Abstract Speech perception deficits are commonly reported in dyslexia but longitudinal evidence that poor speech perception compromises learning to read is scant. We assessed the hypothesis that phonological skills, specifically phoneme awareness and RAN, mediate the relationship between speech perception and reading. We assessed longitudinal predictive relationships between categorical speech perception, phoneme awareness, RAN, language, attention and reading at ages 5½ and 6½ years in 237 children many of whom were at high risk of reading difficulties. Speech perception at 5½ years correlated with language, attention, phoneme awareness and RAN concurrently and was a predictor of reading at 6½ years. There was no significant indirect effect of speech perception on reading via phoneme awareness, suggesting that its effects are separable from those of phoneme awareness. Children classified with dyslexia at 8 years had poorer speech perception than age‐controls at 5½ years and children with language disorders (with or without dyslexia) had more severe difficulties with both speech perception and attention control. Categorical speech perception tasks tap factors extraneous to perception, including decision‐making skills. Further longitudinal studies are needed to unravel the complex relationships between categorical speech perception tasks and measures of reading and language and attention.