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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 52 back to contents
Research DigestJennifer Chew

Blaiklock, K.E., 2004. The importance of letter knowledge in the relationship between phonological awareness and reading. Journal of Research in Reading , Vol. 27 Issue 1, February 2004. Working in New Zealand , where whole language is the favoured approach, Blaiklock used various measures to test children six times in their first year at school and three times in the second year. He found that they knew, on average, only four letter names and .17 of a letter-sound when they started school and that none of them showed any ability at all to manipulate phonemes in spoken words (for example, given the word ‘coat’, they were unable to say what word was left if the first sound was removed). They began to score on the phonemic awareness task, though still poorly, only about half way through the first year, when, on average, they could name about 17 letters and could read about 6 words on the Burt test. Blaiklock states that his findings are ‘consistent with a number of studies that indicate that phoneme awareness is initially a consequence of developing literacy skills’. He also states that his findings ‘emphasise the importance of taking account of letter knowledge when examining the relationship between phonological awareness and reading’ and that ‘Although letter-sound knowledge may not be emphasised in New Zealand classrooms,...children who learnt letter sounds quickly were more likely to make greater progress in reading’. It is very interesting that when no explicit teaching of phonemes took place, some children nevertheless started to deduce something about phonemes after learning letters and whole-language strategies for word-reading, and that these were the children who then made most progress in reading.  

Castles, A. and Coltheart, M., 2004. Is there a causal link from phonological awareness to success in learning to read? Cognition 91, 2004. The researchers review all the relevant studies and ‘re-assess the evidence that phonological awareness represents a skill specific to spoken language that precedes and directly influences the process of reading acquisition’. Like Macmillan and Blaiklock, they are interested in ‘the degree to which studies to date have controlled for existing literacy skills in their participants and the influence that these skills might have on performance on phonological awareness tasks’. This is important, because if children have any literacy skills at all when their phonological awareness is first tested, one cannot rule out the possibility that they may rely wholly or partly on letter-knowledge rather than purely on phonological analysis. Castles and Coltheart note that ‘although there is support in the...literature for the hypothesis that phonemic awareness enables, or at least assists, literacy acquisition, there is also considerable support for the proposal that the causality flows in the reverse direction... . At the very least, there would clearly seem to be a complex reciprocal relationship between the two sets of skills’. They ‘conclude that no study has provided unequivocal evidence that there is a causal link from phonological awareness to success in reading and spelling acquisition’. Instead, the evidence is that ‘it is the learning of relationships between letters and sounds in the context of reading instruction, rather than the ability to reflect upon speech sounds in isolation prior to reading, that is vital for progress in literacy’.  

Mann, V., and Wimmer, H., 2002. Phoneme awareness and pathways into literacy: A comparison of German and American children. Reading and writing: An interdisciplinary journal 15, 2002. Mann and Wimmer start by highlighting a contrast between early teaching in the USA and German-speaking countries: ‘Where American kindergartners are taught letters and letter sounds, German kindergartners are not; where American first and second graders receive an eclectic blend of whole language, whole word and phonics-based approaches, their German counterparts are taught by an intensive synthetic phonics approach’. They found that the American kindergartners knew far more letters, had far more phonemic awareness and could read more words than the German kindergartners – in fact the German children were virtually at floor in all these areas. By the end of first grade, however, the position was largely reversed: ‘the German children exhibited more perfect letter knowledge than their American counterparts and superior pseudoword decoding as well’, though they were on a par in phonemic awareness. The researchers believe that it was the ‘intensive synthetic phonics approach’ used with the German children once they entered Grade 1 which enabled them to overtake the American children in letter-knowledge and decoding, although the likelihood that the relative simplicity of German orthography played a role is also acknowledged. Another possibility which is briefly dealt with is that dyslexic children have language problems that make the acquisition of phonemic awareness harder for them, but the general conclusion of the researchers is that their findings ‘are consistent with a view that phoneme awareness develops primarily as a product of literacy exposure’.




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