From an adult perspective one of the major tasks facing children is recognising the different letters of the alphabet (or whatever script they are learning to read). This is not an easy task as there are 26 letters of our alphabet. In addition, a number of the letters are very similar in shape e.g. p, d, b, g (but not g!), children have to read letters in different fonts, and there can be both capital letters and lower case letters.
As a result, learning the letters of the alphabet is not a trivial task. Consequently, it is unsurprising that pre-school children who are better at recognising letters are often better at reading when they get to school, in fact letter recognition skills at three years is one of the strongest predictors of early reading ability.
The other challenge facing children is identifying the individual sounds of words that they hear. Phonemes are the smallest sounds that can be identified in a word (e.g. the ‘c’ of ‘cat’) and phonological awareness involves the ability to identify and use these basic sounds. To most adults identifying the sounds in a word is a very easy task, and we probably have forgotten that when we were children identifying sounds was quite difficult.
This seems to be because young children usually deal with words as a ‘whole’ sound rather than identify the component phonemes. As a result, preschool children can tell the difference between the words ‘bat’ and ‘mat’ but they have great difficulty splitting words up into separate phonemes, something Isabelle Liberman commented about in 1974.
They also have difficulty in saying which words begin with the same sound (alliteration) or end with the same sound (rhyme). Both of these tasks are often used to assess what is termed phonological awareness, the ability to identify and manipulate the phonemes of a language.
A landmark in the research about the importance of phonological awareness for reading was the findings of Lynnette Bradley and Peter Bryant in 1983. They reported that preschool children who were better at phonological awareness tasks involving rhyme and alliteration were, three years later, better at reading.
Furthermore, the children who were better at phonological awareness in preschool were at the older age no better than other children at mathematical tasks.
Lynnette Bradley and Peter Bryant’s work also showed that young children, who were given help to develop phonological skills tended, when they were older, to be better readers than children who were not given this training. Related to this have been suggestions that nursery rhymes help the development of phonological awareness because children are given examples about the way that different words can have the same ending sound.
Thus several lines of evidence suggest that phonological awareness plays an important part in helping children learn to read. These studies established the importance of pre-reading phonological skills and the findings have been replicated by a number of investigators and in different languages.