Proto-literacy, literacy and the acquisition of phonological awareness

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    ABSTRACT: Evidence from beginning readers and adult illiterates indicates that phonological awareness influences the acquisition of literacy and that literacy influ- ences the acquisition of phonological awareness. This bi-directional relationship is discussed with reference to onsets, rimes, and phonemes-intrasyllabic units of speech that correspond to orthographic units of print. It is proposed that the concep- tion of literacy be expanded to include letter-sound association knowledge, a measure of initial or proto-literacy that prereaders acquire from exposure to print. Evidence is reviewed indicating that proto-literacy may influence prereaders awareness of onsets and phonemes, and possible mechanisms underlying the influence of print upon awareness of these units of speech are discussed. It is concluded that phono- logical awareness is not a homogeneous skill that emerges naturally during the later stages of oral language development; instead, it is a heterogeneous skill and its acquisition involves a complex pattern of interactions between print and speech both before and after children learn to read and spell.

    Over two decades of research have shown that awareness of the phonological segments making up spoken words is causally related to success in learning to read and spell. These segments are smaller than a syllable and consist of individual phonemes as well as onsets and rimes, units of spoken language structure that are intermediate in size between syllables and phonemes.

    Most investigators regard phonological awareness as a skill that emerges naturally or spontaneously during the course of language development-biological (matura- tional) factors and experience with spoken language combine to provide children with the ability to attend consciously to phonological segments. This view is consis- tent with the idea that reading and spelling are fundamentally language-based pro- cesses even though visual/spatial information processing is involved in the input and output stages of their execution, respectively. By extension then, the acquisition of reading and spelling are presumed to be constrained, at least in part, by the degree of phonological awareness skill that children bring to the task of acquiring literacy.

    Direct all correapondenca to: Roderick W. Barmn, Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario NlG 2W1, Canada.

    Learning and lndivldual Differences, Volume 3, Number 3, 1991, pages 243-255. Copyright 0 1991 by JAI Press, Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISSN: 1041-6090


    Evidence for the relationship between phonological awareness and literacy is consistent with this perspective. Longitudinal studies have shown that phonological awareness is related to success in learning to read (e.g., Bradley & Bryant 1983, 1985; Tumner, Herriman, & Nesdale 1988; Bryant, MacLean, Bradley & Crossland 1990). Poor readers tend to be deficient in phonological awareness (Bradley & Bryant 1978), and phonological awareness is independent of I.Q. (Wagner & Torgesen 1987; Stanovich 1986). Finally, Olson, Wise, Connors & Rack (1990) have reported evidence from twin studies indicating that there is a significant heritable component to deficits in phonological processing but not orthographic processing of print. Furthermore, the deficits in phonological processing appear to be linked to measures of phonological awareness.


    Recent research on phonological awareness has centered upon identifying the units of speech of which children are aware and how those units correspond to ortho- graphic units that are important in acquiring reading and spelling skill. There appear to be several types of linguistic units that are critical in phonological awareness: syllables (e.g., top, stop), onsets (e.g., lsi, /St/), rimes (e.g., iopi), and individual phonemes (e.g., Is/, ltl, loi, lpl). An onset is a sub-syllabic unit made up of a consonant or consonant cluster (Is/, /St/) and it is not obligatory in English (i.e., some words begin with a vowel). A rime is also a sub-syllabic unit but it is obligatory, follows the onset, and consists of a vowel plus any following consonants (lopl).

    Research with adults indicates that spontaneous speech errors may involve com- bining the onset of one word with the rime of a word that is similar in meaning. The intended utterance Dont shout, for example, may be produced as Dont shell because the onset of shout is combined with the rime of yell (MacKay 1972). Short-term memory errors for syllables also reveals an onset-rime segmentation (Treiman & Danis 1988), and onset-rime combinations are easier than other possible combinations when subjects are required to blend syllables (Treiman 1983, 1986).

