, children can imagine the written form of words they cannot see.

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