Proto-literacy, literacy and the acquisition of phonological awareness

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  • PROTO-LITERACY, LITERACY AND THE ACQUISITION OF

    PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS

    RODERICK W. BARRON

    UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH

    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

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    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.

    SYLLABLES, ONSETS, RIMES AND PHONEMES

    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).

  • PROJCI-LITERACY AND PHONOLOGlCAL AWARENESS 245

    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.

    BI-DIRECTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS AND LITERACY

    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

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    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 ju