    This classification of the segmental structure of syllables into onsets, rimes and phonemes suggests a hierarchical organization to the structure of the syllable with the syllable itself at the top level, phonemes at the bottom level, and the onset and rime at the middle level (e.g., Treiman 1988; in press). There is evidence from research with preschoolers which is consistent with this possibility. Beginning with the syllable, there are a number of experiments involving a variety of tasks which show that children find it easier to attend to syllables than to phonemes (e.g., Fox & Routh 1975; Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer & Carter, 1974).

    The primary evidence for onsets and rimes comes from research by Treiman (for reviews see 1988, in press). In one study (Treiman 1985), a phoneme recognition task was used in which children had to judge whether words and nonwords con- tained a puppets favorite sound (e.g., Id). Four and five year-old children had more trouble recognizing the phoneme lsl when it was part of the onset of a syllable consisting of an initial cluster of consonants (e.g., spa) than when it was an onset consisting of a single consonant (e.g., sap).


    In a related set of studies, Kirtley, Bryant, MacLean & Bradley (1989) showed that five year-old children found it easier to identify the word containing the odd phoneme in a series of three, single syllable spoken words when the phoneme was the onset of the word (e.g., /cl in doll, deaf, can) than when the phoneme was part of the rime (e.g., /d/in mop, lead, whip; lo/ in cap, can, cot).

    These results indicate that phonological awareness is easier for syllables than for phonemes. They also indicate that phonological awareness is easier for onsets than for phonemes and for rimes than for phonemes when the phonemes are embedded within these intrasyllabic units.


    The biological perspective on the development of phonological awareness de- scribed above has led a number of investigators to assume, at least implicitly, that the c,ausal connection between phonological awareness and literacy goes in just one direction-from phonological awareness to literacy. Some of the most compelling evidence for this connection comes from longitudinal studies which show that preschoolers knowledge of nursery rhymes (e.g., recite Humpty Dumpty) at age three predicts their rhyming oddity task performance at age four (e.g. identify the word containing the odd middle sound lul in the series pig, wig, hug; and the odd final sound in/ in the series hut, fun, cut). Nursery rhyme knowledge also predicts alliteration oddity task performance (e.g., identify the word containing the odd beginning sound It/ in the series tap, had, hat). Additional longitu- dinal research showed that the childrens performance on the rhyming and allitera- tion oddity tasks predicted their performance on measures of reading and spelling taken several years later (e.g., Bryant & Bradley 1983, 1985; MacLean, Bryant, & Bradley 1987; Bryant, Bradley, MacLean, & Crossland, 1989).

    Furthermore, Bryant, MacLean, Bradley & Crossland (1990) have reported path analyses showing that rhyming and alliteration are related to reading indirectly through phoneme detection (measured by phoneme deletion and phoneme tapping tasks). They also showed that rhyming and alliteration, as well as phoneme detec- tion, are all directly related to reading. Bryant et al. (1990) suggest that rhyming and #alliteration influence reading because sequences of phonemes which begin or end .words tend to have spelling sequences in common. Goswami (1988, 1990) has shown that young children use these intrasyllabic regularities in orthography and phonology early in the acquisition of reading skill.

    Bertelson, Morais and their co-workers, however, have reported evidence which challenges the unidirectional hypothesis. They have found that adult illiterates perform more poorly than ex-illiterates having the same social and economic background on tasks in which they are required to add, delete or reverse single phonemes in words (e.g., Morais, Cary, Alegria, Cyr Bertelson 1979; Content, Kolinsky, Morais & Bertelson 1986; Morais, Bertelson, Cary, & Alegria 1986; Morais, Alegria, & Content 1987). Furthermore, Bertelson & deGelder (1989) have argued


    that awareness that words rhyme tends to develop spontaneously and is not related to reading acquisition while awareness of individual phonemes is a product of reading instruction.

