What is phonological awareness

La phonological awareness it is the ability to reflect on- and manipulate the structure of word sounds. It is considered to be one of the most important predictors of reading ability and this link is believed to be closer in languages ​​with opaque spelling.

A systematic review

A study by Knopp-van Campen and colleagues [1] puts forward the hypothesis according to which the relationship between working memory and reading would be mediated by phonological awareness: the working memory deficit would therefore cause difficulties in carrying out phonological awareness tasks and this would cause a less effective reading in cascade.

However, phonological awareness is believed to be important in the very early years of literary learning, but that later achieve a "roof effect" (very quickly in normolectors, more slowly, but still by the end of primary school, in dyslexics). But is this really so?

Objectives of the study:

  • Investigate the relationship between phonological awareness and word reading at the end of primary school
  • Understand if and how working memory affects word reading

To answer the first point, 663 fifth-grade children were given tests of phonological awareness and reading. To answer the second, a subset of 50 children with dyslexia performed additional working memory tests.

Tools used

  • Working memory: reverse digit span
  • Phonological awareness: cancellation of phoneme and spoonerisms
  • Reading: three-minute-test (three cards with increasingly complex words, the aim is to read the greatest number in one minute per card)

The results

The results denied the first hypothesis: even in older children, phonological awareness seems to correlate with reading in the same way in both normolectors and dyslexics. The results of previous studies were probably influenced by the fact that tests complex enough to require a re-activation of phonological abilities were not used for older children.

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As for the second point, in dyslexic children working memory seems to have an indirect effect on the effectiveness of reading through the mediation of phonological awareness. In particular, in dyslexic children who cannot access automation, and therefore continue to perform decoding tasks even on known words, the working memory is constantly recalled.


As we have highlighted in other articles, working memory (especially verbal memory) is one of the factors that most influences reading, even in adulthood.

Usually it was thought that the tests of phonological competence, even with a certain delay of time, would become saturated even in children with learning disabilities.

In this study, on the contrary, it was shown how the choice of more complex stimuli can help to trace significant differences in performance even at the end of primary school. A limitation of this study, in relation to the second point, is the not having investigated the relationship between working memory, phonological awareness and reading also in the normolectors, since also understanding the physiological mechanisms of reading can help us understand more about the nature of the difficulties.

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