The study, by Peter Pumfrey and Monica Lazo, followed the progress of 60 children with an average age of four-and-a-half, until they were six.
The researchers say that if teachers are encouraged to see the conceptual "forest" instead of the component "trees" and heed early signs of literacy readiness, more could be done to prevent reading and spelling difficulties.
Pumfrey and Lazo found that while later spelling seems to depend on early knowledge of what sounds look like, later reading stemmed from an initial awareness of how printed symbols sound. "This curious reversal is not surprising in the light of what beginners face when reading and spelling. When reading, beginners are presented with an arranged combination of letters. All they have to do is translate these letters into meaningful speech. In contrast, when spelling, beginners are presented with a blank page. They have to match the spoken word with its written counterpart by translating the whole sound of the word into its constituent symbols."
The study confirms that awareness of sound and print are the earliest predictors of reading and spelling abilities, coming into play before children begin to read and spell. Awareness of meaning comes into play later, during the first year of formal schooling. "It is only logical that children have to possess some knowledge of how print is translated into speech before they can attach any meaning to the words they recognise," say the researchers.
Early Predictors of Later Attainment in Reading and Spelling appears in the November issue of Reading, the UK Reading Association journal, published by Blackwell