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Literacy Across Cultures
September  1998 2/2

Phonemic Awareness: Is It Language Specific?

Brett Reynolds
Sakuragaoka Girls' Jr. & Sr. High School
Tokyo, Japan


The question of whether phonological awareness is language specific or not is a crucial one if one is to make informed decisions about teaching it. In the first language (L1) reading acquisition literature, the general consensus is to teach it early and explicitly (Adams, 1990). But whether we can transfer this directly to second language (L2) instruction is not clear. In the last issue of LAC, Jannuzi (1998) suggested that EFL students
"must: (1) learn and / or acquire an adequate interlanguage phonology that compensates for the lack of native competence and THEN learn and/or acquire the phonemic awareness... Indeed, it could be logically concluded that effective phonemic awareness training can not precede the development of a sufficient, internalized interlanguage phonology" (p. 8).
This paper will argue a different view; that once one has acquired a given level of phonological awareness in one language, it is possible to transfer that understanding to any other languages.

Phonological awareness is generally considered to be a unitary construct which appears to be made up of a hierarchy of different sized phonological units (Gough, Larson, & Yopp, 1996). It is generally agreed to subsume syllabic awareness, sub-syllabic awareness (onset and rime¹), and segmental (phonemic) awareness. As phonemic awareness seems to be the most crucial for learning to read English, it will be the main focus of this paper. Taking the definition offered by Jannuzi (1998), phonemic awareness is "a verifiable insight that one's native or non- native language can be broken down into sounds and sound combinations" [original emphasis] (p. 8).

The importance of phonemic awareness has become almost axiomatic in the literature on L1 reading acquisition and dyslexia (for an overview, see Adams, 1990). Bryant and Goswami have said, "the discovery of a strong relationship between children's phonological awareness and their progress in learning to read is one of the great successes of modern psychology" (1987, p. 439). This insight is seen as fundamental to grasping the alphabetic principle. On the other hand, phonemic awareness is rarely mentioned in the TEFL and SLA literature. Despite this, the idea that phonology--not just good pronunciation--is important for foreign languages is not a new one. Carroll and Sapon (1959) included a number of measures of phonology in their modern language aptitude test. Among these are some tests of ability to decode written texts. More recently, researchers have begun to consider the role of phonology in L2 learning of vocabulary (N. Ellis, 1996), L2 reading, (Harrington, & Sawyer, 1992), and L2 learning disabilities (Sparks, Ganschow and their colleagues, 1992; 1993; 1997).

Unfortunately, the majority of the research on phonemic awareness has been done with children learning to read English as their L1. There is also a smaller body of research dealing with children learning to read other languages as their L1 (e.g. Mann 1986; Lundberg, Frost, and Peterson, 1988). There are, however, only a few studies dealing specifically with phonemic awareness in the L2 (e.g. Allan, 1997). Given that phonology varies from language to language, more such studies are definitely needed. The lack of such information leaves us with the question of whether phonological awareness is language specific or not.

Does phonemic awareness include phonemic discrimination?

Jannuzi (1998; also see Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley 1991) seems to argue that phonemic awareness is language specific. He proposes that EFL learners can not receive effective phonemic awareness training until they have an adequate interlanguage phonology. Unfortunately, no elaboration of "adequate" is offered, although the concept seems to minimally include the ability to distinguish between sounds like /r/ and /l/ and go beyond the phonology that learners bring with them to the study of a new language. Yet there is another view that as long as one is able to understand that such phonemes exist, and that words and syllables contain them, the question of exactly what phonemes they are is extraneous to phonemic awareness as an essential component of alphabetic literacy. If this is the case, then phonemic awareness would be language independent.

Ganschow, Sparks and colleagues (1992) state that their

"use of the term phonology does not refer primarily to ones (sic) ability to pronounce words either in the native or foreign language. It may include pronunciation but refers specifically to ones (sic) ability to learn sound (phoneme)/symbol (grapheme) correspondences, discriminate between sounds, and make explicit reports about sound segments in words. This later skill, (is) known as phonemic awareness" (pp. 57-58).
Thus, they clearly distinguish between phonemic awareness and phonemic discrimination, both of which they lump together under term phonology. Evidence that phonemic awareness can develop with an inadequate phonology comes from people who have been profoundly deaf from birth. Despite this obstacle, "the young deaf child often develops metalinguistic, phonological awareness on an underdeveloped phonological system" (Campbell & Burden, 1995).

The idea that phonemic discrimination is a separate construct from phonemic awareness is further supported by a number of studies (Yopp, 1988; Stanovich, Cunningham, & Cramer, 1984; Gough, Larson, & Yopp, 1996). In one of these, Yopp administered a number of different phonemic awareness tests, including an auditory discrimination test (Wepman, 1973), a phoneme blending test (Roswell-Chall, 1959), a phoneme counting test (I. Liberman et al., 1974), two phoneme deletion tests (Bruce, 1964; Rosner, 1975), a rhyming test (Yopp, 1988), two phoneme segmentation tests (Goldstein, 1974; Yopp-Singer, 1984), a sound isolation test (Yopp, 1988), and a number of others. The results of the tests were all significantly intercorrelated except Wepman's auditory discrimination test, which had a low positive correlation. Similar results in the other studies mentioned above indicate that phoneme discrimination seems to be related to, but separate from, phonological awareness.

