Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The left-lateralized N170 component of ERPs for words compared with various control stimuli is considered as an electrophysiological manifestation of visual expertise for written words. To understand the information sensitivity of the effect, researchers distinguish between coarse tuning for words (the N170 amplitude difference between words and symbol strings) and fine tuning for words (the N170 amplitude difference between words and consonant strings). Earlier developmental ERP studies demonstrated that the coarse tuning for words occurred early in children (8 years old), whereas the fine tuning for words emerged much later (10 years old). Given that there are large individual differences in reading ability in young children, these tuning effects may emerge earlier than expected in some children. This study measured N170 responses to words and control stimuli in a large group of 7-year-olds that varied widely in reading ability. In both low and high reading ability groups, we observed the coarse neural tuning for words. More interestingly, we found that a stronger N170 for words than consonant strings emerged in children with high but not low reading ability. Our study demonstrates for the first time that fine neural tuning for orthographic properties of words can be observed in young children with high reading ability, suggesting that the emergent age of this effect is much earlier than previously assumed. The modulation of this effect by reading ability suggests that fine tuning is flexible and highly related to experience. Moreover, we found a correlation between this tuning effect at left occipitotemporal electrodes and children's reading ability, suggesting that the fine tuning might be a biomarker of reading skills at the very beginning of learning to read.