Research Bites: Reading, Pronunciation, and the Phonological Loop

(Thanks to Gianfranco Conti for making me aware of this article.)

In “Phonology in Second Language Reading: Not an Optional Extra”, Walter (2008) argues that the ability to distinguish and create the sounds of the L2 serves as an important underlying mechanism for L2 reading comprehension. In other words, good pronunciation skills help students become good readers.

The implications of Walter’s study points to “evidence that the development of a reliable phonological repertoire in L2 provides an important basis for skillful reading” (p. 469). She argues that teaching comprehension is not enough. Poor comprehenders (who may be good single-sentence decoders) “need to be better at mentally representing spoken language” (p. 470). More exposure to the target language’s sounds as well as reading at or below level with audio may be one way to address this problem. In addition, minimal pair work, dictations with confusable words, and other activities that explicitly help students differentiate sounds can help build a reliable L2 phonological repertoire. Thus, reading instruction must include the distinguishing of sounds.

I have already described the implications from Walter’s research. Below is more detail on the concept of the phonological loop, her study, and its findings. Following that are some questions for discussion.


Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: Not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly, 42(3), 455-474. [link]

Background Concepts

  • Walters argues that reading comprehension in an L2 is based on the ability to access their L1 reading abilities rather than transfer their abilities from L1 to L2.
  • One such ability that readers access is their verbal working memory, in particular the phonological loop in alphabetic languages. This is the same mechanism that helps us learn and then forget phone numbers quickly, as well as being able to repeat back the last bit of information someone said.

    The Phonological Loop from University of South Alabama

    • Non alphabetic languages store this information in the visuospatial sketchpad.
  • The phonological loop is a cognitive mechanism that stores about 2 seconds of speech (spoken or subvocalized).
    • The phonological loop may be important to language acquisition as it allows humans to process new words until they move to long-term memory.
  • For language learners, if students have unreliable sound representations of what they just read, it may be harder for these students to link what they are reading to the words’ meanings.
    • One problem may be not having the ability to distinguish similar sounds.
    • Another problem may be that poor decoding of sounds degrades already existing representation through overwriting the correct forms
    • Another problem source may be poor “grapheme-to-phoneme conversion,” meaning poor ability to correctly pronounce individual letters


  • Walter’s study aimed to understand the role the phonological loop may play in L2 reading. This was done by looking to see if word lists of phonologically similar words were difficult for participants to recall. If similar words were difficult to recall, it may mean these words could not link to long-term representations via the phonological loop.
    • She notes that recalling word lists of similar-sounding words is difficult in any language. Participants are expected to do poorly in their L1s, but, the hypothesis is, good readers should do as poorly in their L2 and poor readers should do even worse in their L2.
  • Participants
    • 21 L1 English participants (L1Eng)
    • 23 good L2 comprehenders (GoodC)
    • 21 poor L2 comprehenders (PoorC)
    • All GoodC and PoorC participants had good comprehension abilities in their L1 (French) and were allocated to their groups based on previous studies done with Walter.
  • Materials
    • Word lists of eight words each were used: (phonologically) different French words, similar French words, different English words, similar English words
  • Procedure
    • 20 words were randomly ordered and presented in written form to participants. Pronunciation of English words for French participants were also given.
    • Words were shown on a screen, one word at a time, for two seconds. After four words, participants were given 30 seconds to write down their recall of the words.
      • Participants could also see the entire list of words in their viewing area.
  • Results
    • L1 Trials
      • L1Eng performed better than the other groups in their L1, but there was no significant difference between GoodC and PoorC in French
    • Similar English Words
      • GoodC and L1Eng performed equally, but PoorC’s performance was worse and statistically significant
        • The PoorC group also performed slightly worse on the Different English Words list, but not to the same extent as the similar words
    • A follow-up study to determine whether poor grapheme-to-phoneme conversion played a role was conducted with a shorter version of the two English lists.
      • Participants recorded themselves reading the words.
      • Results indicated grapheme-to-phoneme conversion was not a problem.


  • The results indicated that participants in the PoorC group had weaker phonological representations of English words than the other groups. This indicates the phonological loop seems to play a role in helping readers link what they are reading with long-term mental structures.
  • One mechanism that may explain this is that the link may depend on the features of the sounds (place or manner of articulation) rather than the sounds themselves. The less different the manner in which the sound is made, the more difficult it is to (mentally) distinguish or represent them.
  • Another mechanism may be “redintegration” – linking read text with “incomplete phonological records of another word” (p. 469). In other words, linking what is read to words that were poorly or incorrectly stored in the first place.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Have you noticed a connection between students with poor pronunciation and poor reading skills?
  2. Given a reading text, how can sound distinguishing activities be integrated in a meaningful way? In particular, how would one decide on the vocabulary to focus on and the sounds to distinguish?
  3. What activities do you typically use to help students distinguish sounds?