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There has been a tremendous amount of interest in phonological processing by many different professionals for the past 20 years or so. Speech therapists, educators, psychologists and so on have all been interested in phonological processing because of the tremendous relationship with reading and spelling. Today we are aware  that children who have phonological processing problems are likely to have reading and spelling problems. Importantly, we now know that by helping them with their underlying phonological processing problems, we can influence their literacy.



Phonological processing  is one part of the processing of auditory information by the brain (please click here to read about auditory information processing).


Making sense of what we hear


The term "phonological" comes from  the Greek word 'phone', which means “sound.”


There is a machine that is able to capture sounds as we speak  and converts them to a visual representation of the sound. This is called a spectrogram. The image on the right is an example of a spectrogram. When we look at a spectrogram, we cannot see where one word begins and the next word ends. In fact, we cannot  see where one sound starts and ends. So, we cannot hear these separations. Only our brain KNOWS they exist and can PROCESS the auditory information that it receives.


What is phonological processing?


Phonological processing refers to the use of phonological information, especially the sound structure of one’s oral language, in processing written language (i.e., reading, writing) and oral language (i.e., listening, speaking). It is the brain's way of making sense of the SOUNDS that we hear.



So what we know is that the separation of words into sounds is a cognitive skill, and has little to do with the acoustics (the physical properties) of the sounds themselves.  This means that we have to have adequate cognitive-perceptual skills to make sense of the sounds that our ears hear. Our brains process the information in a very special way so as to make sense of the sounds - and this is what phonological processing is. Our brains work out which sounds we are hearing, and how they are put together to make meaning.


The basic sounds of speech are called phones. These are all the sounds that make up all the languages of the world. The phones are made by us moving the parts of our speech system -tongues, lips, cheeks, palates, jaws, and vocal cords.


Very importantly, there are huge variations in phones. For example, when I say "sip"  or ,"slip" ,or  " miss" or "asp", the "s" is produced differently. We write it as s and we recognise it as s but it is never produced exactly the same way because the sounds on either side of it influence how it is said. But our brains can work out that it is a sound that is usually heard as s and so we can use it as a written s. This is a cognitive-perceptual skill.


When phones are used to change meaning, they are called phonemes. So "pit" and "lit" and "fit" are different in meaning because the first sounds changed. Now we refer to the /p/ and the /l/ and the /f/ as phonemes. In English, we have about 45 phonemes. Other languages have different numbers of phonemes. (Every language in the world has its own sound system. Afrikaans has no 'th'. English has no clicks. Hebrew has a gutteral r).


So, we process the phones and we process the phonemes. That way, we can make sense of the sounds that we hear.


We also process larger units:

We process what are known as onsets which are the first sound (e.g. b as in ball; f and in fast)  or first consonant cluster in a word (e.g. sp as in spit; cl as in clock).


We also process rimes. These are the vowel and consonant or consonat clusters that follow the first sounds (e.g -aren afer Karen).


We process syllables, and we process words.







Here is an example of the word smash in the sentence "It will smash".

  • the phones s and m and a and sh (sh is written as 2 letters but is one sound)

  • the phonemes s and  m and  a and sh (it is not stash/shmash/smish/smatch)

  • the intial consonant cluster sm

  • the one  syllable (smash versus  two syllables smash+es)

  • the onset rimes sm+ash

  • the whole word


Here is an example of processing the word "sun" in the sentence "The sun is hot".

We process multiple levels of phonology.

  •  the phones of s and u and n

  • the phonemes s+u+n

  • the one syllable of the word sun (versus sunny, sunshine)

  • the initial sound s

  • the onset-rime (s-un)

  • the whole word

  • the words in the context of the meaning of the sentence



At this point in time, some people usually consider phonological processing to comprise three important aspects

  • Phonological awareness

  • Phonological memory

  • Rapid naming

Others argue that RAN is not a phonological process (e.g. Wolf)


At some point - although we don't really know when - children become AWARE of the little parts that they are processing. We call this 'Phonological Awareness'. It seems that there is a developmental progression of phonological awareness.


Children learn that a word can be made of 2 words

e g.

cowboy = cow+boy

sunshine = sunshine


They learn that words are made of syllables


grass is one sylable

greener = green + er

Fashio = fash + ion

hotter = ho+ tter


They learn that words have onsets


show = sh +ow

Farm= f +arm


Then they learn onset rimes


after s comes un

adfter f comes arm


Then they are aware of the individual phonemes in syllables


sun = s+u+n

farm = f+a+rm








When we hear a list of telephone numbers, we usually are able to remember at least some of them. We do not remember them by their visual representation usually, (although there are some people who do! - for example, some people who are "autistic" or who are diagnosed as being on the 'autistic spectrum" report that they use visual representations to make sense of sound). Most of us remember auditory information that we have heard by using our short term memory. The sounds we hear are linked to our language and cognition - we know that we are remembering words; or digits; or sentences. We know that the words are not in an order, or that the digits are not in order. So we hold the SOUNDS that we hear in our short term memory.


There are a lot of theories but the one that seems to be the most popular is one by Baddeley and Hitch. They said that we store auditory information in a phonological loop.


It consists of two parts


o Phonological Store.


This is linked to speech perception.  It holds information in speech-based form (i.e. spoken words) for 1-2 seconds.


o Articulatory control process. This is linked to speech production. It is used to  rehearse and store verbal information from the phonological store.


There is an association between phonological loop and the ability to decode new words.









The third kind of phonological processing is rapid naming. However, there are some who argue that RAN is absolutley not a part of phonological processing.


It is also called 'rapid automatized naming' . We measure it by asking people to quickly name aloud objects, pictures, colors, or symbols (letters or digits). We sometimes look at the types of errors made, but actually "the key dependent variable is the total time taken to name the items" (Norton & Wolf,  p431).


Rapid naming of objects, colors, digits, or letters requires efficient retrieval of phonological information from long-term memory.


Measures of rapid naming require speed and processing of visual as well as phonological information. The skills involved include efficient retrieval of phonological information from long-term memory and executing a sequence of operations quickly and repeatedly.


Dr M Wolf at Tufts university has done a huge amount of work on RAN and she and a colleague stated, "There is an extensive body of research...  that leads us and other researchers to consider RAN tasks as one of the best, perhaps universal, predictors of reading fluency across all known orthographies" (Norton & Wolf, 2012, p430).


(Wagner, R.K., Torgesen, J.K., & Rashotte, C.A. (1999). Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. Austin, TX: PRO-ED; Wagner, R.K., Torgesen, J.K., & Rashotte, C.A. (1994). Development of reading-related phonological processing abilities: New evidence of bi-directional causality from a latent variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 30, 73-87; Wagner, R.K., & Torgesen, J.K. (1987). The nature of phonological processing and its causal role in the acquisition of reading skills. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 192-212.)


A fantastic article to read is by Norton and Wolf

Click here


You may want to read an interview with Dr Wolf

Click here


When we work with children on their phonological awareness, we never practice rapid naming! We teach the skills UNDERLYING rapid naming.










.Here's Baddeley talking about the phonologiocal loop in two videos from YouTube. The top one is about the loop; the bottom video is about the loop and language development.

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