Few of us, certainly not those who went to school in Australia in the seventies or early eighties, would remember ever having had to learn that words are composed of individual sounds, beyond a hazy recollection of sounding out 'c-a-t' in primary school. Even fewer would find it easy to accept that not all speakers of English have this concept. We don't know much about illiteracy in highly literate societies like Australia, and we get away with dismissing the characteristics of pre-literacy, such as a young child's inability to play 'I spy', as cognitive immaturity. The assumption that phonemic awareness comes naturally has shaped theories of phonology and the teaching of literacy in Australia and elsewhere. But since the mid-2000s, in light of concern about the literacy achievement of Australian students, that assumption has been questioned. A debate has emerged focusing on phonemic awareness and its relationship to alphabetic literacy – the ability to communicate and obtain meaning through reading and writing a language in a script whose characters broadly represent the basic sounds of the spoken language – and has challenged the assumption that we naturally conceive of words as being made up of individual sounds.
So do alphabetic literacy and phonemic awareness develop hand in hand?
Plenty of research shows that, far from being a natural state, phonemic awareness comes only with alphabetic literacy. Both need to be taught explicitly. Studies have focused on the ability of non-literate people to perform phoneme segmentation tasks. David Olson (1996:6) cites findings by Shankweiler and Liberman that pre-literate children have difficulty counting the 'sounds' in words, or adding or deleting phonemes. Other studies have demonstrated that pre-literate children initialy conceive of writing as a direct representation of concepts (Treiman & Kessler, in press:5) and sometimes look for logographic meaning in words – for example understanding that 'camel' means camel because there are two humps represented logogrpahically in the word (Bowman & Treiman 2004:4; Treiman & Kessler, in press:6) – without an awareness of sound-symbol correspondence or the existence of individual sounds. A further set of studies have shown that specific instruction in phonemic segmentation can improve reading ability (for example Ball & Blachman cited in Treiman 2000:4).
Research involving illiterate adults and those literate in languages with non-alphabetic (character-based and syllabic) scripts has supported the suggestion that the inability of pre-literate children to conceive of phonemes is related to literacy rather than to other aspects of child cognitive development. Olson (1996:7) cites findings by Morais, Cary, Alegria, Bertelson that Portugese adults who had received minimal reading instruction were better able to carry out segmentation tasks than those who had no literacy, and points to similar findings amongst non-literate adults in Brazil (Bertelson, de Gelder, Tfouni and Morais cited in Olson 1996:7), India (Prakesh, Rekha, Nigam and Karanth cited in Olson 1996:7) and rural America (Willis cited in Olson 1996:7). He also cites examples of less ability to manipulate phonemes amongst Chinese speakers with character-based literacy, as compared to those familiar with alphbetic Piyin, and Japanese children with syllabic literacy, as opposed to American children learning English (Olson 1996:7).
A range of studies demonstrating that reading difficulties in children are often caused by an absence of phonemic awareness provide further confirmation of the close relationship between phonemic awareness and alphabetic literacy (for example, Just and Carptenter 1987:318).
This relationship at the basic level does not appear to be in doubt. Before considering the implications of this, however, it is important to acknowledge that the hand-in-hand development does not continue beyond the acquisition of basic phonemic awareness. Literate people, while able to spearate their speech into the sounds that are represented by their orthography, make no differentiation between certain phonologically different sounds, when differentiation is not required for meaning; they have little awareness of allophones. This suggests that phonological awareness is only developed in literate adults to the basic level required to understand the alphabetic principle. Beyond that, its development ceases, and literacy continues to develop through morphophonemic and ideographic means, with some phonemic differences being ignored, and words being recognised as whole units of meaning, in order to accommodate the irregularities of English spelling (Mackay 1987:50&53). While the development of phonemic awareness ceases, literacy continues to develop throughout a person's life (DEST 2005:7)
Implications for theory of phonology
That phonemic awareness is not present without a level of alphabetic literacy, and that the focus of pre-literate children is firmly on meaning, poses problems for computational theories of phonology which attempt to establish structural relationships between pronunciation and the form related to meaning, without considering contextual factors (LING 465 Study Guide 2006:10.9). Cognitive theory, which focuses on an individual's concepts and representations as the most important elements of cognition, (LING 465 Study Guide 2006:10.9) is most useful in articulating the need to focus on concept formation in examining how literacy and phonemic awareness are acquired, and in how best to to aid the process.
Implications for the teaching of literacy
For the teaching of literacy, evidence that phonological awareness is necessary for alphabetic literacy to be acquired, and is not naturally present in non-literate individuals, provides strong argument for the teaching in early education of phonics: explicit instruction in the phonological make-up of words and language and the relationship between sounds and letters (the alphabetic principle). This argument remains controversial, given the dominance of 'whole language' in Australian schools since the 1970s: a theory of literacy teaching which supposes that children can learn to read naturally, just as they learn to speak, if given motivating exposure to the written word (DEST 2005:28). In 2005, however, an independent inquiry into the acquisition of literacy by Australian school children ('the Nelson Report'), commissioned by the Australian Government, argued that the teaching of phonics was an essential part of the teaching of literacy and recommended that phonics instruction be re-introduced into Australian schools (DEST 2005:37-38) to improve literacy outcomes.
