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Fine-tuning Phonics 1

I ended my last post with a quote from Dr. Usha Goswami, the Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University:


    …the way in which the brain represents the sound-structure of spoken language -phonology-
    is critical for the future development of literacy. The brain develops phonological
    ‘representations’ in response to spoken language exposure and learning to speak, and the
    quality of these phonological representations determines literacy acquisition. (Goswami)


This is why my posts are called b4. As I explained earlier, (see my post Phonics and Phonemic Awareness) these posts are titled b4:


    …because the focus… is on phonemic awareness, on the acquisition of the sound system,
    which natives of any language acquire well before any attempt to read or write is made.


It is nice to have someone from Cambridge confirm my ideas.


As an expert on reading problems, Dr. Goswami says many of the problems L1 children have with reading stem from the fact they don’t have their L1 phoneme inventory intact. From the same article:


    … the acquisition of phonemic phonology depends on individual differences in the quality
    of the phonological representations that were acquired prior to literacy. (Italics are mine)


Different terminology aside, we are saying the same thing. Let’s look at it another way.


Phonemic awareness (PA) is commonly defined as the “ability to perceive and manipulate phonemes.”


When looking for what is essential to fluent reading, researchers test for various things: IQ, vocabulary size, ability to name things rapidly, even the home environment. Importantly, PA is the most recognized predictor of fluent English reading (Hamilton). L1 students who have problems manipulating phonemes have problems reading.


Unlike L1 students, L2 learners have not acquired the phonology of the language they are learning. A native learning how the letter “r” goes with a sound, and the letter “l” goes with another sound, can hear the difference. For most L1 learners there is no problem. Japanese children, however, cannot hear the difference between these two sounds. They will struggle to make the connection between the letter and the sound.


This is not to say phonics does not work. Of course, it does. Languages share most sounds. It is just the difficult sounds that will be problematic. So, I am not suggesting phonics is not essential, I am suggesting a way to fine tune it, to make it more efficient.


That is one of the things is about. More next time.


Goswami, U. (2010) Phonology, reading and reading difficulty. In Interdisciplinary
Perspectives on Learning to Read.


Hamilton, E. (2007) The Importance of Phonological Processing in English- and Mandarin-
speaking Emergent and Fluent Readers . PhD. dissertation. Retrieved from:

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