The Contribution of Phonological Awareness to Literacy Acquisition in English as a Foreign Language: Cross-Linguistic Implications

By Russak, Susie | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Contribution of Phonological Awareness to Literacy Acquisition in English as a Foreign Language: Cross-Linguistic Implications


Russak, Susie, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


English is considered a global language. Approximately one quarter of the world's population is already fluent or competent in English. It is the most widely taught foreign language in the world today (Crystal, 2003). In Israel, English is considered an official language and it is the first foreign language taught in schools. It is one of the compulsory subjects on the matriculation examinations and one of three subjects included in the psychometric admission exams to university level studies (Spolsky & Shohami, 1999). Therefore, it is of utmost importance to ensure that all students in Israel acquire English literacy. The research cited in this article explores the relation between phonological awareness skills and acquiring literacy in English as a foreign language (EFL) in Israel and the implications for English language learners (ELLs).

Phonological Awareness and Literacy Acquisition

Phonological awareness is the ability to store, access, retrieve, and manipulate the sounds in words. Phonological awareness skills develop from basic, intuitive levels where a child can generate rhyming words, to more complex and metalinguistic levels where a child can segment a word into sound units, delete a specific sound, and blend the remaining sounds together to produce a new word (Adams, 1990). Research in the field of literacy acquisition has established that phonological awareness skills and reading have a mutually beneficial relationship. Phonological awareness skills serve as a foundation for solid decoding ability, and practice with word reading enhances phonological awareness skills (Adams, 1990; Goswami & Bryant, 1990; National Reading Panel, 2000; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). Recent research has shown that phonological awareness facilitates reading acquisition not only in alphabetic languages, but also in non-alphabetic languages, such as Chinese (Chan & Siegel 2001; McBride-Chang & Kail 2002). Further, there is strong evidence that phonological awareness is one of the best predictors of early reading success, both within languages and cross-linguistically (e.g., English: Adams, 1990; Brady & Shankweiler, 1991; Hebrew: Bentin, & Leshem, 1993; Spanish: Denton, Hasbrouck, Weaver, & Riccio, 2000; German: Wimmer, Landerl, & Schneider, 1994; Dutch: Verhoeven, 2007; Italian: Cossu, Shankweiler, Liberman, Katz, & Tola, 1988; and Creek: Aidinis & Nunes, 2001).

Successful acquisition of phonological awareness is dependent on and simultaneously strengthened by the development of distinct phonological representations of each of the sounds that make up the spoken form of the language. Phonological representations contain detailed information about the phonetic makeup of a sound, including its place and manner of articulation. The phonological representations that are established in the process of linguistic development depend on accurate and repeated experience with speech input (words we hear) and articulatory output (i.e., words we say) (Boada & Pennington, 2006; Brady, 1999). Moreover, it has been found that differences in the quality of phonological representations are responsible for the differences in the phonological awareness skills that were mentioned above (Elbro 1996; Fowler 1991; Goswami, 2000; Snowling, 2000).

Cross-Linguistic Transfer of Phonological Awareness Skills

On a universal level, all languages are made up of sounds. As noted above, children of diverse language backgrounds show the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in their oral language, regardless of the orthographic characteristics of the language. On a language-specific level, each language is composed of a unique set of phonemes and has its own specific syllabic structure. Some languages have simple syllable structures (like Spanish) and some have more complex syllable structures (like Russian). Based on the universality of certain features of phonological awareness, one could argue that if a child has phonological awareness in his native language, then he should have phonological awareness in any language. …

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