Another reason to doubt that phonemic discrimination is a prerequisite for phonemic awareness is the modular nature of the phonemic identification process. Alvin Liberman (1995) argues convincingly that there is a phonemic identification module. Two central characteristics of modular systems is that they are informationally encapsulated and autonomous (Fodor, 1983, p. 37). This would indicate processes which are beyond the conscious control of the individual. Yet, metalinguistic concepts are, by definition, ideas of which the individual can conceive and deliberate. While knowledge of a language's phonemes is linguistic knowledge, phonemic awareness is metalinguistic in nature. Metalinguistic knowledge is largely transferable to any new language. For example, the awareness that there are parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.) in one's L1 can assist in learning L2, in that it helps the student know what to look for. The knowledge that one can employ humor and sarcasm, or represent speech in print are all forms of metalinguistic knowledge that one can easily apply to any other language, regardless of one's ability to perform the tasks.

Thus, it seems highly unlikely that an adequate interlanguage phonology must be developed before phonemic awareness training can begin. In fact, even those with severely limited phonology, may benefit from phonemic awareness training. If phonemic awareness can exist without an "adequate" L2 phonology, there is no reason to believe that it is language specific.

When to teach

Having concluded that one need not wait for an adequate interlanguage phonology to emerge, the question then becomes when to teach phonemic awareness. In the L1 reading acquisition literature, there seems to be broad agreement that it needs to be taught as soon as possible (Adams, 1990). Similarly, Ganschow, Sparks, and colleagues (1992) suggest that improving students' L1 phonological awareness before L2 instruction begins, and teaching L2 phonological awareness early in L2 instruction are both useful interventions for students who exhibit phonological difficulties.

A number of large scale longitudinal studies indicate that phonological awareness is teachable in one's L1, and is teachable at very young ages-- even before students begin to read (Blachman, 1994; Lundberg, Frost, & Peterson, 1988). The same studies show significant positive effects of such training on later reading ability. In an L2 study, Reynolds (in preparation) has found 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. The students scored higher on a test of phonological awareness (Reynolds, 1997) than high school students with four more years of English instruction. Thus, it appears that both early L1 and L2 instruction are likely to result in improvements in phonological awareness.

How to teach

Using minimal pairs to improve phonemic awareness is likely to prove unproductive. Illiterates easily distinguish minimal pairs in their L1, yet show no phonemic awareness (Adams, 1990; Morais, Cary, Alegria, & Bertelson, 1979). There are, however, a number of easy, enjoyable ways to teach it to Japanese students in either their L1 or L2.

One way is by using concrete representations of the individual phonemes. This can be done by having students put down a tile or other marker for each sound they hear in a word.

(Japanese word for "rabbit") /usagisan/ = 8 sounds (phonemes) = 8 tiles

speed = /spid/ = 4 sounds (phonemes) = 4 tiles

Exploiting the layout of the kana chart with rows organized by vowel and columns organized mainly by consonant, can also be enlightening to students. Coloring the kana half one colour for consonant sounds and half another colour for vowel sounds is even more clear, especially for younger children (e.g. coloured Fidel kana charts, Gattegno, 1972). Using romaji (Roman letters) can also be a useful way of showing that (/ka/) is made up of two sounds /k/ and /a/. These are good ways to overcome the fact that Japanese has a predominantly logographic and syllabic orthography, not an alphabetic one.

These techniques should be supplemented by training students to isolate, segment, and combine phonemes. Teaching alliteration and rhyme is a good way to start. Sesame Street type blending activities are also ideal.

Ssss...Aaaa... Nnn..., SssAaaNnn, SAN!

C...... AT, C...AT, C..AT, CAT!

Reynolds (to appear) presents a wide variety of short, interesting activities that can be done with beginning students.


While phonological awareness seems to be largely language independent, there are a few traps to be aware of. These points are mainly of interest for teachers and researchers, as they concern the testing of phonological awareness. Because of its regular V or CV syllables and its writing system, Japanese is not a good language in which to assess phonemic awareness. However, if one is testing Japanese speakers using English words, the following points need to be kept in mind.

Diphthongs and affricates

What is considered to be a diphthong in one language, may be viewed as two separate vowels in another. The /ai/ in the English "high" is a diphthong, while in Japanese, the /ai/ in hai considered to be two distinct vowels. Similarly, an affricate in one language may be two independent consonants in another (consider the English consonant cluster /ts/ in "cats" and the Japanese affricate /ts/ in tsunami). This is largely a matter of semantics and linguistic bias. Thus, while learners who identify only three sounds in "cats" or fully four in "cheese" should be disabused of this idea, they clearly understand the important concept and should be considered to have answered a question of this nature correctly.


