Phonological awareness and reading: a complex relationship

iStock_000003219917XSmallCanadian researchers report that the relationship between phonological awareness and reading is both more complex and less direct than researchers initially believed. Results of previous research conducted with students exhibiting a wide range of reading ability indicated that good and poor decoders could be identified on the basis of performance on phonological awareness tests and that scores on a variety of phonological awareness measures predict success in learning to read.

Some studies demonstrated that phonological awareness can be enhanced by training and that this training can make a difference in reading achievement. In addition, many researchers believe that phoneme segmentation — the ability to hear separate phonemes in spoken words — is more highly related to reading achievement than other aspects of phonological awareness. These results have convinced many researchers that the lack of or limited phonological awareness is a major factor in reading problems.

However, Grace V. Malicky and Charles A. Norman, University of Alberta, Canada, point out that studies of problem readers show quite different results than previous studies of children with a range of reading abilities. Evaluation of at-risk children in the early grades finds that when IQ is controlled, none of the phonological awareness measures is predictive of success in learning to read.

Some first-grade children in low reading groups had better phonological abilities than some children in the highest reading groups. Results of training studies with at-risk learners have also been disappointing. It was more difficult to improve significantly the phonological awareness of poor readers than studies with more average children suggest.

Closer analysis of the previous studies indicates that the relationship between phonological awareness and reading may be reciprocal. For example, phoneme segmentation — the measure of phonological awareness most highly related to reading — is as likely to be the result of, rather than the cause of learning to read. In other words, children’s ability to hear separate phonemes improves as they learn to read.

These researchers believe that one reason that earlier studies of preschool phonological awareness skills may be somewhat misleading, is because they did not evaluate children’s letter knowledge. Letter identification predicts scores on both reading and spelling tests and, in conjunction with phonological awareness, forms the basis for developing reading and writing skills.

In training studies, results indicate that highly intensive and sustained phonological awareness training by itself provides only limited improvement in reading. Only minimal awareness of phoneme segments may be necessary for children learning to read.

In-depth study of three children

For a closer look at the influence of phonological awareness on reading, Malicky and Normal conducted an in-depth study of three children who represented a diversity of reading problems. All had low reading scores but different levels of phonological awareness skills. One child had low scores on both phonological awareness and reading tests, a second had adequate scores on phonological awareness tests but low scores on reading, and the third had inadequate scores on both for his age, but higher scores on phonological awareness than reading. All three had average intellectual ability and had been referred for evaluation because of poor progress in reading.

Despite the fact that two of the children demonstrated the ability to segment phonemes in words and could associate sounds with most letters, they made only minimal progress in reading. These researchers found that neither of these children understood the connection between oral and written language, despite the fact that they could segment words and knew letter sounds. The third child could sound out phonemes in printed words but did not apply this knowledge when trying to write.

These researchers hypothesize that “rather than phonological awareness per se, what seems to be essential to learning to read is that children develop an understanding of the connections between oral and written language… that written words represent oral language… and that letters in written words stand for phonemes in spoken words.” Although many children make these connections by themselves when beginning to read, some do not.

Phonological awareness is defined by most researchers as essentially an auditory phenomenon — being able to hear sound units in words. This skill, by itself, does not guarantee that children will learn to read. Reading programs that fail to make explicit the connection between oral and written language may not be successful, particularly for children who are struggling with beginning reading.

Phonics programs focus on the relationships between letters and sounds, but this often involves working with letters in isolation. Understanding that written words represent spoken words is crucial for children to learn to read and write.

These researchers state that to ensure that all children learn to read, beginning reading programs must provide training in both phonological awareness and letter identification within the context of reading and writing meaningful text. In this way, children will make the necessary connections between spoken and written language.

“Phonological Awareness and Reading: An Alternative Interpretation of the Literature from a Clinical Perspective”, The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 1999, pp. 18-34.

Published in ERN September 1999 Volume 12 Number 6

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