Constraints on the Development of Phonemic Awareness
José Morais Université Libre de Bruxelles
The study of literacy acquisition has made important advances in the last 15 years or so. Most of them could not have been obtained without the efforts of a few researchers to persuade their peers that one cannot understand literacy if one ignores what speech is. Among these researchers, Isabelle Liberman has probably battled more than any other for the necessity of founding the study of literacy acquisition on the relations between speech and the orthography.
The idea that oriented Isabelle Liberman's work, and which we in Brussels and others have borrowed from her, can be stated in a few words. The lack of invariant acoustic cues for phonemes (cf. Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler, & Studdert-Kennedy, 1967) imposes serious constraints on the acquisition of literacy in an alphabetic system. Let me review how Isabelle Liberman justified this idea in a seminal paper presented in 1973. She maintained that in order to learn to read in an alphabetic system it should not be enough to learn letter-to-sound correspondences: The child who is told that/b∂/, /æ/, /t∂/ are the sounds of B, A, T, respectively, would read "bat" as the nonsense word "buhatuh." "Because an alphabet is a cipher on the phonemes of a language . . . learning to decipher an alphabetically written word . . . would require an ability to be quite explicit about the phonemic structure of the spoken word" (p. 158). The problem, she explained, is that "the relation between phonemes and the sound is that of a very complex code, not a simple, one-to-one substitution cipher" (p. 159). Therefore, to become aware of phonemes is difficult for the child. The crucial issue for understanding the acquisition of alphabetic literacy is thus how this awareness develops.
Isabelle Liberman was the first author to wonder whether the sharp