Several research studies with adult learners have shown that adult beginning readers have trouble applying sound–letter knowledge to work out words.36 To decode (sound out) words, learners need to have a level of phonemic awareness and to know the relationships between the sounds of letters and their written forms.
We know that good readers can recognise words by identifying the component letters,37 and that for fluent readers this is not a conscious process. The converse applies for writing: to form words, writers need to be able to turn the sounds they wish to convey into letters.
There are complex relationships among language, literacy, exposure to education and the written systems of different languages.38 Not all writing systems represent language in the same way. For example, in many scripts, the symbols represent meanings, not sounds; in Egyptian, the symbol for “sun” resembles the sun. Because English uses a phonemic (sound-based) script, the word sun has no relation to the actual sun other than its sound.
Learners who are literate in their mother tongue, and whose mother tongue uses a non-phonemic (or logographic) script such as Chinese, will need instruction in letter recognition (the alphabet) and in the sound–letter relationships of English.