The Role of Phonological Awareness in Literacy Development: Evidence from Research

Phonological awareness refers to the ability of language learners to detect and manipulate sounds. This enables children to develop language literacy and also contribute to speech development. Various researchers have carried out studies on phonology and explained different roles of phonological awareness in language development. This paper will provide evidence from various studies which prove that phonological awareness has a role to lay in literacy development.

Ehri et al. (2001) suggests that phonological awareness is a significant factor in children’s learning process which enables them to learn how to read and spell. The study indicates that children with strong phonological awareness also have strong reading abilities while those with poor phonological awareness have poor reading abilities. Spelling abilities also have a direct relationship with phonological awareness; stronger phonological awareness leads to stronger spelling abilities while weaker phonological awareness leads to weaker spelling abilities. The study also shows that a child’s phonological skills in pre-school education will determine his/her reading and spelling abilities in later years of education. In this regard, the literacy development of children is enhanced through the use of phonological skills that have the capability of creating a high level of phonological awareness. This is because the knowledge of spelling and reading gained through a high level of phonological awareness leads to good literacy development in linguistics.

Dodd and Gillon (2001) also claim that phonological awareness plays a big role in the development of speech and literacy. Their study indicates that levels of literacy increases with increased phonological awareness and that low levels of phonological awareness may lead to speech impairment. Therefore, phonological awareness contributes to literacy and language development.

Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony (2000) assert that phonological awareness is closely related to the overall language literacy development; reading and speech development. The size of a learner’s vocabulary as well as the semantics, syntax and morphology of expression and reception are highly dependent on the learner’s phonological awareness. Phonological awareness forms a good basis for the development vocabulary and morphology which in turn lead to the development literacy among learners. These aspects yield more results in literacy development if they are of large sizes. There sizes are determined by the levels of phonological awareness. Higher levels of phonological awareness lead to larger sizes of semantics, vocabulary and morphology, resulting in better development of literacy. On the other hand, lower levels of phonological awareness lead to smaller sizes of semantics, vocabulary and morphology, resulting in poor development of literacy.

Anthony et al (2003) infer from their study that phonological awareness contributes to the development of language skills in a non-linear manner. The study correlates phonological skills with language skills and suggests that the two skills work together in either direction in order to facilitate successful language literacy and development, both in reading and spelling. The study draws its evidence from an investigation of the order in which phonological sensitivity skills are acquired by kindergarten and pre-school children. This involved a cross examination of various levels of linguistic complexities such as phonemes, words, onsets, rimes and syllables. Other task complexities such as blending and elision were also investigated. The study used a sample of 947 two-five year old children. The findings of the study indicate that there is a quasi-parallel pattern of development that is related to word structure models and task complexity models. The paper therefore concludes that there should be a conceptualization of phonological sensitivity if development is to be achieved in children and their literacy.

Rvachew et al (2003) suggest that phonological skills does not only apply to children with normal speech but also correlates with phonological and language development of children with speech disorders. They hold that delayed phonological skills leads to low poor phonological awareness and phonemic perception, hence causing speech disorders. However, the study indicates that even with speech disorders, children at the age of four years can still develop their language and speech through an enhanced phonological awareness. At this stage, phonological skills, though delayed, still play a crucial role in the development of a child’s language. From this study, it is clear that speech disorders is highly related to delayed phonological skills in children. Therefore, creation of phonological awareness among children in their early stages of life is important in the development of literacy and language among the young children.

Hazan and Barret (2000) contend that there is a positive relationship between phonological awareness and reading abilities. However, this relationship changes with time. This study constituted an analysis of 120 children with ages ranging between 6 and 12 years. Several tests including goat-coat, date-gate, sue-zoo and sue-shoe stimuli tests were carried out in this linguistic study to identify and investigate the effect of phonemic categorization in children aged 6-12 in language variations and literacy development. This study showed that age plays a crucial role in the development of speech perception. It indicates that there is a significant variation in the levels of phonemic categorization within given age groups. However, the study recognizes that the effectiveness of phonemic categorization in literacy development is unquestionable, no matter the age.  Hazan and Barret (2000) further indicate that children with the ages 6-12 can develop phonological skills easily and be able to differentiate between various sounds, hence developing their language easily. This aspect is drawn from the study’s assertion that the informative aspect of phonemic cues and not the dynamisms or statics of the cues. Therefore, an informative phonemic perception tends to increase the level of children’s literacy development than non-informative phonemic perception. Informative phonemic perception according to this study is enhanced by phonological awareness. In this regard, phonological awareness plays a significant role in literacy development.

