Dynamic relationships between phonological memory and reading: a five year longitudinal study from age 4 to 9

Anna J. Cunningham*, Adrian P. Burgess, Caroline Witton, Joel B. Talcott, Laura R. Shapiro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We reconcile competing theories of the role of phonological memory in reading development, by uncovering their dynamic relationship during the first 5 years of school. Phonological memory, reading and phoneme awareness were assessed in 780 phonics-educated children at age 4, 5, 6 and 9. Confirmatory factor analyses demonstrated that phonological memory loaded onto two factors: verbal short-term memory (verbal STM; phonological tasks that loaded primarily on serial order memory) and nonword repetition. Using longitudinal structural equation models, we found that verbal STM directly predicted early word-level reading from age 4 to 6, reflecting the importance of serial-order memory for letter-by-letter decoding. In contrast, reading had no reciprocal influence on the development of verbal STM. The relationship between nonword repetition and reading was bidirectional across the 5 years of study: nonword repetition and reading predicted each other both directly and indirectly (via phoneme awareness). Indirect effects from nonword repetition (and verbal STM) to reading support the view that phonological memory stimulates phonemically detailed representations through repeated encoding of complex verbal stimuli. Similarly, the indirect influence of reading on nonword repetition suggests that improved reading ability promotes the phoneme-level specificity of phonological representations. Finally, the direct influence from reading to nonword repetition suggests that better readers use orthographic cues to help them remember and repeat new words accurately. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70LZfTR0BjE.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12986
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number1
Early online date15 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Authors. Developmental Science published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funding: Economic and Social Research Council. Grant Number: ES/H031685/1


  • development
  • longitudinal
  • nonword repetition
  • phonological
  • reading
  • verbal short-term memory


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