What lies beneath - child development prior to reading.

August 18, 2020

The complexities, challenges and difficulties of learning to read do not start on a child’s first day at school.  Considerable development will have occurred before any formal instruction begins.



Prior to formal instruction, children begin to develop an awareness of print before the age of four and although utilise logographic cues (Frith, 1985) have been shown to be aware of letter changes in these logographs (Drum & Ehri, 1984).  By four, most children have an awareness of words by their figural characteristics and by five years old develop an awareness of letters within words, especially within their own names (Levy, 2006) and start to focus on letter sequences.  Although a general awareness of print may emerge naturally from oral experiences in a text-rich environment, the claim that phonological awareness, letter identification, orthographic knowledge and alphabetic skills are naturally developing phenomena (Goodman, 1970) is not supported by studies (Levy et al., 2006; Lonigan et al., 2000).


Children have had up to four years of language exposure prior to any formal reading instruction.   As seems intuitively cogent, the amount and quality of this language exposure appears to have a significant effect on children’s reading development (Nation & Snowling, 1998; Ouellette, 2006).  However, perhaps surprisingly, this is by increasing vocabulary not by a magical preparation for exposure to print.  Vocabulary provides the foundation for accurate lexical representation of print and children with a larger vocabulary are able to develop phonological representations earlier (Walley, 1993) and cultivate a more efficient word recognition process.  Children with poor vocabulary struggle with reading comprehension (Beck, Perfetti & McKeown, 1982) and in the Sénnéchal and LeFevre (2002) study, oral language skills were highly correlated with reading comprehension ability in eight and nine-year-olds.   So high quality language exposure assists reading comprehension…later on.


However, where oral language proficiency supports early reading development most significantly is through the effects on the acquisition of code related skills during pre-school (Storch & Whitehouse, 2006).  There appears to be little correlation between oral language skills and early reading ability (Lonigan et al., 2000), but significant correlation between code-based skills and early reading (Storch and Whitehouse, 2006).  Nation & Cocksey, (2009) surmised that the critical factor in irregular word reading for younger readers was not oral language development but familiarity with the phonological form. 


Studies on young, non-reading children reveal that they perform poorly on tests that measure ability to identify individual words in spoken sentences (Holden & MacGintie, 1972) with particular difficulties exhibited with the identification of function words.  A lack of attention to print and the absence of the obvious segmentation of words by parental readers would seem to explain the lack of word consciousness in beginning readers (Mickish, 1974).  However, by the age of five, most children, according to the Levy et al. (2006) study, are able to comprehend the characteristics of printed words even though they may be unable to read.



The early development of reading is dependent upon a child being able to map the recorded symbols of the writing system onto their acquired oral language knowledge.  The phonological awareness required depends upon the writing system (McBride-Chang & Kail, 2002).  Most children develop some level of phonological awareness without instruction (Adams, Treiman & Pressley, 1998).  However, with an alphabetic system like English, which operates at a letter-to-sound level, it is phonemic awareness that appears to influence early reading (Adams, 1990), and many children do not acquire the necessary skills for this more atomised awareness without explicit instruction (Adams, Treiman & Pressley, 1998).  


Phonological awareness seems to be a unidirectional, sequential construct (Anthony et al., 2002) with children’s awareness of larger units of sound occurring earlier that smaller units; syllables are recognised before rimes before phonemes.  Savin (1972) noted that children seem to have particular difficulty progressing beyond the syllable level.  However, it is phonemic awareness that best predicts reading ability (Adams, 1990) and Hume et al. (2005) suggest a causal link between the two.  Furthermore, Bradley and Bryant (1983) suggest that phonemic sensitivity can be taught to prereaders.  However, there appears to be a reciprocal relationship between reading experience and phonemic awareness; the more a child reads and writes, the greater their exhibited phonemic sensitivity (Morias et al., 1979).



At the most atomised level of an alphabetic writing system is the letter and Chall (1967) and Bond and Dykstra (1967) studies indicate that letter knowledge appears to be a predictor of reading achievement.  Fast and accurate letter identification affords reduced likelihood of misidentification of phonemes and greater likelihood of correct word recognition.  Although the ability to correctly recognise all 26 letters in the English alphabet is essential for early reading, there is little evidence that teaching children letter names improves reading (Rayner et al., 2012).  Good letter naming knowledge seems to indicate greater levels of print familiarity (Adams, 1990) with associated benefits for early reading, and speed and accuracy of letter identification appears to denote a more general ability to name a broad spectrum of items effortlessly (Kail & Hall, 1994).



Kowler and Matins’ research (1982) found that prereading children seem to experience some difficulty controlling their eye movements with saccadic latency longer in younger children than older children.  This suggests that children’s cognitive processes develop to deal with the progressively more complex demands of reading.  Rayner et al.’s (2002) study indicated that as reading skill increases, the number of fixations decreases, fixation duration decreases, and saccade length grows.  However, the suggestion that improving eye movement patterns through oculomotor training will improve reading is potentially misleading.  Tinker’s (1958) summary of eye movement research concluded that eye movements were not the cause of reading problems but were the reflection of other underlying problems, and even in dyslexic readers with erratic eye movements, these eye movements do not appear to be the cause of the reading problem but a consequence of the difficulties encountered in learning to read (Rayner, 1985; Stanovich, 1986).



Bearing in mind the complexity of skills required to even begin reading, the question arise of when reading instruction should begin and particularly whether a particularly cognitive threshold should have been reached. This concept of ‘reading readiness’ has its roots in the early twentieth  century with Huey’s (2012) recommendation that if a child were unable to read a text then it should not be read; ‘Its very difficulty is the child’s protection against what is as yet unfitted for,’ (2012:57).  Dewey (2017) further recommended that a child need not be exposed to text before the age of eight and in some cases ten years old.  Huey (2012) concurred with the eight-year old threshold and recommended no formal reading instruction until the habits of spoken language had been well formed; the curriculum would focus on promoting the desire to read (Diack, 1965).  ‘Delay as a teaching technique’ developed into common educational parlance with the belief that any reading difficulties encountered by the age of seven would be resolved by cognitive maturation (Anderson and Dearborn, 1952: 345).  The age of seven as a threshold dovetailed with the accessing of Piaget’s (1952) concrete operations stage and tallied with Dolch and Bloomster’s (1937) observations that children with a mental age below that of seven were unable to match printed words to spoken words.


However, Rayner et al. 92012) question the validity of reading readiness as a biological construct arguing that if this were the case, children would begin reading instruction across the world at a similar age.  This is not the case, they argue, with some cultures not starting until seven with others beginning at five with no consistency across English speaking nations.  The age reading instruction begins is a poor predictor of reading outcomes at age eight and nine.  If reading readiness were a legitimate construct it would be expected that countries (like England) that start instruction early would report increased reading problems.  This is not the case, with England beginning instruction at 5 and the USA at 6 yet both countries reporting similar rates of reading problems.  Vaessen et al. (2010) in their study of Hungarian, Dutch and Portuguese children did not find effects of age that were independent of years of instruction.  The idea that lack of cognitive maturation is at the heart of reading difficulties thus, does not seem to be supported by empirical studies.  What emerges from the research is that phonological awareness is the strongest predictor of how easily a child will learn to read.

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