Can you match a spoken sound with the letter that represents it? Bear Wear challenges you or your children to demonstrate knowledge of the alphabetic principle: the idea that printed letters represent speech sounds. In order to fully grasp the alphabetic principle, you must first begin to analyze the different parts of natural, rapid speech. When we speak or listen to someone, we don’t normally segment speech into separate words or sounds. Can – you – imagine – how – long – that – would – take – ? When we read or write, however, we must start to think about the separate words and sounds in our speech, so that we can represent them visually in print. This ability to think analytically about speech sounds is called phonological awareness.
“Adequate initial reading instruction requires that children understand the structure of spoken words,” states the National Research Council’s report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Numerous studies have demonstrated strong relationships between the phonological awareness skills of young children and their subsequent reading achievement. For example, Robert Calfee, Patricia Lindamood, and Charles Lindamood conducted a study with 660 children in grades K through 12, and found multiple correlations between the children’s ability to conceptualize and manipulate speech sounds and their performance in reading and spelling. In a longitudinal study of children from grades K through 4, Richard Wagner, Joseph Torgesen, and their colleagues found that individual differences in phonological awareness were related to subsequent individual differences in the ability to read words.
Understanding sounds and learning to read
Phonological awareness is not, however, an especially useful skill by itself – we don’t need it to communicate orally or to express complex ideas. The real power of phonological awareness lies in its relationship to print awareness: combined, these two skills mean a child is ready to begin reading. In a study conducted in 1983, Lynette Bradley and Peter Bryant of Oxford University demonstrated this idea by dividing children into four different training groups. One group received training on how to categorize words according to their sounds. Another group also received training on how to categorize words according to their sounds, but with the aid of plastic letters. A third group received training on how to categorize words according to their conceptual meaning (animals, colors, and so forth). A fourth group received no special training.
After two years of training, the students in the sounds and letters group demonstrated reading skills that were nine months ahead of the students in the concept group. The students in the sounds-only group, on the other hand, demonstrated reading skills that were only nominally ahead of the concept group. These results suggest that phonological awareness is necessary, but not sufficient, for learning how to read. As the National Research Council states, “Getting started in alphabetic reading depends critically on mapping the letters and spellings of words onto the speech units that they represent.” Bear Wear challenges you and your children to combine phonological awareness and print awareness by making concrete connections between speech sounds and letters.