The Role of Idiomorphs in Emergent Literacy

By Neumann, Michelle M.; Neumann, David L. | Childhood Education, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

The Role of Idiomorphs in Emergent Literacy


Neumann, Michelle M., Neumann, David L., Childhood Education


Psycholinguistics coined the term idiomorph to describe idiosyncratic invented word-like units that toddlers use to refer to familiar objects during their early language development (Haslett & Samter, 1997; Otto, 2008; Reich, 1986; Scovel, 2004; Werner & Kaplan, 1963). Idiomorphs act as "words" because their meanings and phonetic pronunciations are stable and consistent (Haslett & Samter, 1997). Parents and family members often adopt idiomorphs, which can be intermingled with other words, to encourage their toddlers to communicate with them (Otto, 2008; Reich, 1986). As their language skills develop, children gradually replace the idiomorph with the correct verbal label for the object (Scovel, 2004).

While young children have been reported to use idiomorphs in reference to objects, little has been written on how children use idiomorphs to refer to print. Recent research indicates that idiomorphs can play a role in early literacy development. This article summarizes research and provides practical examples using the observations of a young child. Specific examples show how parents and early childhood educators can use idiomorphs to develop a child's emergent literacy.

The Benefit of Idiomorphs for Developing Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy refers to the gradual development of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that precede conventional reading and writing (Welsch, Sullivan, & Justice, 2003; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). These skills begin to develop from birth and continue in the years prior to school and are related to future reading ability (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Emergent literacy skills include print awareness (an understanding of the forms and functions of print); alphabet knowledge (knowledge about letter shapes, names, and sounds); and phonological awareness (ability to manipulate the sounds in language)--with print motivation (a child's interest in print) influencing a child's participation in print-related activities (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Young children's early encounters with print involve real-life interactions with their families and in their sociocultural environments (McGee & Purcell-Gates, 1997; McNaughton, 1995). These encounters include storybook reading, letter-based activities (e.g., drawing and coloring letter shapes, alphabet games), singing rhymes, and interactions with environmental print (Kuby, GoodstadtKilloran, Aldridge, & Kirkland, 1999; Nutbrown, Hannon, & Morgan, 2005; Vukelich, Christie, & Enz, 2008; Wood, 2002).

However, Otto (2008) describes how young children may have difficulty responding to questions relating to the recognition or identification of such metalinguistic print-speech concepts as "word" or "letter." For example, she describes how 3-year-old Robbie was asked, "What is a word?" and he replied, "I'll tell you numbers, nine" (p. 51). When then asked, "What is a favorite word of yours?," he responded by saying, "I don't like questions" (p. 51). This type of metalinguistic knowledge is not usually evident until children reach the age of at least 4 or 5 and is also dependent upon their early language experiences (Rowe & Harste, 1986). Nagy and Anderson (1995) outlined how learning to read is fundamentally metalinguistic; a child must realize that print represents speech, work out how print represents speech, develop an understanding about what linguistic elements of speech are represented by elements of written language (e.g., whether marks represent phonemes or something else), and make sense of metalinguistic terms.

Interestingly, a few recent studies have shown how some 2-year-old children use their own invented words to refer to print, enabling them to confidently communicate with adults about the print they have discovered (McGee & Richgels, 1989; Neumann, Hood, & Neumann, 2009; Sinclair & Golan, 2002). It is possible that early print interactions may be facilitated through children's temporary use of such invented idiomorphs, which, in turn, can enhance a child's learning of metalinguistic knowledge, noted by Nagy and Anderson (1995) as underlying the process of learning to read. …

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