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The link between phonological abilities, as indexed through measures of phonological awareness and phonological memory, and the development of skilled reading is well-established in both typical and atypical populations. However, the specific nature of the skill differences tapped by these meta-phonological tasks remains a debated topic. To the extent that such tasks are indicative of differences in phonological processing, individuals who perform poorly on them have been mostly assumed to have underspecified (or “fuzzy”) phonological representations (e.g., Tallal et al., 1998), which overlap excessively due to imprecise phonemic encoding. An alternative hypothesis holds that performance deficits on these tasks may derive from overspecified phonological representations, in which case speech sounds are perceived in allophonic (i.e., phonetically distinct variants of a single phonemic category) instead of typical phonemic units (Serniclaes, 2006). While both accounts predict mismatch between spoken sound categories and written symbols that may eventually lead to phonological-based reading difficulty, their implications are quite different with regard to the details of online phonological processing and speech perception at large. To examine these two hypotheses, we used a visual world eye tracking paradigm modeled after that of Dahan et al. (2001), to investigate individual differences in sensitivity to subphonemic information in young adults with a wide range of phonological skills and reading-related abilities (N = 60). Our findings suggest that subphonemic sensitivity is inversely correlated with meta-phonological task performance, consistent with the overspecification hypothesis. Our study of individual differences in subphonemic sensitivity during online speech processing contributes important new knowledge regarding the underlying nature of phonological skills and representations relevant to development of reading skill across a wide spectrum of abilities.
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