Literacy is a key to participation in society: It enables readers and writers to understand and produce written texts and hence forms the basis for a successful school career. Acquiring orthography is an important aspect of becoming literate, because orthography is a code for grammatical relations in texts, enabling beginning readers/writers to process increasingly complex, literate texts. In this research project, we investigate orthography acquisition and instruction from a psycholinguistic perspective.

Being literate – becoming literate

Being literate means mastering linguistic registers in such a way that one can participate in different social situations in a linguistically adequate manner. Hence, becoming literate involves learning about how spoken and written language works and which form of linguistic expression is necessary and adequate in which situational context. Specifically, children need to acquire literate registers, which are typically associated with formal written language. In literate registers, the linguistic form of the utterances or texts must convey all relevant information. Typically, such texts consist of syntactically complete sentences, much unlike what we see in oral language, and they adhere to orthographic norms. The latter feature of literate texts is relevant, because only by means of adhering to orthographic norms it is possible to produce intelligible complex and syntactically complete sentences. Orthography is a code for grammatical relations and helps a reader see and understand these relations in decoding a written text. This is why mastering orthography is a critical aspect of becoming literate.

In acquiring orthography, children need to learn about the way it codes grammatical relations. Therefore, it is critical that beginning writers have a solid fundament of implicit knowledge of linguistic structures and categories, such that in learning to spell, they can detect the correspondence between their existing knowledge of words and parts of words and the way they are being spelt. This may be particularly relevant for children with German as a second language but is just as important for children growing up with German as the first language.

Implicit Learning and Implicit Teaching

Popular didactic concepts for teaching children to read and write rely strongly on the children’s implicit language learning capacities. Implicit learning occurs incidentally and unintentionally. It is observable in a person’s behaviour, who might, for instance, get increasingly accurate in applying regularities but is unable to explicate these regularities. Implicit learning happens in auditory perception, vision, motor learning etc., so it should apply to orthography as well. Indeed, orthography lends itself well to implicit learning, because orthographically legal letter strings are highly predictable. A critical point is though that in all experiments on implicit learning we know of, the input for learning given in training was always informative. In addition, implicit learning relies on the input being processed attentively, i.e. information that is not being processed cannot be learnt. This implies that, in learning to read and write, children must be exposed to informative input and they must be given opportunities to process this input attentively. While many approaches to orthography instruction that are practiced in Germany do not fulfil these premises, their proponents nevertheless rely on implicit learning to occur. We think that the scope of implicit learning is being overestimated in these didactic approaches. For implicit learning to be effective, the teachers’ role should be to present the input in as optimized a fashion as possible in order to allow for the children to extract relevant information from the input – we refer to this as implicit teaching (Belke & Belke, 2006).

Objectives of the Litkey project

A key objective of the Litkey project is to put forward a working model of language and literacy acquisition in preschool and primary school children, which takes into account evidence from experimental psycholinguistics, linguistics and language acquisition research and which can form the basis of a dedicated programme of didactically relevant psycholinguistic research. We will initiate this research programme by evaluating the relevance of the learning and teaching mechanisms we have outlined in the previous section. Implicit learning enables speakers to acquire knowledge of the statistical properties of written utterances, i.e. patterns of co-occurrence and contingencies of letters in written word forms arising from graphotactic, phonological and morphosyntactic principles in orthography. We hypothesize that implicitly acquired morphosyntactic and orthographic skills are an essential fundament of a strong proficiency in reading and writing and should be reflected in solid knowledge about the statistical properties of orthography. A critical prediction following from this is that the statistical properties of orthography impact on writers’ performance and that this impact is stronger for good than for poorer writers. We test this and related predictions using corpuslinguistic and experimental psycholinguistic methods (Strands I and II). Strand III aims to investigate means of teaching implicitly morphosyntactic phenomena that children should master prior to acquiring orthography. To this end, we have previously compiled and composed children’s songs for implicit teaching and will now compile picture books for preschool children which present, in the text accompanying the pictures, the relevant morphosyntactic phenomena in an optimized fashion. The efficacy of the optimized input presentation will be evaluated in an intervention study and in a controlled experiment. A training concept for preschool teachers will be developed to facilitate the implementation of optimized input presentation in kindergarten practice.