Thursday, February 25, 2016

Structure of Phonological Ability at Age Four

Wolff, U. & Gusstafsson, J. E. (2015). Structure of phonological ability at age four. Intelligence, 53, 108-117.

Phonological awareness involves the ability to identify and manipulate speech sounds, and is an important predictor of reading abilities. There is debate as to whether phonological awareness is one-dimensional or is reflective of multiple abilities. Many studies have investigated this using phonological awareness tasks that vary in their linguistic and processing complexity. Linguistic complexity involves the size of the linguistic unit being manipulated, and can range from morphemes (meaningful units; e.g.: ball in snowball), to syllables, to phonemes (sound units; e.g.: /b/ sound in snowball). Processing complexity involves how much processing effort the tasks involves, and ranges from simple to complex. For instance, a simple task would involve judging whether two words rhyme, while a more complex task would involve deleting phonological units (e.g.: “Say spit without the /p/ sound”). Phonological awareness abilities have also been linked to a component of intelligence known as general fluid (Gf) intelligence. Little is known about the link between phonological awareness and Gf, but it is possible that Gf is linked to the processing complexity involved in certain phonological awareness tasks.

The present study used a range of tasks that varied in both their linguistic and processing complexity to examine phonological awareness in young children. Three hundred and sixty-four four-year-old Swedish children completed a battery of phonological awareness and cognitive tasks. Results from this test battery were analyzed using a structural equation modelling approach, which allowed the researchers to examine the relationship between observed task performance and underlying phonological awareness and cognitive abilities. They found that that phonological awareness is indeed one-dimensional, with variability in task performance coming from the distinct linguistic and processing demands. Additionally, Gf intelligence was related to the processing complexity of the phonological awareness task but not linguistic complexity, as expected. 

These results have important implications for designing tools to assess phonological awareness. It is important to consider both the linguistic and processing complexity of phonological awareness tasks used in assessments, and understanding that other cognitive abilities such as intelligence contribute to phonological awareness.   

Blogger: Nicolette Noonan
Nicolette is a Ph.D. student working with Drs. Lisa Archibald and Marc Joanisse

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