Original Research-Special Collection: Reducing inequalities in and through literacy in the early years of schooling

Phonological awareness and reading in Northern Sotho – Understanding the contribution of phonemes and syllables in Grade 3 reading attainment

Carien Wilsenach
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 9, No 1 | a647 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v9i1.647 | © 2019 Carien Wilsenach | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 March 2018 | Published: 28 March 2019

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Carien Wilsenach, Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

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Background: The role of phonological awareness (PA) in successful reading attainment in Northern Sotho has received some attention. However, the importance of developing an awareness to the different phonological grain sizes that underlie decoding (i.e. to different dimensions of PA) has not been established in this language.

Aim: This study assessed different levels of PA in Northern Sotho learners in order to determine the relationship between phoneme awareness, syllable awareness and reading.

Setting: The research was conducted in Atteridgeville, a suburb in Tshwane. The participants were Grade 3 learners who spoke Northern Sotho as home language, and who received their literacy instruction in Northern Sotho in the foundation phase.

Methods: The research was cross-sectional, with a correlational component. Phoneme awareness was assessed via a phoneme identification and elision task, whereas syllable awareness was assessed with a syllable elision task.

Results: Statistical analyses revealed that Northern Sotho learners are significantly better at identifying syllables than phonemes, but that phoneme awareness predicts reading outcomes more accurately.

Conclusion: This study suggests that phoneme awareness does not necessarily develop early or automatically in languages with a simple syllable structure and a transparent orthography and evaluates this finding against the predictions of the Psycholinguistic Grain Size Theory. The importance of explicitly teaching phoneme–grapheme correspondences to Northern Sotho learners is highlighted.


phonological awareness; word reading; fluent reading; Northern Sotho


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