The broad conclusions will startle no one who follows this research literature—we know phonological skills are important--but the article is notable for making a couple of finer-grain distinctions.
It is sensible that a child’s ability to understand that words are composed of sounds should be important in learning to read. After all, letters and groups of letters correspond to sound, they don’t signify meaning directly. If that weren’t true you wouldn’t be able to read nonsense words like “flotupe.” Letters signify sounds, and decoding means that kids must match letters (T) and groups of letters (TH) to sound. That means they must first appreciate that words are composed of sounds.
There has been some debate, however, as to the size of the sound unit that matters: the phoneme, or rimes and onsets. The onset refers to the consonant string that precedes a vowel sound, and the rime refers to the vowel and any consonants that follow. Hence, in the word TRIP, the onset would be /TR/ and the rime would be /IP/.
Other researchers have suggested that children must appreciate still smaller sound units—phonemes—as preparation for reading. Phonemes are individual speech sounds that cannot be further subdivided. For example, the rime /IP/ is composed of two phonemes: /I/ and /P/. Perhaps it helps if kids perceive that /IP/ is really two sounds. . .but perhaps that’s not necessary. (And indeed, perceiving that the letter P goes with the individual speech sound /P/ is no small feat, because /P/ is nearly impossible to say on its own. It’s really just a plosion of air, so it sound like you’re imitating a champagne cork popping. Parents typically add a vowel, usually saying “puh” for P.
Then again, maybe whether kids perceive onsets/rimes or phonemes is less important than their having a sizable verbal short term memory in which to manipulate and consider these speech sounds as they are learning to read.
Melby-Lervåg et al. included 235 studies in their analysis and concluded that existing research suggests that all three—rime awareness, phoneme awareness, and size of verbal short-term memory—predict word reading but the largest effect is observed with phonemic awareness. (In fact, the predictive value of verbal short-term memory is quite small.)
The second important conclusion from this review concerns causality. All of these studies in the meta-analysis are correlational. Hence, one interpretation is that phonemic awareness is related to word reading skills because phonemic awareness is necessary for that skill. However, an equally viable interpretation is that reading changes phonemic awareness, so the association is observed because more skilled readers have undergone greater change.
Melby-Lervåg et al. separately consider longitudinal studies that measure phonemic awareness when children are still quite young and have little reading experience. Then reading ability (and especially, the rate at which this ability grows) of these same children is then measured later. Phonemic awareness remains an excellent predictor of reading skill in these studies with a mean correlation of .43; reading could not have caused phonemic awareness, because phonemic awareness was measured before kids could read. (Rime awareness was also a significant predictor in this sort of study, but not as strong, mean correlation = .29). Coupled with other data (not included in the meta-analysis) showing a positive effect for phonemic awareness training, the evidence for a causal role of phonemic awareness in learning to read is growing quite strong.
Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S-A H., & Hulme, C. (2012). Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 322-352.