    Consistent with this idea, Bertelson, deGelder, Tfouni & Morais (1989) found that illiterate subjects could perform rhyme judgment and vowel deletion tasks, but were unable to perform consonant deletion tasks. In addition, Read, Zhang, Nie & Ding (1986) have shown that phonological awareness is specific to an alphabetic orthography. They found that adult readers, who had learned to read Chinese characters using an alphabetic orthography (Hanyu pinyin), could add and delete individual consonants in spoken Chinese words. In contrast, adults with similar educational and social backgrounds, who had learned the characters without any alphabetic assistance, were unable to perform these phonological awareness tasks.

    These data on adult illiterates suggest several conclusions. First, phonological awareness may not emerge naturally during the course of linguistic or cognitive biological maturation; instead, it may require specific instruction in literacy. Second, causation may be bi-directional and go from literacy to phonological awareness as well as from phonological awareness to literacy. Third, phonological awareness may not be a unitary, homogeneous skill. Instead, it may be heterogeneous with different forms of the skill being connected to different aspects of literacy. As a result, a global hypothesis about the relationship between phonological awareness and literacy may be less tenable than one in which the direction of causation is specified for different linguistic units (e.g., phonemes, onsets, rimes).

    The research on illiterates indicates that knowing how to read will facilitate per- formance on at least some phonological awareness tasks. This conclusion also seems to apply to research with children. Wagner & Torgeson (1987) reanalyzed the longi- tudinal data reported by Lundberg, Olofsson & Wall (1980) and reported that the median correlation between phonological awareness measures taken in Kindergar- ten and grade one reading performance dropped from .45 to .06 when the childrens reading ability in Kindergarten was held constant. Valtin (1984) has made the same point in a similar analysis. In another longitudinal study, Perfetti, Beck, Bell, & Hughes (1987) found that childrens phoneme deletion performance increased as their reading skill increased whereas blending was not influenced by reading level.

    Bradley & Bryant (1983, 1985) eliminated 20% of the initial sample of 503 four- and five year-old children in their longitudinal-training study because these children could read one or more words on the Schonell reading test. Nevertheless, the 403 remaining nonreaders were quite skilled at rhyme and alliteration oddity tasks. In addition, MacLean et. al. (1987) and Bryant et. al. (1989) have reported similar findings on rhyme and alliteration oddity tasks among children who could not yet read any words.

    Finally, Kirtley et. al. (1989) found that non-readers in an oddity task could identify the word containing the odd single consonant phoneme above chance when the consonant was the onset (e.g., /p/ in man, mint, peck, mug). Performance was at chance, however, in identifying the word containing the odd consonant when the consonant was embedded in the rime (e.g., /t/ in pin, gun, hat, men). In contrast, children who had just begun to read were above chance in identifying the word containing the odd consonant when the consonant was the


    onset and when it was embedded in the rime. These results suggest that awareness of individual phonemes requires literacy whereas awareness of onsets and rimes does not.


    One problem, however, with the above conclusion about the relationships between literacy, level of linguistic units, and phonological awareness is the assumption that literacy only begins when children can accurately perform the difficult tasks of reading single words aloud or spelling them to dictation. A more comprehensive way to consider the relationships between phonological awareness and literacy is to look at childrens literacy before they can actually read or spell any words.

    Literacy is an emergent phenomenon that begins before children receive instruc- tion in school. Adams (1990) estimates that activities such as being read to aloud, playing letter and word games, and watching Sesame Street provide many middle class children in North America with several thousand hours of exposure to printed words and their corresponding phonological representations before they are for- mally taught reading and spelling. In contrast, children who have had minimal interactions with print tend to have difficulty learning to read and spell (e.g., Clay 1976; Feitelson & Goldstein 1986; Heath 1983; Teale 1986).

    Children who differ in their exposure to print are very likely to differ in their level of literacy before they enter school and begin to receive formal instruction in reading. This initial literacy or proto-literacy does not involve knowledge of how to read or spell any words, except possibly recognizing highly salient and familiar logos such as McDonalds (e.g., Masonheimer, Drum & Ehri 1984). Instead, proto- literate knowledge involves associations that are learned between letters and their names (b-pronounced bee) and letters and their sounds (...


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