An experimental study in Mexico explored the influence of writing on phonological awareness with kindergartners who had no direct reading instruction. Sofia A. Vernon, Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, Queretaro, Mexico, and Emilia Ferreiro, Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Mexico City, questioned whether children’s ability to segment spoken words into phonemes is a prerequisite for learning to read and write. They found that encouraging children to write in kindergarten and first grade was an important way to stimulate their analysis of spoken words. In this study, children’s ability to benefit from systematic phonics instruction depended on their level of writing development. Vernon and Ferreiro investigated:
- The extent to which recognition of phonemes in spoken language is a prerequisite to recognizing the same phonemes in writing.
- Whether phonological awareness is a precondition to becoming literate, or is a consequence of exposure to written material and reading instruction.
- Whether kindergartners benefit from training in phonological awareness.
These researchers hypothesized that there was a strong relationship between phonological awareness and the level of writing development in five- and six-year-old Spanish-speaking children. In addition, they suggested that children would analyze spoken words differently when provided with the printed word at the same time. They also contended that differences in the internal structure of language must somehow influence the way children
analyze spoken words.
At the beginning of the study, 54 kindergarten children’s development was categorized on the basis of their writing skills. Their comments during the writing task were recorded to allow researchers to make inferences about children’s concepts of writing. Their responses to
phonological awareness tasks were also analyzed. All the children were monolingual Spanish speakers who attended public kindergarten and had had no previous reading or phonics instruction. Very few reading materials were available in their classrooms, and their teachers seldom
read aloud to them. Eleven randomly chosen first-graders who had received six months of reading instruction were given the same tasks as the kindergartners.
Each child was seen on two consecutive days. First, each child was asked to write seven different common Spanish nouns, one at a time. After the child had
written each word, they were asked to read it, pointing to the letters as they read them. On the basis of their responses, children were classified into six different writing levels, ranging from pre-syllabic writing (no attempts to establish letter-sound correspondences of any kind) to alphabetic writing (systematic phoneme-letter correspondences, even with unconventional spelling).
In a game format, the same children were given two oral-segmentation tasks. In the first, children were asked to name the object in a picture and then to orally segment the name into “little bits” so that an adult, who had not seen the word, would have a hard time guessing the name. The children understood these instructions easily. The goal was to elicit the most analytical responses the children could give.
In the second task, the children were shown a written word. For each card, the researcher read the word aloud and then asked the child to point to each letter
while saying the word in little bits, one bit for each letter. Naming the letters was discouraged. For both segmentation tasks, children’s responses were classified according to the types of linguistic units they were able to analyze.
The way children in this study segmented spoken words was strongly related to their level of conceptualization about the writing system, regardless of their age. These tasks, without imposing a particular approach, encouraged children to adopt an analytical attitude. Children’s answers to oral-segmentation tasks demonstrated a range of development from the inability to find pieces in a word, to syllable-based analysis, then to the ability to make intra-syllabic analysis toward the end of the word, and finally to full isolation of phonemes.
At every writing level, children performed in a more analytic way when they were asked to look at the letters printed on a card. Their responses were not dependent on researchers’ modeling and instructions. Only children at the most advanced level consistently gave answers similar to the researchers’ examples. The demonstrations at the
beginning of the tasks served as cues for some children but not for others. The children’s ability to deal with the task seemed to depend on their overall knowledge of the writing system.
These results suggest that phonological awareness is not an all-or-nothing achievement. Writing and reading activities may help children become aware of the sound structure of language. Oral communication alone does not demand such conscious analysis. Participation in language games may allow children to learn rhymes, but writing and reading are the only activities that require true phonological awareness. Writing, in addition to being an end in itself, also seems to be an instrument to achieve a specific kind of language knowledge. Vernon and Ferreiro state that from a developmental point of view, there is no evidence that phonological awareness can arise without some understanding of the alphabetical writing system. They also suggest that generalization of research results from one language to another may be misguided.
These results also indicate that teachers’ instructions are not understood the same way by children at different levels of conceptualization about print. Teaching phonics or teaching whole language will not ensure that children will learn in these ways. Teaching influences learning, but it does not create it. Direct, systematic phonics instruction, segmental phonological awareness training and letter-sound correspondences may not be useful for all children, regardless of their developmental level.
Children at less advanced levels of writing development may not be capable of grasping the information about phonemes and letter-sound matching, although — like the kindergartners in this study — they can analyze speech when prompted. Vernon and Ferreiro believe that if teachers encourage young children to write and to reflect on their writing, they will analyze speech.
“Writing Development: A Neglected Variable in the Consideration of Phonological Awareness” Harvard Educational Review Volume 69, Number 4, winter 1999 pp. 395-415.
Published in ERN February 2000 Volume 13 Number 2