Phonological Skills Before and After Learning to Read
Lynette Bradley Peter Bryant Department of Experimental Psychology University of Oxford
One of the outstanding achievements of Isabelle Liberman's fine work on children's reading is that it has provided us with important questions as well as with important answers. The answers are well known: The questions that these answers provoke are less widely recognized.
We can start with two of her best known discoveries in order to see how these have prompted further debates and further research ( Liberman, 1973, 1983). The first is the clear demonstration of a palpable connection between children's sensitivity to the component sounds in words and their progress in reading. The second is the discovery that one should not by any means take this sensitivity for granted in the young child: In fact, Liberman and her colleagues have shown once and for all how difficult it is for preschool children to recognize that words and syllables can be divided into phonemes ( Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, & Carter, 1974).
Put together these two, now indisputable, developmental patterns lead to an obvious hypothesis, which is that children become explicitly aware of the phonemic structure of words as a direct result of learning to read. They have to learn about letter-sound correspondences when they come to grips with the alphabet, and it seems quite likely that it is this experience that first makes them explicitly aware that words can be divided into the sounds that these letters represent. Because alphabetic letters, by and large, represent phonemes, this would mean that children begin to be able to recognize the phonemic structure of words. In fact, this is a proposition for which there is a great deal of empirical support, as Morais' chapter in this volume shows.
Yet these discoveries and conclusions raise an absorbing question. Can it really be true that the sensitivity that children have to the sounds in words