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Studies of the factors governing reading development in young children have achieved a remarkable degree of consensus over the past two decades. This consensus concerns the causal role of phonological skills in young children’s reading progress. Children who have poor phonological skills, progress more poorly. In particular, those who have a specific phonological deficit are likely to be classified as dyslexic by the time that they are $9$ or $10$ years old.

Phonological skills in young children can be measured at a number of different levels. The term phonological awareness is a global one, and refers to a deficit in recognising smaller units of sound within spoken words. Developmental work has shown that this deficit can be at the level of syllables, of onsets and rimes, or of phonemes. For example, a $4$-year old child might have difficulty in recognising that a word like valentine has three syllables, suggesting a lack of syllabic awareness. A $5$ year old might have difficulty in recognising that the odd word out in the set of words fan, cat, hat, mat is fan. This task requires an awareness of the sub-syllabic units of the onset and the rime. The onset corresponds to any initial consonants is a syllable, and the rime corresponds to the vowel and to any following consonants. Rimes correspond to rhyme in single-syllable words, and so the rime in fan differs from the rime in cat, hat, and mat. In longer words, rime and rhyme may differ. The onsets in $\text{val : en : tine are /v/}$ and $\text{/t/,}$ and the rimes correspond to the spelling patterns $\text{‘al’, ‘en’,}$ and $\text{‘ine’.}$

A $6$-year-old might have difficulty in recognising that plea and pray begin with the same initial sound. This is a phonemic judgement. Although the initial phoneme /p/ is shared between the two words, in plea it is part of onset ‘pl’, and in pray it is part of the onset ‘pr’. Until children can segment the onset (or the rime), such phonemic judgements are difficult for them to make. In fact, a recent survey of different developmental studies has shown that the different levels of phonological awareness appear to emerge sequentially. The awareness of syllables, onsets, and rimes appears to emerge at around the ages of $3$ and $4,$ long before most children go to school. The awareness of phonemes, on the other hand, usually emerges at around the age of $5$ or $6,$ when children have been taught to read for about a year. An awareness of onsets and rimes thus appears to be a precursor of reading, whereas an awareness of phonemes at every serial position in a word only appears to develop as reading is taught. The onsetrime and phonemic levels of phonological structure, however, are not distinct. Many onsets in English are single phonemes, and so are some rimes $\text{(e.g. sea, go, zoo).}$

The early availability of onsets and rimes is supported by studies that have compared the development of phonological awareness of onsets, rimes, and phonemes in the same subjects using the same phonological awareness tasks. For example, a study by Treiman and Zudowski used a same/different judgement task based on the beginning or the end sounds of words. In the beginning sound task, the words either began with the same onset, as in plea and plank, or shared only the initial phoneme, as in plea and pry. In the endsound task, the words either shared the entire rime, as in spit and wit, or shared only the final phoneme, as in rat and wit. Treiman and Zudowski showed that $4$–and $5$–year old children found the onset-rime version of the same/different task significantly easier than the version based on  phonemes. Only the 6-yearolds, who had been learning to read for about a year, were able to perform both versions of the tasks with an equal level of success.

The Treiman and Zudowski experiment found evidence to support the following:

  1. at age $6$, reading instruction helps children perform, both, the same-different judgement task.
  2. the development of onset-rime awareness precedes the development of an awareness of phonemes.
  3. at age $4-5$ children find the onset-rime version of the same/different task significantly easier.
  4. the development of onset-rime awareness is a necessary and sufficient condition for the development of an awareness of phonemes.
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