Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
In transparent alphabetic languages, the expected standard for complete acquisition of letter–speech sound associations is within one year of reading instruction. The neural mechanisms underlying the acquisition of letter–speech sound associations have, however, hardly been investigated. The present article describes an ERP study with beginner and advanced readers in which the influence of letters on speech sound processing is investigated by comparing the MMN to speech sounds presented in isolation with the MMN to speech sounds accompanied by letters. Furthermore, SOA between letter and speech sound presentation was manipulated in order to investigate the development of the temporal window of integration for letter–speech sound processing. Beginner readers, despite one year of reading instruction, showed no early letter–speech sound integration, that is, no influence of the letter on the evocation of the MMN to the speech sound. Only later in the difference wave, at 650 msec, was an influence of the letter on speech sound processing revealed. Advanced readers, with 4 years of reading instruction, showed early and automatic letter–speech sound processing as revealed by an enhancement of the MMN amplitude, however, at a different temporal window of integration in comparison with experienced adult readers. The present results indicate a transition from mere association in beginner readers to more automatic, but still not “adult-like,” integration in advanced readers. In contrast to general assumptions, the present study provides evidence for an extended development of letter–speech sound integration.