Neuroimaging studies of reading have identified unique patterns of activation for individuals reading in alphabetic and Asian languages, suggesting the involvement of different processes in each. The present study investigates the extent to which a cognitive prerequisite for reading, the understanding of the symbolic function of print, is common to children learning to read in these two different systems. Four-year-old children in Hong Kong learning to read in Cantonese and children in Canada learning to read in English are compared for their understanding of this concept by means of the moving word task. Children in both settings performed the same on the task, indicating similar levels of progress in spite of experience with very different writing systems. In addition, the children in Hong Kong benefited from the structural similarity between certain iconic characters and their referents, making these items easier than arbitrary characters. These results point to an important cognitive universal in the development of literacy for all children that is the foundation for skilled reading that later becomes diverse and specialized.