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Phonemic Awareness and Word Learning


Phonemic Awareness and Word Learning

My earlier posts give an overview of the research in phoneme acquisition and discuss the best way to teach phonemic awareness. I believe these posts offer a basic understanding of the what and the how of phonemic training. My next posts will focus on the why. They will answer the question: What are the benefits of teaching phonemic awareness?

I will look at the importance of phonemic awareness to reading skills. I will look at the connection between perception and production to make the point that explicit phoneme training will help students with pronunciation problems as well as perception problems. Another area I will post on is the importance of phonemic awareness in an EFL setting. To do this, I will discuss the research of Jessica Jenkins in English as a Lingua Franca. At some point, I will post on the well-known claims that bilingualism enhances cognitive abilities. Often overstated, these claims are nevertheless true, and the benefits show before children begin to speak. This is critical because, as I will show, the benefits ascribed to bilingualism correlate with the ability to discriminate the sounds of languages. And, in the rest of this post, I will give a quick rundown on the research into the connection between phoneme awareness and word learning.

The first study I point to is suitably titled, Phonetic training makes word learning easier, (Perfors & Dunbar, 2010). This study was conducted in Australia with university-aged learners and explores the extent to which training on phonetic contrasts improves word learning. As the title implies, the results show that such training is successful. Students were taught an artificial language, and those given explicit phoneme training learned more words. Along the same lines but with younger learners, Infant speech perception bootstraps word learning, by Werker and Yeung, follows children from infancy to 3-years of age and claims there is strong evidence that early perceptual sensitivities are correlated with proficiency in later years. Specifically, the study shows “how speech perception is crucial for word learning,” and suggests it bootstraps the development of a system that links sound to meaning.

That the ability to discern the different sounds guides language acquisition has been demonstrated by other researchers. Electrophysiological indices of auditory discrimination in newborn infants: The bases for predicting later language development, by Molfese & Molfese (1985), was the first study to provide evidence from brain scans, and Tsao, Liu and Kuhl, Speech perception in infancy predicts language development in the second year of life: A longitudinal study, is another study whose title tells the story.

For a brief explanation of why phoneme perception affects word learning, I turn to an essay by Chieh-Fang Hu, Phonological processing as early indicator of L2 word difficulties. With the stated goal of documenting the relationship between phonological processing and word learning, Hu says that phonological processing is comprised of four interdependent abilities – phonological memory, phonological retrieval, phonological awareness and sound discrimination. Phonological memory is the ability to temporarily store incoming phonological information in working memory until a more stable representation is transferred to long-term memory. Phonological retrieval is the ability to retrieve the phonemes stored in memory. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of the language and has been described in one of my earlier posts. A fourth aspect, Hu calls sound discrimination, is the ability to distinguish different sounds (in an earlier post I referred to this as phoneme awareness). This ability, to hear and manipulate the individual sounds, Hu claims is especially important at the beginning stage of L2 acquisition and is critical to the process of storing, retrieving and remembering new vocabulary in a foreign language.

The ability to discern, store, and retrieve the specific sounds of a word is clearly essential to relating sound to meaning. My next post will discuss the importance of hearing and pronouncing individual sounds in an English as a lingua franca context.

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