As It Happens

Think you know a lowercase G? Study says probably not

Johns Hopkins professor Michael McCloskey explains why so few of us can identify the lowercase "looptail G" and what it might teach us about the way we learn to read.

Researchers find two-thirds of people couldn't identify the 'looptail G' in a lineup of letters

Researchers at John Hopkins University found that approximately two thirds of people they asked couldn't identify the alternate form of the lowercase G. The correct answer is the second from the left. (Johns Hopkins University)

Did you know there's more than one form of the lowercase letter G? 

If so, could you pick out the elusive G with the looped tail from a lineup of similar looking characters?

In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, researchers found that a surprising number of adults don't pass the test.

Michael McCloskey, the Johns Hopkins University cognitive science professor who led the research, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the surprising study and what it might teach us about the ways we learn to read.

Here is part of that conversation.

When did you come to realize that there were two lowercase Gs?

I think I was aware of it for quite some time. What got me interested in studying the topic was that when a group of us who do research on reading were talking about it and we brought up the two types of Gs. It became apparent that many people in the group didn't know what we were talking about. 

I didn't realize until we read about your study and then, when I thought about it, [said,] "Oh yeah, I guess there are these two Gs." So is that most people's reaction? They are kind of aware, but not really?

They are aware in the sense that when they are reading they know these are Gs. But when we ask people, "Are there different forms of G in lowercase print?" most of the time they say, "No."

We're talking about the two forms of G that occur in printed materials. The type that you learn to write has been called open-tailed G. It looks kind of like a loop with a fish hook on the bottom of it. Everybody is familiar with that.

The other form could kind of look like eyeglasses turned on their side. So there's a top loop, and a bottom loop, and a little line that connects the two of them.

Even though we're not that aware of it, we see them all the time.

As part of our study, we just went to the library and pulled books off the shelf at random and looked at what kind of G was appearing in them. The vast majority have used this funny loop-tail form — and that's true even for books that are made for children.

In fact, even some books that are made for teaching the alphabet have this form of G in it, yet we seem to be not very aware of it. 

McCloskey hopes the study will provide insights into how children learn to read. (Dita Alangkara/Associated Press)

Your study discovers that even though we don't learn how to print this way, and even though people can't identify the correct way of doing it in a lineup, do they have any difficulty when they are reading understanding that it's a G when they hit it?

No, we certainly don't think so, at least for adults.

One of the questions we have is: What happens when children are learning to read? A number of researchers now think that learning to write is important for learning to read. That, for one reason or another, when you write a letter, you learn better how to recognize that letter when you are reading.

What does this tell you? Why did you think this study would be useful?

If it is the case that writing is useful for learning to read, and children may have a bit of trouble with this G, it might be worthwhile teaching children to write it. We're not in a position to conclude that right now. But that's a possibility.

The other thing this seems to be telling us is that even when we have a lot of exposure to something, we may only learn those parts of it that are necessary for what we are doing.

So, for this G, if you're just reading it, all you may learn is enough about its shape to distinguish it from other letters. 

That could also be important for teaching children because if children are only exposed to one or a limited set of fonts or typefaces, they may not learn everything they need to learn. 

I think, more generally though, one other reasons for our interest is because of what it suggests about how we learn from our experience more generally. It seems counterintuitive that we could look at this in reading millions of times and still not know it.

I was trying to just print the G, the eyeglass version of it, and I felt like a five-year-old struggling with it. Maybe we should just get rid of it and stick with the open-tailed one?

[Laughs] Maybe so, but that's probably easier said than done.

Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Mary Newman. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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