Learning letter-sound correspondences early provides the best possible basis to learning how to read


To help children learn to read earlier, one thing appears to be key: Learn the letters and sounds associated with the letters as early as possible.

This may sound obvious, but another theory has suggested that children should first learn to read the letters in the context of words instead.

Charting each child’s letter-sound knowledge can be helpful in supporting them further in the learning process as they begin school, says Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Sigmundsson, Greta Storm Ofteland, Trygve Solstad and Monika Haga collaborated on a recently published article in New Ideas in Psychology.

Sigmundsson says the research team are among the first to clearly show the connection between learning the letters and sound correspondences and breaking the reading code.

“Since reading is the very foundation for acquiring other skills, it should be prioritized for the first few years of school,” says Professor Sigmundsson.

Clear link

The connection between literacy and literacy is clear, and a good indicator of literacy.

On average, the children had to know 19 letters to crack the reading code or read.

But it’s not a given that you’ll be able to read even if you know your letters.

Reading or writing single letters is something completely different from putting those letters together into words that make sense. The individual letter variations can be huge.

The connection between literacy and literacy is clear, and a good indicator of literacy. On average, the children had to know 19 letters to crack the reading code or read. The image is in the public domain.

Granted, the letters in Norwegian are pronounced quite consistently – especially compared to English – but they vary enough that children need time.

The words “cough” or “light,” for example, aren’t necessarily pronounced the way you would think by just looking at the letters individually.

Children who have already cracked the reading code should have appropriate challenges to further develop their reading skills.

These should be in the form of books that pique their interest. At the same time, youngsters who still haven’t cracked the code should learn enough letters and letter sounds to start practicing putting words together.

Read to kids early – practice makes perfect

The research team studied 356 children aged 5 to 6 years for one year. Eleven percent of the children could already read when they started school.

By the end of the first school year, 27 percent had not yet learned to read. Most of this group were boys, who also knew fewer letters when they started school.

“If you take out the 5 to 10 percent who have dyslexia, the numbers could indicate that around one in five children gets too little practice or lacks motivation in their first school year,” Sigmundsson says.

Girls are better at reading than boys from the outset. This difference continues throughout school, but it’s important to remember that this is an average and that parents of both boys and girls can do things to help their children.

Previous research from NTNU and elsewhere shows that you need to practice exactly what you want to be good at. Therefore, it is important that children are encouraged to become independent readers early. Parents should read to children to arouse their interest whenever possible.

What you read hardly matters, as long as the child finds it time well spent. As a bonus, children and parents enjoy a cozy time together.

It is widely agreed upon that children usually master the initial phases of phonological awareness (PA) as preschoolers (Goswami and Bryant, 1990), beginning with syllable awareness around the age of three to four, and followed by onset-rime awareness, which normally appears around the ages of four to five.

PA is the ability to isolate, delete, or manipulate different sub-lexical units within a word, such as syllables, onset-rimes, body-coda, and phonemes. PA is conventionally defined as the understanding that spoken words can be divided into smaller components (Chard and Dickson, 1999Share and Blum, 2005).

After children are taught to read and write, phoneme awareness, the most advanced form of PA, develops. Though this is the typical course of development, at least in English, it does not occur spontaneously.

As children grow older, they become increasingly sensitive to smaller and smaller parts of words, and therefore can manipulate them (Trehearne et al., 2003). This progression is widely viewed as cross-linguistic and universal (Anthony and Francis, 2005).

However, the precise nature of the large-to-small-unit sequence and the levels of proficiency of speakers in different languages can vary. For example, several studies found that 5-to-6 year old preschool children who speak Turkish, French, or Italian tend to attain syllable awareness faster than children who speak French or English (Cossu et al., 1988Demont and Gombert, 1996Durgunoğlu and Öney, 1999), suggesting that PA is affected by the saliency of spoken units in different languages (Ziegler and Goswami, 2005Verhoeven and Perfetti, 2017).

PA in Different Languages

Most of the studies examining the development and the contribution of PA to literacy skills have been conducted in the English language (Share, 2008).

This, understandably, means that that development of theories of PA and reading, as well as instructional approaches and remediation methods, is based on the unique characteristics of the English language.

But English, according to Share (2008), is an outlier orthography among European alphabets in terms of spelling-sound correspondence. As such, the role of PA in predicting reading skills is likely to vary between English and other orthographies.

More precisely, transparent European alphabets, orthographies with a one to-one mapping between letters and sounds, such as Italian, German, or Finnish, should naturally promote high levels of PA while creating fewer obstacles for most readers, leading PA to be a weaker predictor of reading development.

