Phonological specificity relates to phonological awareness and reading ability in English–French bilingual children

  • Klaudia KrencaEmail author
  • Eliane Segers
  • Xi Chen
  • Sharry Shakory
  • Jeffrey Steele
  • Ludo Verhoeven


The 1-year longitudinal study presented here examined the extent to which the ability to build phonologically specific lexical entries as a result of increasing vocabulary size predicts word reading via its impact on phonological awareness within and across languages in 62 emerging English (L1) and French (L2) Grade 1 children (M = 75.69 months, SD = 3.18) enrolled in an early French immersion program in Canada. Lexical specificity was assessed with a computerized word learning game in which children were taught new English (e.g., ‘foal’ and ‘sole’) and French (e.g., bac ‘bin’ and bague ‘ring’) word pairs contrasted by minimal phonological differences. The results revealed that the specificity of English words at the beginning of Grade 1 predicted English word reading at the end of Grade 1 and that this relationship was mediated by English phonological awareness at the beginning of Grade 1. French lexical specificity at the beginning of Grade 1 did not predict French word reading at the end of Grade 1. Notably, English lexical specificity at the beginning of Grade 1 also predicted French word reading at the end of Grade 1 and this relationship was mediated by English phonological awareness at the beginning of Grade 1. It is concluded that exposure to word pairs involving minimal phonological contrasts fosters phonological awareness, which in turn facilitates word reading within the L1 that then transfers to the L2.


Dynamic assessment Early identification French immersion Lexical specificity Linguistic transfer Phonological awareness Second language learning 



This research was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant (to X.C.). Opinions reflect those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the funding agency. The author(s) had no financial or other conflicts of interest. A special thank you to Dr. Esther Geva, Dr. Alexandra Gottardo, and Alexandra Bellissimo for their invaluable guidance and support throughout the project. This research would not have been possible without the support of the teachers, parents, and children at our partner schools, in addition to all of the research assistants of the Multilingualism and Literacy Lab.


