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Phoneme awareness is the ability to manipulate consonants and vowels mentally. It is fundamental in the development of English reading competency because the English alphabet represents phonemes. Measure-ment of this capacity has enabled researchers to successfully predict early reading achievement. For instance, V. A. Mann (1993) found that in kindergarten, awareness of the initial phonemes in spoken words predicts reading competency in the first grade. Metalinguistic awareness of phonemes and syllables has been a stable predictor of reading performance across numerous longitudinal studies (McBride-Chang 1995).
In the present study, we explored phoneme awareness in a Spanish-English bilingual population. The aim of our study was threefold: 1) to confirm previous findings of relatedness between reading ability and phoneme awareness, 2) to evaluate monolingual versus bilingual performance, and 3) to examine if phoneme awareness transfers between languages.
H. A. Yopp (1988) found that a combination of two tests­one testing Compound Phonemic Awareness, and the other testing Simple Phonemic Awareness­would be most predictive of reading acquisition. Compound Phonemic Awareness tasks require that phonemes be held in memory while performing secondary operations. This study also examines two Simple Phonemic Awareness tasks that involve the manipulation of individual phonemes. One is the Yopp-Singer Phoneme Segmentation Task (PST). In Yopp's study, this test was the purest measure of Simple Phonemic Awareness. The other measure is the Mann Phoneme Segmentation Test (PST) (Mann 1993). A benefit of this task, as opposed to the Yopp-Singer task, is that it requires little formal instruction, and children do not need to access "school skills" such as their knowledge of letter sounds like "buh" and "ess." The recognition that stimuli such as "cat" consists of "cuh" "ah" "tuh" is critical to performance on the Yopp-Singer task, which makes that task more dependent on educational exposure. The Mann test only requires children to decode which words start with the same sound.
Phonological tasks like those employed by Yopp and Mann have been used primarily with monolingual speakers of English. Many Spanish-speaking children do not succeed in learning to read well; deficient phonological awareness could be a factor. This is confirmed by J. E. Jimenez's (1997) study comparing Spanish-speaking normal and reading-disabled children that found differences in the phonological awareness of the
two groups. The reading-disabled group performed poorer overall on the phoneme segmentation tests. The present concern is with Spanish- or English-speaking monolingual and bilingual subjects and how they perform on such tasks. Thus, we adopted the Yopp-Singer and Mann tests into Spanish for the present study.
Considering the impact of bilingualism on phonological awareness, Walley (Bruck and Genesee 1995) suggested that bilinguals, in order to differentiate between their two languages, must routinely pay closer attention to speech and therefore, must be advantaged over monolinguals in their heightened sensitivity to individual phonemes. Furthermore, it has been asserted that instruction gives bilingual children an advantage over monolingual children in tasks in which children are to analyze the structural aspects of language.
M. Bruck and F. Genesee (1995), however, question Walley's assertion that bilingualism improves phonological awareness in general. Instead, Bruck and Genesee (1995) have asserted, instead, that monolinguals can outperform bilinguals in phoneme awareness tasks, especially when the effect of instruction is taken into account. They suggest that phonological awareness in monolinguals learning to read English would be more influenced by literacy instruction than in bilinguals learning to read French. They based this on reading acquisition models that indicate greater ease in distinguishing and identifying phonemes if orthographic representations of the alphabet are stored in memory. For instance, the three co-articulated phonemes, /s/-/u/-/n/, are more easily recognized as such, once subjects understand that "sun" is spelled with three letters (Bruck and Genesee 1995). Bruck and Genesee expected that monolingual subjects will have more practice with individual orthographic patterns and the words they transcribe, and therefore will develop stronger grapheme-phoneme associations than their bilingual counterparts.
Unlike Bruck and Genesee (1995), A. Y. Durgunoglu, W. E. Nagy, and B. J. Hancin-Bhatt (1993) did not look for, find, or compare specific phonological awareness skills among bilinguals versus monolinguals. Instead, they found a general transfer of phonological awareness in one direction, from Spanish to English. Their study included first grade students who were taught in Spanish. They were administered tests of letter naming, Spanish phonological awareness, Spanish and English word recognition, and Spanish and English oral proficiency. Levels of Spanish word recognition and phonological awareness predicted subjects' scores on English word and pseudoword recognition tests.