In contrast, in inconsistent orthographies such as English, where many letters can be pronounced in multiple ways, PA is more likely to be a central component in reading development and a stronger predictor of reading skills (National Reading Panel, 2000Ziegler and Goswami, 2005Share, 2008Melby-Lervåg et al., 2012). For example, Furnes and Samuelsson (2010) compared associations between PA and reading skills among English-speaking and Scandinavian children.

The study showed that PA contributed to the identification of poor readers in English in both the first and second grades, while in Norwegian/Swedish children, PA was related to reading difficulties only in first grade.

A group of studies demonstrate that PA has similar predictive power across languages, regardless of transparency (e.g., Furnes and Samuelsson, 2009Caravolas et al., 2012). However, other studies demonstrate that in transparent languages, such as Dutch, Latvian, and Finnish, the predictive power of PA is limited to the early phase of formal reading instruction in Grade 1 (e.g., Holopainen et al., 2000Dufva et al., 2001Sprugevica and Høien, 2003). Meanwhile, in deep orthographies like English, where there is need for more time to learn to read, PA skills predict reading skill longer than in more shallow orthographies (e.g., Wagner et al., 1997Cardoso-Martins and Pennington, 2004Parrila et al., 2004).

This unreasoned issue can be clarified with additional data from non-European languages, in which most readers learn to read.

The present study examines PA, in a non-European language that uses a non-alphabetic script – Semitic Hebrew. It is important to note that while Hebrew is not one of the major languages spoken worldwide (spoken by only 10 million people), it is one of the Semitic languages, like Arabic, which is the native language of hundreds of millions of people.

Moreover, the Abjad system, which was developed by Semitic language speakers, constitutes a part of a writing system used by billions (Daniels and Bright, 1996). The many offspring of the original Semitic Abjad include today’s Semitic (e.g., Hebrew, Arabic) and non-Semitic Abjads (e.g., Urdu, Malay), and all European alphabets originating thereof, with the Greeks’ borrowing the Semitic (Phoenician) Abjad.

PA in Hebrew

A relatively small number of longitudinal/predictive and training studies have examined the role of PA in Hebrew (Bentin and Leshem, 1993Kozminsky and Kozminsky, 1995Lapidot et al., 1995Shatil and Share, 2003Nevo and Breznitz, 2011).

These studies have shown that training in PA skills during kindergarten later led to improved reading abilities.

Further work has explored precisely which phonological units are the crucial ones in Hebrew.

Focusing on preschool and kindergarten, studies demonstrate that in Hebrew CV (body) units (not rimes, as in English) are more accessible than isolated phonemes among native Hebrew speakers (Bentin et al., 1990Ben-Dror et al., 1995Share and Blum, 2005Share, 2018).

In addition, access to single (consonant) phonemes has been found to shift from an early pre-literacy advantage for initial phonemes to a literacy-engendered preference for final phonemes (codas) (Share and Blum, 2005Saiegh-Haddad, 2007).

Furthermore, when comparing PA among 5 years old native speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, and Cantonese, a significant advantage emerged in final phoneme isolation for the Hebrew speakers and there were no significant differences between the three languages in initial phoneme (consonantal) isolation (Tolchinsky et al., 2012).

Correlation studies in Hebrew reported weaker correlations between end-of-Grade 1 reading and PA compared to English (Share and Levin, 1999).

When preschool and kindergarten were examined longitudinally, there was a strong correlation between Hebrew reading and PA in the middle of Grade 1, when most children are still learning basic letter-sound correspondences (Bentin and Leshem, 1993).

This phenomenon was conceptualized by Share (2008) as the “functional opacity hypothesis”: “the PA-reading association is strongest when the spelling-sound code is opaque owing to intrinsic spelling-sound irregularities in the orthography or to incomplete mastery of a regular code.”

This implies that the intrinsic relationship between PA and reading may be equally strong in both languages, with the only difference being one of timing (Share, 2018).

Taken together, this important role of PA is also reflected in the Israeli kindergarten curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007), which refers to PA as a significant and important component required for the acquisition process of reading and writing in Hebrew.

Despite the recognition of its importance, no Hebrew-language study of PA has studied PA developmentally, that is, following the same children’s PA growth across time. All studies of PA to date have either been cross-sectional (e.g., Share and Blum, 2005) or, if longitudinal, have measured PA at only single time-point, with the aim of Time-1 to Time-2 prediction (e.g., Shatil and Share, 2003).