  1. Au-Yeung, K., Hipfner-Boucher, K., Chen, X., Pasquarella, A., D’Angelo, N., & Deacon, H. (2015). Development of English and French language and literacy skills in EL1 and EL French immersion students in the early grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 50, 233–254. Scholar
  2. Caravolas, M., & Bruck, M. (1993). The effect of oral and written language input on children’s phonological awareness: A cross-linguistic study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 55(1), 1–30. Scholar
  3. Cheung, H., Chen, H. C., Lai, C. Y., Wong, O. C., & Hills, M. (2001). The development of phonological awareness: Effects of spoken language experience and orthography. Cognition, 81, 227–241. Scholar
  4. Chung, S. C., Chen, X., & Deacon, S. H. (2018). The relation between orthographic processing and spelling in Grade 1 French immersion children. Journal of Research in Reading, 41, 290–311. Scholar
  5. Comeau, L., Cormier, P., Grandmaison, É., & Lacroix, D. (1999). A longitudinal study of phonological processing skills in children learning to read in a second language. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(1), 29–43. Scholar
  6. Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222–251. Scholar
  7. Durgunoğlu, A. Y., & Öney, B. (1999). A cross-linguistic comparison of phonological awareness and word recognition. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11, 281–299. Scholar
  8. E-Prime (Version 2.0) [Computer Software]. (2012). Pittsburgh, PA: Psychology Software Tools.Google Scholar
  9. Geva, E., & Ryan, E. B. (1993). Linguistic and cognitive correlates of academic skills in first and second languages. Language Learning, 43(1), 5–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  11. Janssen, C., Segers, E., McQueen, J. M., & Verhoeven, L. (2015). Lexical specificity training effects in second language learners. Language Learning, 65, 358–389. Scholar
  12. Janssen, C., Segers, E., McQueen, J. M., & Verhoeven, L. (2017). Transfer from implicit to explicit phonological abilities in first and second language learners. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 20, 795–812. Scholar
  13. Johnson, R. K., & Swain, M. (Eds.). (1997). Immersion education: International perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Kim, H. Y. (2013). Statistical notes for clinical researchers: Assessing normal distribution (2) using skewness and kurtosis. Restorative Dentistry & Endodontics, 38(1), 52–54. Scholar
  15. Lam, K., & Chen, X. (2018). The crossover effects of morphological awareness on vocabulary development among children in French immersion. Reading and Writing: An Interdiscriplinary Journal, 31, 1893–1921. Scholar
  16. Lesaux, N. K., & Siegel, L. S. (2003). The development of reading in children who speak English as a second language. Developmental Psychology, 39, 1005–1019. Scholar
  17. Lipka, O., & Siegel, L. S. (2007). The development of reading skills in children with english as a second language. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 105–131. Scholar
  18. MacCoubrey, S., Wade-Woolley, L., Klinger, D., & Kirby, J. (2004). Early identification of at-risk L2 readers. Canadian Modern Language Review, 61, 11–29. Scholar
  19. Melby-Lervåg, M., & Lervåg, A. (2011). Cross-linguistic transfer of oral language, decoding, phonological awareness and reading comprehension: A meta-analysis of the correlational evidence. Journal of Research in Reading, 34, 114–135. Scholar
  20. Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S. A. H., & Hulme, C. (2012). Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 322–352. Scholar
  21. Metsala, J. L., & Walley, A. C. (1998). Spoken vocabulary growth and the segmental restructuring of lexical representations: Precursors to phonemic awareness and early reading ability. In J. L. Metsala & L. C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp. 89–120). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.Google Scholar
  22. Morita, A., & Tamaoka, K. (2002). Phonological involvement in the processing of Japanese at the lexical and sentence levels. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15, 633–651. Scholar
  23. Muter, V., & Snowling, M. (1998). Concurrent and longitudinal predictors of reading: The role of metalinguistic and short-term memory skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 33, 320–337. Scholar
  24. Ortéga, É., & Lété, B. (2010). eManulex: Electronic version of Manulex and Manulex-infra databases. Retrieved from Accessed 11 July 2016.
  25. Paradis, J., Emmerzael, K., & Duncan, T. S. (2010). Assessment of English language learners: Using parent report on first language development. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43, 474–497. Scholar
  26. Perfetti, C. A., & Hart, L. (2002). The Lexical Quality Hypothesis. In L. Verhoeven, C. Elbro, & P. Reitsma (Eds.), Precursors of functional literacy (studies in written language and literacy) (pp. 189–213). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Potter, M. C., So, K. F., Von Eckhardt, B., & Feldman, L. B. (1984). Lexical and conceptual representation in beginning and proficient bilinguals. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 23, 23–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Resing, W. C. M., Bleichrodt, N., Drenth, P. J. D. D., & Zaal, J. N. (2012). Revisie Amsterdamse kinder intelligentie test-2 (RAKIT-2). Gebruikershandleiding. [Revision Amsterdam child intelligence test-2 (RAKIT-2). User manual]. Amsterdam: Pearson.Google Scholar
  29. Tabachnick, B. G., & Fidell, L. S. (2007). Using multivariate statistics (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  30. Van Goch, M. M., McQueen, J. M., & Verhoeven, L. (2014). Learning phonologically specific new words fosters rhyme awareness in Dutch preliterate children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 155–172. Scholar
  31. Wagner, R. K., Torgesen, J. K., Rashotte, C. A., & Pearson, N. A. (2013). CTOPP-2: Comprehensive test of phonological processing (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.Google Scholar
  32. Walley, A. C. (1993). The role of vocabulary development in children’s spoken word recognition and segmentation ability. Developmental Review, 13, 286–350. Scholar
  33. Wilson, M. (1988). The MRC psycholinguistic database: Machine usable dictionary, version 2.00. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 20, 6–10. Scholar
  34. Wise, N., D’Angelo, N., & Chen, X. (2016). A school-based phonological awareness intervention for struggling readers in early French immersion. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29, 183–205. Scholar
  35. Woodcock, R. W., McGrew, K. S., & Mather, N. (2001). Woodcock–Johnson tests of achievement. Itasca, IL: Riverside Publishing.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Behavioural Science InstituteRadboud UniversityNijmegenNetherlands
  3. 3.Department of FrenchUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations