If your child has reached the second milestone, there’s a chance that she has reached the third milestone without you noticing! You may even need to behave a bit like an infant researcher in order to test whether your baby has learned any initial patterns of written language.
What Is This Milestone?
There are many patterns of the written language just as there are patterns of the spoken language. Here are some examples of important patterns in English:
|Examples of Spoken Language Patterns:||Examples of Written Language Patterns:|
|Add an ‘ed’ onto words to make them past tense||Noticing letters of our alphabet are upright|
|Add an ‘s’ onto words to make them plural||Phonetic patterns (such as a ‘b’ makes the ‘b’ sound)|
Babies and toddlers learn these patterns naturally if they listen to native English speakers who use proper grammar. This means that native English speakers generally learn the above patterns without needing to be told the rules of grammar.
Once your child reaches this milestone, then you will see that it is possible for children to learn some patterns of the written language without being taught the rules. Learning phonics (Milestone 6) will take much longer.
Why Is This Milestone Important?
When learning spoken language, many researchers used to believe that babies learned individual words first, then general patterns of the language later. Now it’s clear that infants learn some patterns of spoken language in the first year of life while learning their first words1. Put another way, your baby is learning some syntax and grammar at the same time as learning initial individual words!
In some ways, infants are better language learners than adults. The typical child in Japan who is 5 years old speaking Japanese likely speaks Japanese far better than an American adult who has studied Japanese for 5 years. This may be because of infants’ and toddlers’ abilities to learn patterns of languages. For example, infants who are learning English and Spanish at the same time can learn language patterns in English just as well as monolingual babies who are only learning English2.
Also, the number of new synapses related to language development appears to peak before 11 months of age*. This may help explain why infants may learn patterns naturally whereas adults may need to learn patterns through rules and explanations (as well as a lot of effort).
Learning Written and Spoken Language at the Same Time
Many researchers have pointed out how difficult it is to learn a spoken language simply by listening. One of the many difficulties in learning a language is figuring out where words begin and end, since people typically don’t space their words out while speaking. Instead, one word often flows into the next in natural speech. Babies are able to learn language in this manner, but adults often struggle.
Listen to an unfamiliar language. Imagine that you don’t even know individual words exist and you don’t know anything about grammar. You can see how complicated learning spoken language could be for infants without this information. Babies who are learning written and spoken language simultaneously are getting more sensory information, which should help them figure out where words begin and end.
Advantages of Seeing Language While Hearing It
Being able to see words can also help babies distinguish words that sound very similar because they would have visual information that other babies don’t have. In studies of babies who consistently used YBCL for at least 7 months, their receptive language, expressive language, overall language, and overall cognitive scores were significantly higher than a control group matched for socio-economic factors. The additional sensory information YBCL babies had by being allowed to see the language while hearing it may have given them the advantage, making it easier for them to learn language skills in general.
Why? Scientific evidence shows that learning through more than one sensory system helps infants learn more. Studies also show that learning one aspect of language often helps learning other aspects of language.
If infants can learn written language naturally, similarly to how they learn spoken language, it makes sense to expect that infants would begin to figure out some patterns of written language at the same time they are still learning individual written words.
Some Factors Involved
I noticed that my daughters demonstrated they had learned some of these written language patterns by 12 months of age. I have tested many other babies at various ages; sometimes they show signs of having learned the patterns and sometimes they don’t. I believe it depends on many factors, such as:
- the age at which the child began consistently seeing and hearing written language
- how many words the child knows
- which words the child knows
- which words the child has seen and heard
- the overall number of words seen and heard
- what types of tests are used
- the child’s mood at the moment of the test
- the individual child
And many others.
I intentionally included a wide variety of words in the Your Baby Can Learn program to make the initial learning sufficiently complex in order to allow children the opportunity to acquire these patterns. If, for example, your child only sees and hears three-letter words in a consonant/vowel/consonant pattern such as ‘cat’, ‘red’, and ‘tap’, it would be much more difficult to learn more complicated written language patterns.
Do Your Own Research
I learned serendipitously that my first baby was figuring out more than the individual words that I was teaching her when I accidentally held a word upside-down and she turned her head upside down to look at it. You may have had a similar experience already. If so, this is evidence that your child has learned some general pattern of how words generally look.
I developed tests to check if my younger daughter had learned these types of patterns.
Here are two ways of checking:
- Show your child at least two or three words that are in the normal, upright orientation first, before showing a word that is upside-down.
- Select a word that clearly looks unusual for an English word when it’s upside-down (for example, ‘bellybutton’, ‘kicking’, or ‘gorilla’). Many letters in English look like letters even when they are upside-down, so don’t choose a word where the letters have vertical symmetry or where it still looks like a string of letters from our alphabet.
- Don’t give your baby verbal or nonverbal cues that the word is upside-down. Just hold up the word like you would normally and observe your child’s response.
- Hold up two novel words in front of your baby (for example, “tabletop” and “juggle”).
- Please tell your child “First, look at both words. One of these words says ‘tabletop’ and one word says ‘juggle’.”
- Next, say something similar to “Which word do you think says ‘tabletop’?” Wait for your child’s answer.
- Next, say “Which word says ‘juggle’?” or “Which word do you think says ‘juggle’?” Babies may answer by looking, pointing, or reaching for a word, so try to keep the words an equal distance from your child.
- Hold the words in various positions (for example left and right, up and down, upper-left and lower-right, and so on) but with no pattern. Also, try to have the two words about the same distance from your child.
- Now, hold up two more words in front of your child (for example, “newspaper” and “laptop”). Encourage your child to look at both words before doing the test. Please do not tell your child what the words say.
- Ask “Which word looks like it says ‘newspaper’?” OR “Which word do you think says ‘newspaper’?”
- “Which word looks like it says ‘laptop’?” OR “Which word do you think says ‘laptop’?”
Please do NOT do the first test frequently. It will be far better for your baby or child if you show your words in an upright position. If your child shows no signs of having learned written patterns on the above tests, you may want to teach your child another 20 words before checking again.
We encourage you to make a short video of your “test” the very first time you do it, then share it with us. It would be helpful if you would state the number of written words your child consistently reads and your child’s age.
It can be a very exciting time when you notice that your child has learned a pattern of written language that you did not even attempt to directly teach. This would show that your baby has not only memorized what words look like, but that he has also started learning patterns of written language. It also would provide additional evidence that babies or toddlers can learn written language in a way that is similar to how they learn to speak.
1 Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L., (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294),1926-8.
2 Werker, J. F. & Byers-Heinlein, K., (2008). Bilingualism in infancy: first steps in perception and comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 144–151.