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Literacy Across Cultures September  1998 2/2

A Key Concept Revisited: Phonemic Awareness

Charles Jannuzi
Fukui University
Fukui, Japan


One of my motives in writing the Key Concept article on phonemic awareness in the February, 1998 issue of Literacy Across Cultures (Jannuzi, 1998, pp. 7-12) was to point out just how neglected such important issues often are in mainstream applied linguistics (AL), second language acquisition (SLA) studies, and theoretical, university-based ELT. (AL and SLA are the two prestige fields of academic inquiry most said to underlie ELT theoretically and provide its empirical research base; they are almost always university-based.) By discussing what was mostly a concept from the discourse of native literacy, I hoped to raise consciousness and foster reflective debate in the discourse of ELT.

I am glad Brett Reynolds took exception enough with my piece to provide us with his own thought-provoking contribution about the topic. I also realize that it is true of much writing in academic ELT and education that one is often cited in someone else's paper only so that the citing author can disagree with or at least complicate the work cited. We often seek to affirm the validity of our own views through the selective interpretation, negation, invalidation, and forced revision of the views of others. Still, I must admit that my first article, being preliminary, was sometimes tentative and even sketchy in its synthesis, and also that I sometimes struggled for clarity in my attempts to reconcile literacy and ELT conceptions of things. Therefore, I welcome Reynolds' criticisms and corrections.

I DO think that if a reader reviews my previous article on phonemic awareness, they will be struck more by the amount of agreement than disagreement that holds across my article and Reynolds'. Although from reading Reynolds it would be easy to conclude that we are at odds over some important issues, I welcome this opportunity to revisit and expand on the concept of phonemic awareness.

If I have read Reynolds' paper with comprehension, it seems to me that there are three points which we need to come to an agreement on or agree to disagree:

(1) Is phonological and/or phonemic awareness language specific?

(2) Are phonemic awareness and phonemic discrimination separate constructs, and even if separate, are they related?

(3) In FL and SL contexts, is the L2 phonology best taught before, along with, or after phonological and/or phonemic awareness?

Issue 1: Is phonological and/or phonemic awareness language specific?

Semantically and logically, a phonology and its phonemics are always language specific. The phonology of English is not the phonology of Japanese; none of the phonemes of English are the same as the phonemes of Japanese (though phonetically speaking some are similar).

Also, a distinction is made between normal language processing and a meta-linguistic ability to manipulate the language for, among others, the purposes of reading and writing it. Normal language processing is the expected outcome of acquiring a native language. Metalinguistic skills for the purposes of reading and writing are a prerequisite for and/or a product of successful literacy learning and/or acquisition and probably in some way (causally or epiphenomenally) underlie beginning reading. Possibly, they can be taught for effective pre-reading and remedial reading instruction. Analogous metalinguistic skills may well be the key to learning a second or foreign language because (1) teaching of them relies heavily on written texts and (2) second or foreign languages are not naturally acquired, but rather taught and learned.

When this overlayering of skills proceeds smoothly from native language development to native language literacy, the two--natural language ability and an ability to manipulate and think about it in a metacognitive way--seem to fit together so completely and naturally that, at a popular, folkloric level, they are taken to be one in the same: An ability with the native language is the ability to read, write, and analyze the standard written dialect. Mispellings are thought to reveal stupidity or laziness. Native language arts or university English Composition are called "language study." Or so many of the popular beliefs go. Even in some of the literature on literacy, models of language processing include phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and other metalinguistic abilities. Normal language processing is said to characterize native language ability; just how normal or different second or foreign language processing might be is a matter of much psycholinguistic debate. Certainly, normal native language processing, metalinguistic manipulation of it, and L2 language processing all tax on-line working memory. A lack of working memory--perhaps a neurological phenomenon--might help account for why some native speakers of one language do not (1) learn literacy in the native language (often a standard written dialect that can be quite a bit different from the native spoken form) and/or (2) gain competence or fluency of any sort in L2.

