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Can You Write These Common Letters? (It's Harder Than You Think.)

The way we learn to write letters by hand can affect how we mentally read them later on, a new study finds. In a world of ever-more-varied type fonts, that finding raises questions about how children learn to recognize letters.

The study, out this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, found that even among adults who were skilled readers, most could not recall the most common typed form of the lowercase letter "G"—and even after an exercise in which they specifically counted the number of Gs in a text, half could not correctly write the letter they had just read.

Before you think badly of these study participants, try the exercise out yourself:

 

Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientists asked adults to look at different versions of two common letters, lowercase "A" and "G." Children typically learn to write one lowercase version of each—a one-story circle with a stick on the right side for an "a," and a circle with a left-facing hook for a "g." Yet the most common typed forms of these letters look significantly different, and in g's case, it even faces a different direction. 

letter shaped.JPGIn one experiment, only six of 36 participants could even recall that there were two forms of lowercase "G" without being told, and only one was able to write it correctly. By contrast, about a third of participants were able to remember both forms of lowercase "A" and most of those who remembered both forms could write both correctly.

In fact, researchers found that even after asking a new group of participants to read a text and count the number of times they saw a "G" (all of which were the loop-tail version), when participants were asked to draw the form of the letter they had just read, half of the participants still drew the letter as it is commonly handwritten. Most didn't even realize they were drawing it differently.

Besides being an interesting trick, the results give a glimpse of how people learn to read, and what can happen when what we are taught differs from what we see. "One thing we suggest is when we are learning to read, we think we're looking at the all of the shape of a letter and learning it all, but maybe we are learning just those features of the shape that allow us to distinguish it from other letters," said Michael McCloskey, the senior author of the study. "So, for example, whether the line at the bottom loops and connects on this G, or faces left or right, if it's not neccesary for you to recognize it, you won't learn it."

"This is telling us something about how people learn," he said. "It's not just taking everything in, even after many, many exposures. Maybe the brain is just very selective and efficient about learning what it really has to."

The current study focused on a relatively small sample of young adults, and the researchers plan to repeat the experiments with children who are still learning to read. In particular, they are interested in how students' written and visual familiarity with different letter styles affects how easily they read.

But in the meantime, "we're inclined to think that it is important for children to be exposed to a variety of different fonts," McClosky said. "Especially if they are mostly just reading one particular font or a narrow range of fonts intended to be readable for young children, they may not be learning the features of letters that are most effective for reading ... the fonts they are likely to encounter on electronic devices and in books."

Graphics Source: Johns Hopkins University

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