Although 'whole language' theory is clearly flawed by its failure to recognise that phonemic awareness does not come naturally, other elements of 'whole language', such ensuring children are exposed to a rich literary environment with a focus on meaning and recognition, need not be discarded. These are useful in developing literacy beyond the acquisition of basic phonemic awareness. This too is acknowledged in the Nelson Report, which points to a variety of measures required to ensure effective literacy acquisition, including direct instruction in phonics, as well as exposure to a rich print environment (DEST 2005:9). The report also cites studies which have demonstrated the effectiveness of integrated teaching strategies, provided this builds on a grounding in phonics. (Camilli, Vargas & Yurecko; Center; Louden; and Swanson & Hoskyn, cited in DEST 2005:33).
Implications for the teaching of literacy to non English-speaking children
Extrapolating from what we know about the needs of English-speaking children in literacy acquisition, some implications can be drawn for the teaching of literacy in English to children whose native language is not English. The close relationship between phonological awareness and alphabetic literacy, coupled with the obvious point that a child must be familiar with the sounds of a language before phonological awareness can be acquired (Just & Carpenter 1987:296), point strongly to the need for language policy which permits the teaching of basic alphabetic literacy in a child's first language. This is of particular relevance in multilingual, generally post-colonial, societies where the official language and language of education is English but where English is generally not acquired by children until they reach school age.
As an example, in Solomon Islands, where the medium of instruction is English, children generally start school with oral competence in one or more of the country's many indigenous languages, some knowledge of the lingua franca, Solomon Islands Pijin, but no knowledge of English (personal observation 2002-05). The phonological inventories of the indigenous languages and Pijin are signficantly different to English, which makes acuisition of initial literacy in that language extremely difficult. This challenge is compounded by the low level of English competence of most of the country's teachers which further limits subsequent exposure to spoken English. It is arguable that the challenge of acquiring phonemic awareness and susequently literacy in these circumstances contributes significantly to poor educational outcomes and low literacy levels in Solomon Islands (although lack of resources and a degraded education system also play a role). A policy which saw basic phonemic awareness and early literacy taught in a language in which children had already acquired oral familiarity, would be likely to improve lliteracy achievement. If this were not possible, due to resource constraints, non-phonemic respelling, to help children to become familiar with the sounds of English in reference to the sounds of their native language, such as in the spelling guides proposed by Fraser (1996:35), could assist.
Given the scarcity of literary resources in many indigenous languages in countries such as Solomon Islands, and the fact that literacy continues to develop beyond the basic acquisition of phonemic awareness, high-level literacy may best be served by a bilingual policy which sees the introduction of English soon after basic literacy has been acquired. This would enable a text-rich environment can be provided to students.
Although it seems natural to most literate speakers of English to consider words as being composed of individual sounds, research has demonstrated that illiterate and pre-literate people do not conceive of words in this way. Phonemic awareness is not naturally acquired but must be taught, and alphabetic literacy is difficult to acquire without it. At the basic level, phonemic awareness develops hand in hand with alphabetic literacy, and one requires the other. Beyond the basics, however, given that orthography in most languages, including English, is not purely alphabetic but morphophonemic and irregular, literacy continues to develop, whereas phonemic awareness does not. These facts argue strongly for direct instruction in phonemic awareness in early literacy teaching, and a subsequent exposure to a rich text environment. They also argue for the importance of familiarity of the sounds of the language in which literacy is being taught, and therefore against the teaching of initial literacy in English to non-English speaking students.
Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST), 2005, Teaching Reading: Report and Recommendations of the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 1 June 2006 from
Bowman, M. & Treiman, R. 2004, ‘Stepping stones to reading’, Theory into Practice. Retrieved 17 June 2006 from
Fraser, H. 1996, 'Guy-dance with pro-nun-see-ay-shon', English Today, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 28-37.
Just, M. & Carpenter, P. 1987, The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, pp.287-97 and 316-25.
LING 465, Applied Phonology, Study Guide 2006, University of New England, Armidale, NSW.
Mackay, I. 1987, 'Writing systems', in Phonetics: The Science of Speech Production, 2nd edn, College Hill Publications, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, pp. 46-54.
Olson, D. 1996, 'Language and Literacy: What writing does to language and mind', Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, vol 16, pp. 3-18.
National Reading Panel 2000, Teaching Children to Read (NIH Publication 00-4769) National Institute of Health, Washington DC. Retrieved 18 June 2006 from
Treiman, R. 2000, ‘The foundations of literacy’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 9, pp. 89-92. Retrieved 17 June 2006 from
Treiman, R. 2004, ‘Phonology and spelling’ in Handbook of children's literacy, eds P. Bryant & T. Nunes, Kluwer, Dordrecht, the Netherlands, pp. 31-42. Retrieved 17 June 2006 from
Treiman, R. & Kessler, B. (in press), ‘Learning to read’ in Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics, ed. M. Gaskell, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. Retrieved 17 June 2006 from