The first aim of the present study is to begin filling in this gap by following children’s PA development over the course of the Kindergarten year which, in Israel, is the final year of pre-school education, preceding the commencement of formal reading instruction in Grade 1. Furthermore, more work is needed to clarify the nature of the relevant phonological units and the role of PA in the development of literacy in Semitic Hebrew.

There is an extensive research showing clear links between specific variables and PA (Aram and Levin, 2001National Early Literacy Panel [NELP], 2008Castles et al., 2009Lerner and Lonigan, 2016). However, little attention has been paid to the development of the relationships between PA and early literacy and cognitive variables. Therefore, this study will also examine the developmental relationships between PA and early literacy and cognitive skills in Hebrew.

Phonological Awareness and Letter Knowledge

Letter-learning plays a crucial role in the development of phonemic awareness.

Specifically, knowledge of letter sounds and access to phonemic representations of speech are the two critical foundations for learning to read.

A study examining the relationship between PA and letter knowledge reported a bidirectional relationship among pre-reading 4- and 5-year-old English speakers, such that PA predicted growth in letter knowledge, and letter knowledge predicted growth in PA (Burgess and Lonigan, 1998). Furthermore, in a sample of 358 English speaking preschoolers, a bidirectional relationship between letter knowledge PA was found using growth models analyses (Lerner and Lonigan, 2016).

Similar results were found in a study on 100 children who speak Finnish (Lepola et al., 2005), which is reportedly the shallowest orthography in Europe (Seymour et al., 2003). In this study, the 5-year-old children’s letter knowledge was closely related to their PA (coefficient = 0.71). This indicates that in the Finnish language, which has a highly transparent orthography, kindergartners who can pick up and identify letters also perform better on phonological tasks requiring the analysis of larger (rhyme) and smaller (initial phoneme) segments of spoken words (Lepola et al., 2005).

Phonological Awareness and Rapid Automatized Naming

Naming speed is the ability to rapidly retrieve the names of familiar items presented visually in a serial array (e.g., objects, colors, numbers or letters, or a combination of these in rapid alternating stimulus formats; Dencla and Rudel, 1974). The speed at which naming tasks are performed (or naming speed) is considered one of the strongest predictors of fluent reading (e.g., Wolf, 1984Korhonen, 1995Wolf and Bowers, 1999Holopainen et al., 2001Torppa et al., 2010Papadopoulos et al., 2016). In the early stages of reading acquisition, previous studies have revealed positive associations between PA and Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN). Based on their longitudinal study, Lervåg et al. (2009) provided evidence of an earlier connection, 10 months before the start of formal reading instruction between phoneme awareness and non-alphanumeric RAN.

Phonological Awareness and Vocabulary

Vocabulary skills have a significant impact on PA. One explanation for the relationships between PA and vocabulary is that phonological representations become more fully specified as breadth of vocabulary increases, to avoid confusion between similar sounding lexical items (Metsala, 1999).

Studies of both preschool (e.g., Chaney, 1992) and early elementary school children (e.g., Wagner et al., 19931997) have demonstrated significant concurrent and longitudinal correlations between children’s vocabulary skills and their phonological sensitivity. The receptive and expressive language skills of typically developing 3-year-old children were found to predict concurrent scores on a composite PA measure (Chaney, 19921994). In addition, improved PA has been linked to vocabulary growth in preschool children (e.g., Carroll et al., 2003Lonigan, 2007).

It is well established that vocabulary knowledge (typically assessed by receptive vocabulary tests) predicts variations in word recognition skills in reading (e.g., Stevenson et al., 1976). Dickinson et al. (2003), for example, found a correlation between PA and vocabulary among preschoolers.

This finding was replicated by Hipfner-Boucher et al. (2014), who also found a moderate correlation between these two variables. It has also been proposed that vocabulary breadth promotes early development of PA (Metsala, 1999).

In this context, longitudinal studies have shown that performance on receptive and expressive vocabulary tasks predicts later PA skills, among children between the ages of three and four in Finnish (Silvén et al., 2002) and among 4- to 6-years-old children in English (Ouellette and Haley, 2013Hipfner-Boucher et al., 2014). Additionally, the link between vocabulary and PA has been conceptualized in the lexical restructuring model (LRM; Fowler, 1991Metsala and Walley, 1998).

According to this model, representations of words in the lexicon of very young children are holistic and gradually become more fine-grained and segmented during the preschool and early school-age years. Lexical restructuring is assumed to be a function of vocabulary growth that occurs in response to the learning of individual words within a spectrum of phonological similarity.