Success in transferring a metalinguistic ability at manipulating a native language to L2 learning necessarily depends logically enough on success at learning the L2. How can one metalinguistically manipulate a language one does not have? Also, it is still an unknown whether in learning an L2 successfully, a new set of metalinguistic skills develops independently, or transfers from the ability to manipulate the native language, or a mix of both. (I think seriously that the idea of a mix of both is closest to reality, and the point strikes home when I reflect on my successes and failures at learning Japanese and becoming literate in it.)

In the case of Japanese learners of EFL (who typically start English study as 7th graders in middle or junior high school), a number of scenarios are possible and worth considerable reflection. First, when Japanese students learn to read and write their native language in a roman alphabet in the fifth grade of elementary school, is a specific type of phonological or phonemic awareness training necessary? Second, do these students come to have phonological or phonemic awareness as a consequence from learning to use a roman alphabet to represent their native Japanese? Third, if no specific phonological or phonemic training is necessary, is it because they are already "aware" as a result of some other input or stimulus-- such as becoming literate in Japanese as it is usually written (with a mix of logograms, syllabaries, and some roman alphabet)? Fourth, if Japanese students are "aware" enough to read and write Japanese using a roman alphabet, do they transfer the skill to learning EFL at the junior high level? If not, why not? Because the awareness necessary for reading a relatively straightforward phonemic script (such as Japanese in a roman alphabet) does not easily transfer to reading and manipulating written English ? (Written English uses a mixed alphabetic writing system with phonetic, phonemic, morphophonemic, morphemic, logographic, and even federal elements.) Or is it because, if not in an abstract sense at least from a pragmatic perspective, being metalinguistically aware of English phonology and phonemics and capable of manipulating them for reading and writing requires also learning some of what one is supposed to be aware of?

Issue 2: Are phonemic awareness and phonemic discrimination separate constructs, and even if separate, are they related?

Reynolds takes me to task for somehow confusing the two constructs. First, let me emphasize, if both are research constructs, they may or may not accurately reflect psychological and psycholinguistic reality in the cognition and metacognition of real people. Second, all of the research Reynolds cites merely shows that as research constructs, phonemic discrimination is not a good measure of the other types of phonological awareness measured by researchers. So what? I never argued that they were not separate constructs. That does not mean that they are in reality totally unrelated or that phonemic discrimination--as a part of either phonological processing or phonological awareness--is not important for learning a FL and learning to read and write it. Phonological discrimination, in a FL, may reflect a phonological processing ability, it may reflect a type of phonological awareness, or some of both.

When I stated that we can use minimal pair words to become more conscious of phonemes, I never said "aware" of them for the purposes of segmenting words into sounds and the like. I was only pointing out that we can isolate phonemes without recourse to a special alphabet (e.g. IPA) by using minimal pair words. The conventional writing system of English uses 26 letters in various, overlapping combinations, major and minor patterns, and phonograms to represent over 40 sounds and so is therefore inadequate for using one symbol to write one sound. For example, the words "watch" and "watt" are a minimal pair, different only in their final consonant sound, though it would be difficult to explain this from the spelling conventions.

Moreover, we can, both in theory and practice, usefully posit a relationship between the two concepts that Reynolds wants to separate, both for research and pedagogical purposes. Morais (1991) is quite clear about that relationship: problems in auditory discrimination amongst native speakers lead to difficulties in the phonemic and/or phonetic segmentation of speech, which leads to problems in phonological recoding for the purposes of reading comprehension. Such auditory discrimination and coding problems are viscerally well known to anyone who has ever tried to learn and communicate in a FL. The major deficiency in recent communicative ELT is that they seem most often to be treated as minor problems for articulation practice and accent reduction, if treated at all.

