Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16: 5–20, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Spoken vocabulary growth: Its role in the development of
phoneme awareness and early reading ability
AMANDA C. WALLEY
, JAMIE L. METSALA
& VICTORIA M.
Department of Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama,
Department of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park, College
Park, Maryland, USA;
Department of Social Sciences, Warren Wilson College, Asheville,
North Carolina, USA
Abstract. In this paper, two theoretical positions regarding the developmental origins of the
phoneme as a unit for lexical representation and processing are outlined – the accessibility
and emergent positions. Our Lexical Restructuring Model (Metsala & Walley, 1998), which is
consistent with the second position, focuses on the role of vocabulary growth in prompting the
implementation of more ﬁne-grained, segmental representations for lexical items in childhood;
this restructuring is viewed as an important precursor to the explicit segmentation or phoneme
awareness skills implicated in early reading success. Empirical evidence that supports this
model is summarized, including preliminary results from one of our most recent studies.
Several suggestions are made for future research that will lead to a better understanding of the
development of spoken word recognition and the links between speech- and reading-related
Key words: Age-of-acquisition, Lexical representations, Neighborhood density, Phoneme
awareness, Spoken word recognition, Word frequency
Abbreviation: AOA – age-of-acquisition
A substantial amount of research has been directed toward explicating the
relation between phoneme awareness, or awareness of the individual speech
segments in spoken words, and early reading success with an alphabetic
writing system (for review, see Brady & Shankweiler, 1991). Two main
theoretical positions regarding the developmental origins of the phoneme
have grown out of this research.
According to the ﬁrst, accessibility position (e.g., Rozin & Gleitman,
1977; Liberman, Shankweiler & Liberman, 1989), phonemic segments are
preformed units that are present and functional from early infancy (see,
for example, Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens & Lindblom, 1992), but are
highly modularized; i.e., they are, at least initially, only available for basic