Correlation between Oral Language and Phonological Awareness

A substantial body of evidence indicates that phonological awareness is a robust predictor of later reading skills. Evidence indicates that it is a skill that is acquired during the preschool period, prior to formal reading instruction (Lonigan et al., 1998, 2000). However, efforts to identify environmental causes of the development of phonological awareness have not yielded strong or consistent findings (e.g., Raz & Bryant, 1990; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Sénéchal, LeFevre, Thomas, & Daley, 1998).
One possible origin for the development of phonological awareness is the development of vocabulary. As noted above, most multivariate studies do not support a direct role of oral language in the development of decoding. However, phonological awareness and oral language are significantly related during the preschool period (Chaney, 1992; Lonigan et al., 1998, 2000; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002), and studies with slightly older children have demonstrated significant concurrent and longitudinal associations between children’s vocabulary skills and their phonological awareness (Bowey, 1994; Cooper, Roth, Speece, & Schatschneider, 2002; Wagner, Torgesen, Laughon, Simmons, & Rashotte, 1993; Wagner et al., 1997).
Results from some studies indicate that there are concurrent and longitudinal relations between phonological awareness and vocabulary. Additionally, some data suggest that vocabulary is predictive of growth in phonological awareness. One potential explanation for the linkage between vocabulary and phonological awareness is the lexical restructuring model (LRM; Fowler, 1991; Metsala & Walley, 1998). According to the LRM, representations of words in the lexicon of very young children are holistic (i.e., represented as whole words) and gradually become more fine-grained and segmented during the preschool and early school-age years. Lexical restructuring is assumed to be a function of vocabulary growth that occurs in response to the learning of individual words within a spectrum of phonological similarity (i.e., neighborhood density). Evidence suggests greater segmental representation for high-frequency words and words from dense phonological neighborhoods (see Walley, Metsala, & Garlock, 2003). Stated simply, as children learn more words, they discover that it is more efficient to remember and recognize words in terms of their constituent parts rather than as wholes. Children who have small vocabularies may be limited in their phonological awareness because their memory for words has not moved from global to segmented. These findings suggest that vocabulary development may set the stage for the emergence of phonological awareness, which in this view is dependent on access to segmentally represented speech sounds.

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