What part do phonological and syntactic awareness play in learning to read? In a four-year study of 28 children, E. Demont and J.E. Gombert, University of Bourgogne, France, attempted to determine the effect these two linguistic skills had on the development of decoding and comprehension in beginning readers.
The importance of phonological skill in beginning reading — the ability to segment words into sound units and to blend them together — is well established. Less is known about the importance of syntactic awareness, the understanding of the structure of language which often is measured by an ability to correct sentences or to fill in blanks in sentences.
However, experimental evidence indicates that poor readers 8 or 9 years old are worse at sentence correction and filling in blanks than better readers who are younger.
Demont and Gombert’s study followed children for the first four years of reading development. Their average age was five years seven months at the start of the study and eight years eight months at the end. During the four years, each child was tested six times in two 40-minute sessions that measured their skill at these two linguistic tasks as well as their reading skills.
Phonological tasks included syllable counting and pronunciation; deleting initial, final and middle syllables; and inverting syllables in two-syllable words and pseudowords. Then, these same tasks were carried out with phonemes. Syntactic tasks included counting and pronouncing words in phrases and sentences; judging the grammatical correctness of sentences; and correcting these errors. Both a decoding and a comprehension test were administered each time as well.
Differences in non-verbal intelligence, I.Q. and vocabulary level were controlled. The researchers analyzed whether children’s phonological awareness and syntactic awareness predicted later reading achievement after the influences of differences in ability and vocabulary had been accounted for. Demont and Gombert analyzed the results of each subtest to determine which variables best predicted decoding and comprehension skills in young readers.
Predictive variables change over time
Analyses of test results reveal that the predictive power of these variables changes over time. Certain variables predict performance only through kindergarten, while others appear more important in later reading development. From the beginning of first grade, the best predictor of decoding abilities was performance on phonemic tasks. However, by the end of second grade, only phonemic counting and initial phoneme deletion significantly predicted decoding performance.
Among the youngest children, non-verbal intelligence was the strongest predictor of reading comprehension. Results also showed a substantial correlation between reading comprehension and syntactic measures. Early phonemic skill never predicted later reading comprehension, but performance on syntactic measures did predict comprehension. Specifically, being able to correct word order and morphemic errors was positively related to reading comprehension.
Sentence organization increases in importance
These results show that phonological and morpho-syntactic skills play an important role in learning to read that is independent of general non-verbal ability, I.Q. and vocabulary. Non-verbal intelligence showed a strong influence on beginning reading but disappeared totally as a factor by the end of second grade. The general and verbal abilities did not seem to be systematically good predictors of decoding skill. From early second grade, awareness of how sentences are organized appears to play an increasingly important role in children’s comprehension. Nevertheless, phonemic skills appear to play a more significant role in decoding than syntactic skills do in comprehension. Demont and Gombert suggest, on the basis of these results, that it might be useful for children to develop an explicit awareness of both the phonological and morpho-syntactic elements in language. Formal oral games that draw attention to language structure are recommended before students begin learning to read.
“Phonological Awareness as a Predictor of Recoding Skills and Syntactic Awareness as a Predictor of Comprehension Skills” British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 66, September 1996 pp. 315-332.
Published in ERN November/December 1996 Volume 9 Number 5.