Also, the model from L2 learning research that Reynolds cites in support of the idea that phonemic discrimination and phonemic awareness are distinct and mostly unrelated (because for Reynolds the former is language specific and the latter is supposed to be a cross-linguistic universal?) would seem more to contradict Reynolds, not me, because for Ganschow, Sparks, Javorsky, and Patton (1992, cited in Reynolds, 1998) the term "phonology" as a unified construct encompasses and links both phonemic discrimination and segmentation skills. It is perhaps doubly ironic because (1) I disagree with Ganschow, Sparks, et al. (1992) on what "phonology" is, unless their purpose was to come up with a special use of the term for the purpose of a model of non- native language reading, and (2) it is confusing to use a source one disagrees with essentially to disagree with someone else who used the source first to disagree with you!

Clearly, the research, as inconclusive, incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations as it is, does not disprove a possible link, and this includes, by extension, EFL learners. Standardized tests, diagnostic tools, and research constructs that attempt to deal with and measure phonological processing (as a part of a more general language processing ability) for the purposes of reading and listening comprehension include discrimination tasks, and difficulties with such tasks have been correlated with reading and language processing difficulties in many native speakers (Truch, 1991, p. 54).

Discrimination of phonemes may not correlate strongly with other types of phonemic awareness for the purpose of measuring the latter--i.e. discrimination as constructed by researchers is not a refined measure of other types of awareness as constructed by researchers--but that does not mean real aural discrimination is not a phonological awareness skill or that it is unimportant or unrelated to success at reading or listening in a foreign language. Indeed, Truch (1991) recommends a particular diagnostic and remedial reading program (and one that might have important implications for EFL reading and is, to a certain extent, already being used for ESL purposes in North America) that is centered on development of auditory discrimination skills, a program called the Auditory Discrimination in Depth (ADD) Program (pp. 68-81).

Issue 3: In FL and SL contexts, is the L2 phonology best taught before, along with, or after phonological and/or phonemic awareness?

Reynolds says that our disagreements and/or misunderstandings lead us to important differences over recommended instructional strategies. But in my original piece I offered a model whereby instruction of interlanguage phonology development, phonological awareness of it (and its phonemic awareness subcomponent), and phonics skills can proceed apace. In the case of EFL in Japan, phonological awareness (e.g. phonemic or phonetic segmentation skills) might be handled when students learn the roman alphabet for their native language. Or it might naturally result from learning to read and write regular written Japanese (which, as I've already stated, does include some roman letters). In either case, such awareness does not have to be addressed in the EFL class, except to confirm its existence. Or its lack--if it does not exist or is not evinced by the EFL learners, then, just as I wrote in the original piece, phonology, metalinguistic phonological awareness, and phonics skills will all need to be addressed at the beginning level.

Moreover, I fail to see the conflict between my model as stated in the first paper--with its call for teaching in EFL that addresses (1) interlanguage phonology development, (2) phonological awareness, and (3) phonics skills together--and Reynolds' finding "that teaching English letter-sound correspondences to first and second year Japanese junior high school students resulted in significant improvements in phonological, and specifically phonemic, awareness (unpublished data, cited in Reynolds, 1998, p. 3)".

Reynolds feels I have fudged on just what is sufficient in the phonological part of this general language/interlanguage ability. I assert that for my Japanese EFL students it lies somewhere in between, on the one hand, (1) mentally (mis)representing the sound system of English and its written analog with the relatively simple, open vowel and consonant-vowel syllables of Japanese and, on the other, (2) being able to perform with and manipulate the sound system as a normal native, fluently literate speaker of English would. Almost none of my students have ever gotten anywhere close to the latter part of this spectrum; but since English phonology and phonetics have been so neglected on modern syllabuses, it is hard to say just what is in the realm of the possible.

I am struck by an incident that illustrates this point that occurred today, just before revising this paper, in a university EFL composition class of English and Education majors. Some students could not understand my explanations of who Martin Luther King was. Finally, after telling them all about this great man and being met with only perplexed looks, I pronounced his name as it would be in Japanese: KI-N-GU (two or three syllables, depending on your definition of a syllable; three beats of Japanese speech rhythm; four Japanese sounds, none of them English ones). "Ahhh. Kingu-sensei!" came the chorus of comprehension ('sensei' is a Japanese title for teacher, leader, respected one).