In study of why education needs linguistics, Hudson (2003) claims that education generally needs a wide range of linguistic topics. In this analysis, further narrowing of ideas indicated that phonological and phonemic notations and morphology play a crucial part in language description. Language description on the other hand enhances effective language and literacy development in learners within an education system. Some linguists (e.g. in the UK) use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) create phonetic awareness among learners. It is through the use of International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that some linguists can be able to develop a create level of phonetic skills in language learners. It can be used by teachers to develop phonetic awareness in initial literacy. In turn, this helps intermediate pupils to learn spelling and reading system. Phonetic skills also help language learners to learn foreign languages and exploration of variations in accent and languages. Hudson (2003) argues that a language teacher without phonetic skills and terminologies is like a music teacher attempting to teach pupils without musical notations, or worse yet, a geography teacher without a map. Therefore, we can conclude from Hudson’s arguments that phonological awareness helps in language description, hence contributing to a successful literacy and language development.

Finally, Fillmore and Snow (2000) carried out a study which was aimed at providing teachers with knowledge about the necessity of language and linguistics in their teaching roles. The study identifies oral language as one of the requirements which linguistic and language teachers need to learn in order to enhance literacy development in their language students. In this research, Fillmore and Snow (2000) say that phonemes (sounds) are necessary for teachers to develop languages in learners (p. 14). Spoken language is said to be composed of sounds of varying sizes. They postulate that the perception, detection and use of such phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (sequences of phonemes that constitute the smallest unit of meaning in language) help learners to develop their language. Therefore, phonological awareness (identification and manipulation of sounds) contribute to the success of language development.

Fillmore and Snow (2000) also argue that morphemes alone do not carry any meaning. Sounds are only meaningful by convention. Phonemes on the other hand differ from one language to another. Therefore, a high level of phonological awareness is needed to identify each phoneme to its appropriate language in the process of language development. For instance, ban and van carry different meanings because the phonemes v and b are different. However, in Spanish b and v have no difference in meaning and are therefore treated as similar phonemes. Generally, high level phonological awareness allows linguists to acknowledge the difference in grammatical units such as morphemes and phonemes. This enhances a good literacy development.

Generally, these studies constitute a good evidence of phonological awareness as the most important aspect of literacy development. Phonological awareness involves the understanding of morphemes and phonemes as well as other sound language units that are important to linguists in language literacy development. In order to attain a good literacy level in literacy development, a bilingual and monolingual learners need to gain a high level of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness enables individuals to increase their understanding of sounds and effective categorization of phonetics in linguistics. This in turn leads to enhanced reading and spelling abilities in language learners. Furthermore, phonological awareness enables teachers to gain a good understanding and manipulation of sounds. This helps them to provide good teaching to language learners on linguistics and literacy in general. Therefore, phonological awareness plays a crucial role in literacy development among linguists and language learners worldwide.


References List

Anthony, J. L., Lonigan, C. J., Driscoll, K., Phillips, B. M., & Burgess, S. R. (2003). Phonological sensitivity: A quasi-parallel progression of word structure units and cognitive operations. Reading Research Quarterly, 38, 470–487.

Dodd, B., & Gillon, G. (2001). Exploring the relationship between phonological awareness, speech impairment and literacy. Advances in Speech Language Pathology, 3 (2), 139-147

Ehri, L., Nunes, S., Willows, D., Schuster, B., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250–287.

Fillmore, L. W., and Snow, C. E. (2000). What Teachers Need to Know about Language: Clearinghouse on languages and linguistics, special report, 1-41.

Hazan, V. and Barret, S. (2000). The Development of Phonemic Categorization in Children aged 6-12. Journal of Phonetics, 28, 377–396.

Hudson, R. (2003). Why Education needs linguistics (and Vice Versa). Journal of linguistics, 40 (2004), 105-130.

Leech, G. (2002). Grammars of spoken English: new outcomes of corpus-oriented research. Language Learning, 50, 675–724.

Lonigan, C. J., Burgess, S. R., & Anthony, J. L. (2000). Development of emergent literacy and early reading skills in preschool children: Evidence from a latent-variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 36, 596–613.

Fredrick Chepkonga

B. Economics & Finance, B/ED, Writer, Educator with experience of 12 years in research and writing.

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