In adult readers, printed words and other letter strings activate specialized visual functions within 200 msec, as evident from neurophysiological recordings of brain activity. These fast, specialized responses to letter strings are thought to develop through plastic changes in the visual system. However, it is unknown whether this specialization emerges only with the onset of word reading, or represents a precursor of literacy. We compared 6-year-old kindergarten children who could not yet read words to adult readers. Both age groups detected immediate repetitions of visually presented words, pseudo-words, symbol strings, and pictures during event-related potential (ERP) mapping. Maps from seven corresponding ERP segments in children and adults were analyzed regarding fast (<250 msec) and slow (>300 msec) specialization for letter strings. Adults reliably differentiated words through increased fast (<150 msec) occipito-temporal N1 activity from symbols. Children showed a later, more mid-occipital N1 with marginal word-symbol differences, which were absent in those children with low letter knowledge. Children with high letter knowledge showed some fast sensitivity to letter strings, which was confined to right occipito-temporal sites, unlike the stronger adult N1 specialization. This suggests that a critical degree of early literacy induces some immature, but fast, specialization for letter strings before word reading becomes possible. Children also differentiated words from symbols in later segments through increased right occipito-temporal negativity for words. This slow specialization for letter strings was not modulated by letter knowledge and was absent in adults, possibly reflecting a visual precursor of literacy due to visual familiarity with letter strings.

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