The largest elephant in the room in this regard (a beast so large you can hear his breathing permeating all the literature on this subject despite his continuing near-invisibility therein) is the personal history of each child and especially the degree of social and educational advantage or disadvantage from which he comes. Socio-economic status (SES), for example, has long been recognised as a very powerful predictor of many things - one of these being exactly such pre-literacy skills as we discuss here, including such aspects of general language facility as phonological awareness, and another being all those attitudes and aptitudes which are so necessary to float easily, and early, in school (e.g. Bowey 1995, Duncan & Seymour 2000, Hart & Risley 1995, Raz & Bryant, 1990, Whiteley, Smith & Connors 2007). Here is causation enough, real and sufficient. Let us examine all apparently conclusive scientific findings with our feet yet firmly in the everyday, the common, the probable and the humane.
Phonological awareness or letter awareness?
We have been considering confounding variables and an obvious one, to return to the cognitive context at any rate, is orthographic knowledge or letter awareness, which is very much less pursued in the research world but which is also powerfully correlated with later reading success (Barlow-Brown and Connelly 2002, Blaiklock 2004, Gallagher et al 2000). ‘A causal relationship between phonological awareness and reading ability has not directly been established … performance on phonological tasks may tap into letter-based, rather than purely phonemic, representations’ (Whitney and Cornelissen 2005 p. 274). And: ‘The National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis … found … that phonemic awareness instruction using letters helped children learn to read and write, but that phonemic awareness instruction without letters did not help children to learn to read and write’ (Besser et al 2004 p. 17). And: ‘We propose that preliterate phonological encodings do not include a level of representation corresponding to phonemes … Rather, reading acquisition itself creates a phonemic representation, via linkages of graphemes to groups of phonetic features … the phonemic encoding depends on a linkage to orthography’ (Whitney and Cornelissen 2005 p. 289). And general linguistic ability, as you would expect, correlates with reading in exactly the same manner as does letter and phonological awareness (Nation and Snowling 2004). Phonological awareness skill, in other words, is important – how could it not be in such an incessantly verbalising animal as ourselves – but it is probably acting, here, more as a reliable indicator of the co-presence, and fundamental significance, of several influences on literacy acquisition, itself included. And all these indicators interact. ‘Letter knowledge also appears to influence the development of phonological awareness.’ (Blaiklock 2004 p. 38). And ‘… it may not be possible for phonemic awareness to be acquired at all in the absence of instruction on the links between phonemes and graphemes.’ (Castles and Coltheart 2004 p. 104). One is tempted to say, to all this, ‘how could it be otherwise?’ (And see Morris et al 2003 and Reimer 2006).
Phonological awareness correlates with the acquisition of reading but is probably not causative of it and may not even be particularly necessary to it (see later in this chapter). Good (or poor) phonological skills are probably simply indicating the presence (or absence) of other skills. It is probably other skills, letter awareness and a grasp of the alphabetic principle, practised facility with language, which are really causative of, and fundamentally necessary to, the acquisition of reading. Children with good phonological skills have usually enjoyed an intellectual environment in which they have also been enabled to understand the alphabetic principle and become aware of their letters, and to converse.
There is also the fundamental ‘cart or horse?’ question. Is reading caused by phonological awareness, or does reading induce or heighten phonological awareness? Do we somehow pluck phonemes from the fuzzy and incomplete vagaries of speech and then apply this to reading, or do we learn about the ‘alphabetic principle’ and then find ourselves required, and enabled, to notice the sounds of our language in better detail than we bothered with for conversational purposes before? (See Adams 1990) Certainly there is at the very least a reciprocal effect between phonological awareness and reading ability, each apparently affecting the other, and many researchers have clearly shown this (Gallagher et al 2000, Hatcher et al 1994, Mann, 1986, Morais et al 1979, Perfetti et al 1987, Read et al 1986, Whitney and Cornelissen 2005, Wimmer et al 1991). Interestingly, fluent readers of only non-alphabetic scripts (such as traditional Chinese characters), for whom phonological awareness is not particularly salient, show weak phonological awareness, but as soon as they begin to learn a language which uses alphabetic script their phonological awareness skills rapidly blossom. ‘It is not literacy in general which leads to segmentation skill, but alphabetic literacy in particular’ (Read et al 1986 p. 41). All of these issues are dealt with in a recent review of research on the subject of whether there is evidence demonstrating a causal link between phonological awareness and literacy achievement which concludes that ‘… we do not think such a study exists in the literature.” (Castles and Coltheart 2004).