Attaining the writing system

The acquisition of the written language involves the attainment of the basic principles of the organisation of writing systems. Learners have been found to use different strategies in this endeavour. Further, knowledge about the language, that is, metalinguistic awareness has been found to play a crucial role in this process. The main assumptions are summarised next.

Main tasks

Written language acquisition involves the attainment of the basic principles of organisation of writing systems (cf. Bialystok 2001; Teberosky 2001; Tolchinsky 2006 for overviews). Learners face the task of discovering (a) the distinction of written and graphic forms, (b) the symbolic function of print, (c) the form-meaning connection, (d) segmentation principles, and (d) the print-speech relation.

Distinction of written and graphic forms. Current models of learning to read and write distinguish a preliminary step involving the distinction between written and graphic forms (Teberosky 2002: 73) (“written is all what is not drawing”). Some authors remark on the spontaneous onset of graphic production at about the age of 18 months or earlier, when young infants begin to produce graphic marks (Tolchinsky 2006: 84). Studies into young infants’ drawing and writing productions have found a difference in the motor plans for either activity. Although the final products might be difficult to distinguish for an external observer, differentiation in the children’s action plans around age 3 points to an implicit distinction between writing and drawing (Tolchinsky 2006: 85). By the age of 4, children have been found to have grasped that the output of writing differs from drawing in that it is linear and discrete (Tolchinsky 2006: 88).

Symbolic function. Beyond the distinction between graphics and print, a fundamental step in the acquisition of literacy is marked by the realisation that “the notational forms are invariant representations of meaning” (Bialystok 2007: 61). This step involves the distinction between form and meaning. As pointed out by Bialystok (2001: 161) “this is analogous, in some measure, to the insight children achieve in understanding the separation between spoken language and the meanings represented by those forms.”

Segmentation. Learners are faced with the task of learning how the writing system works. Prior to the establishment of specific links between print and speech, learners discover that written units are displayed linearly, and that they are grouped. With respect to the grouping of units, they recognise that there is a minimum number of units grouped, that the groupings differ internally and that there must be restrictions on potential combinations. In the course of their writing and reading development children discover the different types of regularities that constrain the units of the writing system and their combination.

Print-speech relation. Learners identify correspondences between printed and spoken forms. Initially, they establish a rather global relation. Progressively, the links are based on more and more fine-grained units (words, syllables, phonemes) in relation to the available speech segmentation units. Sensitivity to the sound structure of language has been found to be developed first for larger units (words, syllables) and later for smaller units (onsets, rhymes, and phonemes) (cf. Penney et al. 2006: 130; Fricke et al. 2008).

What this summary makes apparent is that several skills and competences are involved in the attainment of the writing system, including general cognitive, linguistic and meta-linguistic skills. The fundamental step that needs to be accomplished concerns the distinction between the notational system and the language that might be used through it, as is succinctly pointed out by Bialystok (2007: 60) when she states that “[understanding the concept of print transforms knowledge of a formal system based on visual features into a symbolic system that can be used computationally.”

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