Phonological development was assessed in six alphabetic orthographies (English, French, Greek, Icelandic, Portuguese and Spanish) at the beginning and end of the first year of reading instruction. The aim was to explore contrasting theoretical views regarding: the question of the availability of phonology at the outset of learning to read (Study 1); the influence of orthographic depth on the pace of phonological development during the transition to literacy (Study 2); and the impact of literacy instruction (Study 3). Results from 242 children did not reveal a consistent sequence of development as performance varied according to task demands and language. Phonics instruction appeared more influential than orthographic depth in the emergence of an early meta-phonological capacity to manipulate phonemes, and preliminary indications were that cross-linguistic variation was associated with speech rhythm more than factors such as syllable complexity. The implications of the outcome for current models of phonological development are discussed.