Despite all that our two pieces share and complement each other on, Reynolds and I, it would seem, have disagreed on three issues:

(1) Is phonological and/or phonemic awareness language specific?

(2) Are phonemic awareness and phonemic discrimination separate constructs, and even if separate, are they related?

(3) In FL and SL contexts, is the L2 phon- ology best taught before, along with, or after phonological and/or phonemic awareness?

On issue one, I find it hard to come to an agreement with Reynolds, mostly on logical and semantic grounds. I fail to see how someone can be fully phonologically aware and able to manipulate a sound system one has not sufficiently acquired and/or learned. Certainly, some metalinguistic skills may transfer across all languages, but not nearly all of the ones measured and isolated and said to underlie the learning of and literacy in the L2.

Some lines of research are now pursuing metalinguistic abilities in syntactic awareness as being relevant to reading ability. Following Reynolds' reasoning, I would like to know how EFL students are going to be aware of, for example, grammaticality or word order violations (two measures of metalinguistic syntactical awareness), if they know little or no English syntax. I think the same holds for phonology (which includes phonemics and phonetics). How can one metalinguistically reflect on and fluently manipulate a language one does not process, at any level--phonetic/ phonemic/phonological, morphological, syntactical, semantic, or pragmatic?

On issue two, I think I have resolved or at least clarified our disagreement: I never argued that the many types of phonemic awareness measured by researchers and phonemic discrimination are the same thing or that they are refined measures of each other. The fact that phonemic discrimination is a separate construct does not, however, mean that it is completely unrelated to the others or that it is--as either part of a larger phonological processing skill or as a metalinguistic awareness skill--unimportant to L2 language development and reading and listening comprehension.

With issue three, it seems misleading to me that Reynolds should criticize my call for addressing three separate but interrelated components--interlanguage phonological development, metalinguistic awareness of it, and phonics skills--and then proceed to describe a recommended procedure which is in agreement with it.

My understanding of the abundant literature on metalinguistic skills for the purpose of native language literacy is that there is no clear consensus on such terms as phonemic and phonological awareness. With most people, a native language can be said to be naturally acquired. Literacy, however much it is conflated at a popular level with language ability, is not a "natural" process, though there are very important linguistic elements to it. This would seem to help account for why metalinguistic and meta-cognitive skills underlie learning, gaining mastery of and using literacy skills for communicating with a written language.

Learning a foreign or second language also is not a very natural thing to do (as my students remind me constantly); in this way analogies to literacy learning may be very strong. It might be the case that the sort of metalinguistic and metacognitive skills and abilities that Reynolds and I have argued about and attempted to clarify are the key to learning and mastering a foreign language--to an extent not yet acknowledged or understood in the fields of SLA, AL, and mainstream TESOL/ELT. Certainly, the parallels are easy to state: native literacy often requires learning a written (often quite divergent) dialect of the native language; SL/FL instruction is based quite extensively on written texts. However much Reynolds and I may have disagreed on some issues, there is obviously much that needs to be explored in all of our research and teaching concerning the connections that hold across literacy, L2 learning, and metalinguistic skills development.


Ganschow, L., Sparks, R., Javorsky, J., & Patton, J. (1992). Factors relating to learning a foreign language among high- and low-risk high school students and students with learning disabilities. Applied Language Learning, 3, 37-63.

Jannuzi, C. (1998). Key concepts in FL literacy: Phonemic awareness. Literacy Across Cultures, 2(1), 7-12.

Reynolds, B. (1998). Phonological awareness: Is it language specific? Literacy Across Cultures, 2(2), 6-10.

Morais, J. (1991). Phonological awareness: A bridge between language and literacy. In D. Sawyer and B. Fox (Eds.), Phonological awareness in reading: The evolution of current perspectives (pp. 31-71). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Truch, S. (1991). The missing parts of whole language. Calgary, Alberta: Foothills Educational Materials.

Charles Jannuzi can be contacted at Fukui University College of Education, Bunkyo 3-9-1, Fukui 910, JAPAN, and by email at <>or <>.

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Literacy Across Cultures
September 1998 2/2