Up to now our discussion has focused on the influences of various cognitive processes on reading. Reading also has an impact on children because it opens up new sources of information, new activities and helps with the development of writing.

However, there is also evidence that the development of reading has its own specific effects on a range of cognitive skills – in particular, being able to read seems to assist the development of vocabulary and phonological skills.

Evidence to support this claim comes from a study which compared Portuguese people who had been taught to read in adulthood with a group who were still illiterate. The adults who could read were much better at phonological awareness tasks (the study was carried out by by Morais, Alegria and Content in 1987).

Another interesting example comes from studies of Chinese children. Chinese writing involves the use of what are termed ‘pictograms’.

These symbols correspond to elements of meaning rather than sounds. This makes the acquisition of reading a difficult process. As a result, when reading is being taught, Roman letters (i.e. the letters we use in writing) are sometimes given to accompany pictograms.

Chinese and Roman alphabet side-by-side on a menu board Copyrighted image Credit: Sallyjogary | Dreamstime.com

The use of Roman letters is phased out over time. Read and others 1986 found that Chinese adults who had been exposed to Roman letters were able to add or delete phonemes from words and then were able to say the resulting sound.

In English an equivalent task would be to remove the first sound of the word ‘cat’ and say what the remainder of the word sounds like: ‘at’). However, individuals who had not been taught with the help of Roman letters had great difficulty with this task. This suggests that learning about the relation between letters and sounds helps children to break down words into phonemes.

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Dyslexia and literacy difficulties

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Reading and child development: Research findings