Language sounds and learning to read


Monique Sénéchal, Eleanor M. Thomas, Michelle Flores and Ellen Odai

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research project was to study the relations between awareness of language sounds and learning to read. We predicted that children would be best at sounding out, or decoding, words containing sounds for which their awareness was high compared to words containing sounds for which their awareness was lower.

Who Took Part

The principals and teachers at four schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board agreed to take part in this study. Permission to participate was received from the parents of  82 grade two students in these schools.

What We Did

Children who took part in this study met with a researcher at the school during the school day. The researcher met with each child individually. First, she assessed their pronunciation of words by asking them to name pictures of familiar objects. Next, she had the children perform two reading tasks: In one they sounded out, or decoded, a series of nonsense words, such as “mib” or “lem”. In the other they completed a standard word reading task, reading out loud a list of real words. Finally, the researcher tested their awareness of  two specific language sounds, one that is normally easy for children to say, the sound of the letter m, and one that is more difficult, the sound of the letter r. The test included five other language sounds as well. We asked what word would be left if one sound was removed from a longer word. For example, we might ask what word would be left if the “m” sound was removed from the word “mill”. The correct response would be the word “ill”.

What We Found

The children in this study showed pronunciation patterns that were normal for their age. They scored well on the standard test of word reading. Their average reading age for the task was 8 years 4 months (range: 6 years 11 months to 12 years 6 months), almost one year higher than their average real age of 7 years 5 months (range: 6 years 10 months to 8 years 2 months). Most of the children were able to decode at least some of the nonsense words, and some children could decode them all.

As predicted, we found that children’s ability to decode the nonsense words depended on their level of awareness of the specific sounds in those words. Their scores for m on the sound awareness task predicted their scores on the nonsense word decoding task for words that started with the letter m.  Similarly, their awareness scores for r predicted their decoding scores for r. These relations between sound awareness and decoding persisted even after the children’s overall sound awareness, represented by their scores for other sounds, was taken into account.

This study confirmed that sound awareness is important for learning to decode words. It found evidence that awareness of specific sounds may contribute to success in learning to read words containing those sounds.

We think that these findings are important because they add to a very small body of research that show the importance of considering children’s awareness of specific sounds when they learn to read.

This study was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada awarded to Monique Sénéchal.

Thanks are warmly extended to the children, parents, teachers and principals who participated in this project.