The printed ‘g’: Easy to recognise, hard to remember, harder to write

In study that raises questions about the way people learn to read and write, university students flounder with common print form of letter 'g'.

Written by Kabir Firaque | New Delhi | Updated: April 6, 2018 10:33:51 am
The printed ‘g’, corect way to write 'g', Johns Hopkins University, Michael McCloskey, express explained Students were shown four shapes — one correct, three wrong — of looptail ‘g’. (Source: Johns Hopkins University).

Take the word ‘again’, letter by letter. In the fonts this newspaper uses in print and online, the lowercase ‘a’ takes its “two-storey” form, lowercase ‘g’ its “looptail” form. In print, these versions are commoner than the “one-storey a” and “opentail g”, which are typical to handwriting.

Although all skilled readers recognise both print forms easily, very few actually remember what looptail ‘g’ looks like, far less write it down, new research has found. In a group of 38 Johns Hopkins University students, nearly half (18) failed to even acknowledge that ‘g’ comes in two lowercase varieties. Of the remaining 20, only one could write it correctly.

The study raises more questions than it answers, researcher Michael McCloskey, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins, told The Indian Express by email. “One has to do with children learning to read,” he said, citing research that suggests learning to write a letter helps in learning to read it. “Children may have a bit more trouble with looptail ‘g’ (and the form of ‘a’ we don’t usually write) when learning to read — this might be worth investigating.”

In one experiment, the 38 participants were asked to list letters with two lowercase print forms. Only two acknowledged ‘g’ but neither could write looptail ‘g’ correctly. When asked if lowercase ‘g’ has two print forms, six more acknowledged it but none could write looptail ‘g’, often misplacing the ‘tail’ and sometimes missing the ‘ear’. And when told that ‘g’ does have two forms, 12 more acknowledged it, but just one could write the looptail right.

Only 7 of 25 university students identified the correct shape (Source: Johns Hopkins University).

On the other hand, 30 of the 38 acknowledged two forms of lowercase ‘a’, and 29 wrote two-storey ‘a’ correctly. This could be because 24 of them said they had prior experience of writing two-storey ‘a’, while none had ever tried writing looptail ‘g’ before.

Next, 16 other students were asked to read a paragraph, then told to write lowercase ‘g’ in the same form (the font used looptail). However, eight wrote opentail g, seven created incorrect looptail shapes; the 16th got it right.

Students in a third group were shown four shapes — one correct, three wrong — of looptail ‘g’, of two-storey ‘a’, or of both. All 24 shown ‘a’ recognised the correct shape, but only seven could identify the correct looptail ‘g’ shape.

“The study gives us insights into what we learn from our experience. Even though we might think that if we see something often enough, we would learn what it looks like, this doesn’t always appear to be the case,” McCloskey said. “We can see looptail ‘g’ millions of times, still not fully know what it looks like.”

'The Devil’s in the g-Tails: Deficient Letter-Shape Knowledge and Awareness Despite Massive Visual Experience' by Kimberly Wong, Frempongma Wadee, Gali Ellenblum, and Michael McCloskey; published in 'Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance', April 2, 2018

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