Phonological Awareness and Executive Functions

Executive function (EF) is an umbrella term covering a set of cognitive abilities including attention, inhibition, working memory, and flexibility. These processes are necessary for academic functioning, as they enable the individual to control, monitor, and manage the performance of tasks (Cartwright, 2012). Both EF and PA have an important role in the development of reading skills (Cartwright, 2012).

In fact, Bierman et al. (2008) found that EFs (working memory, inhibitory control, and shifting) predicted PA (blending and elision tasks) during the pre-kindergarten year. EFs were also found to contribute significantly to PA and orthographic knowledge among Hebrew-speaking kindergarten children (Shaul and Schwartz, 2014). These findings highlight the importance of examining cognitive, early literacy, language, and EF processes when examining PA development.

Phonological Awareness and Working Memory

Working memory is a cognitive system that enables problem-solving through the retrieval of stored knowledge and its mental manipulation alongside newly received information (Swanson et al., 2008). According to the model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974) and later elaborated by Baddeley (19862000), working memory is a multicomponent system containing three constructs: the central executive, the episodic buffer, and the phonological loop.

The relationship between PA and working memory in general has been studied previously in students (e.g., Oakhill and Kyle, 2000). Ouellette and Sénéchal (2008), for example, found a moderate positive correlation between working memory and PA among 5-year-olds.

The specific relationship between PA and the proposed phonological loop component of working memory, which is believed to maintain and processes phonological information (Baddeley, 1986), has also been addressed, with some studies positing that the two have a common underlying phonological processing construct (Siegel and Linder, 1984Stanovich et al., 1984). In contrast, other studies have claimed to show that the two are distinct systems (e.g., Gathercole et al., 1991Hecht et al., 2001Alloway et al., 2004).

The Hebrew Orthography

Hebrew is an Abjad or consonantal writing system (Daniels, 1990). The Hebrew orthography is a primarily consonantal alphabet that exists in both pointed and unpointed forms. Unpointed script is partly vowelized by means of four consonantal letters that function as vowels as well as consonants. Pointed Hebrew employs diacritical marks or points and is used in texts intended for young children, in poetry, and in sacred texts.

The diacritical system provides a complete and virtually unambiguous representation of the vowels by means of small dots and dashes appearing mostly under, but sometimes above and between, the letters (Shatil et al., 2000). Children learn to read in pointed Hebrew, which has a near-perfect one-to-one grapheme–phoneme correspondence (Navon and Shimron, 1984).

However, phoneme-to-grapheme relationships in both pointed and unpointed script are frequently variable, with a number of pairs of (once phonemically distinct) consonant letters now representing the same phoneme (Shatil et al., 2000).

Most children attain proficiency in decoding pointed text within their first year of school (Share and Levin, 1999). Modern Hebrew has a rich inflectional morphology that permits considerable versatility in word order. Nouns and adjectives are marked linearly for number, near-arbitrary gender, and definiteness; verbs are marked for number, gender, and person; and they take infinitive, imperative, or indicative forms including past tense, future, and present or participial forms (Share, 2018).

The Present Study

The main goal of the current study was to examine the development of PA during kindergarten in Hebrew, a transparent orthography. Kindergarten is an important stage in terms of PA skills development, as PA skill play a significant role in the acquisition of reading and writing abilities. Therefore, our main objective was to explore whether we would see an increase in PA during kindergarten.

We hypothesized that there would be a significant difference between PA performance at the early kindergarten stage and PA performance at the end of kindergarten. Our second objective was to determine which PA skills develop at the middle and the end of kindergarten in the Hebrew language.

The hypothesis was that similar to the PA development trajectory (Anthony and Francis, 2005), in the Hebrew language, we expected greater success on tasks requiring manipulation at the syllable level, compared to a single phoneme or consonant.

In addition, due to the structure of the Hebrew language and the natural tendency for body-coda segmentation (CV + C) (Ben-Dror et al., 1995Share and Blum, 2005), we expected that manipulations of final consonants would be easier to perform than manipulations of initial consonants.

The third goal was to determine which cognitive and language measures predicted PA at the Early stage and End of kindergarten. The developmental design provided a unique opportunity to examine this change in skills during the critical kindergarten year, before the formal teaching of reading and writing.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Media Contacts:
Hermundur Sigmundsson – Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Breaking the reading code: Letter knowledge when children break the reading code the first year in school”. Hermundur Sigmundsson, Monika Haga, Greta Storm Ofteland, Trygve Solstad.
New Ideas in Psychology doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2019.100756.


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