Even within the English L1 community, there is often disagreement over where syllable boundaries lie, and occasionally even about how many how many syllables a word contains (beer vs. bi/yer; dic/tion/e/ry vs. dic/tion/ry). Thus, the definition of a syllable is slippery, and often cultural. Teachers should keep this in mind, both when teaching and testing syllabic awareness.


Phonological awareness seems to be language independent. Once it has been acquired, it is likely transferable to any new languages learned. This is not to say that language specific phonology, including phoneme discrimination is not important, simply that it is not part of the construct known as phonological awareness and may not be crucial for understanding the alphabetic principle. Furthermore, it seems that, for students who lack phonological awareness, there is no need to delay teaching it. In fact, there is a strong feeling that it should be taught as soon as possible. Lastly, in assessing and teaching students, teachers and researchers need to remember that some language specific aspects of phonology may still be relevant considerations.


Adams, M. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Allan, M. (1997). Phonological awareness of young EFL learners: Can Mother Goose teach sounds? Temple University Japan, Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 10, 91-103.

Blachman, B.A. (1994). What have we learned from longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading, and some unanswered questions. A response to Torgeson, Wagner, and Rashotte. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 287-291.

Bruce, D. (1964). An analysis of word sounds by young children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 34, 158-170.

Bryant, P. & Goswami, U. (1987). Beyond grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Cahier de Psychologie Cognitive, 7, 439-443.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1991). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 451-455.

Campbell, R., & Burden, V. (1995). Pre-lingual deafness and literacy: A new look at old ideas. In B. deGelder and J. Morais (Eds.), Speech and reading (pp. 317-337). Hove: Erlbaum (UK)

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Ellis, N. (1996). Sequencing in SLA: Phonological memory, chunking, and points of order. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 91-126.

Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.

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.

Gattegno, C. (1972). Teaching Foreign Languages inSchools: The Silent Way., 2d ed. New York: Educational Solutions.

Goldstein, D. (1974). Learning to read and developmental changes in covert speech and in word analysis and synthesis skill (Doctoral dissertation; University of Connecticut). Dissertation Abstracts International, 35, 1B-606B. (University Microfilms No. 67-4246)

Gough, P., Larson, K., & Yopp, H. (1996). The structure of phonemic awareness. Available online at

Harrington, M., & Sawyer, M. (1992). L2 working memory capacity and L2 reading skill. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 14, 25-38.

Jannuzi, C. (1998). Key concepts in FL literacy: Phonemic awareness. Literacy Across Cultures, 3(1), 7-12.

Liberman, A. (1995). The relation of speech to reading and writing. In B. deGelder and J. Morais (Eds.), Speech and reading (pp. 17-31). Hove: Erlbaum (UK) Taylor & Francis.

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Lundberg, I. Frost, J, & Peterson, O. (1988). Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in preschool children. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 263-284.

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Morais, J., (1993). Phonemic awareness, language and literacy. In R. M. Joshi & C. K. Leong (Eds.), Reading disabilities: Diagnosis and component processes. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Reynolds, B. (1997). A test of phonological awareness for Japanese EFL students. Available online at teachers/BR/papers/PhonemicTest.html

Reynolds, B. (to appear). Promoting phonological awareness in Japanese high school students. The School House: The newsletter of JALT's jr. & sr. high school N-SIG.

Rosner, J. (1975). Helping children overcome learning difficulties. New York: Walker and Company.

Roswell-Chall Auditory Blending Test. (1959). New York: Essay Press.

Sparks, R., Ganschow, L. (1993). Searching for the cognitive locus of foreign language learning difficulties: Linking first and second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 77, 289-302.

Sparks, R., Ganschow, L., et. al (1997). Prediction of foreign language proficiency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 549-561.

Stanovich, K. E., Cunningham, A. E., & Cramer, B.R. (1984). Assessing phonological awareness in kindergarten children: Issues of task comparability. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 38, 175-190.

Wepman, J. (1973). Auditory discrimination (Revised ed.). Chicago, IL: Language Research Associates.

Yopp, H. (1988). The validity and reliability of phonemic awareness tests. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 160-177.

Yopp, H., & Singer, H. (1984). Are metacognitive and metalinguistic abilities necessary for beginning reading instruction? In J. Niles & L. Harris (Eds.), Changing perspectives in research in reading/ language processing and instruction. Thirty-third yearbook of the National Reading Conference (pp. 110-116). Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference.


¹ This spelling is conventionally used in reading literature when referring to the phonological unit. Thus, a rhyme for bat is cat, but its rime is /µt/.

Brett Reynolds can be contacted at Sakuragaoka Girls' Jr/Sr High School, Tokyo, Japan and by email at <>. Readers are also invited to visit his homepage at <>

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Literacy Across Cultures
September 1998 2/2