Debbie: I don’t doubt that writing my observations and thoughts about this topic is stepping into a minefield, but I feel compelled to write something. I’ve avoided fully approaching this topic in the public domain for many years. With the increasing swell of the passionate ‘speech to print’ advocates’ voices in the public domain (social networks) and in the teaching profession, however, it’s time…

Partly this is a minefield topic because there are such passionate advocates for the ‘speech to print’ approach (fair enough) but this is often accompanied with the blanket criticism or implication that phonics programmes and approaches not claiming to be ‘speech to print’ are inferiorwhich is not fairnor fully understood.

It’s as if ‘speech to print’ advocates presume that all phonics programmes not described specifically as ‘speech to print’ must therefore be ‘print to speech’ and thus they are damned as inevitably inferior or flawed compared to those programmes publicised loud and clear as ‘speech to print’.

Have no doubt – I’m not saying that there aren’t really good and effective phonics programmes based on the rationale of ‘speech to print’. I have to make that clear from the outset. There may well be ‘speech to print’ programmes that are truly brilliant in their level of support for the teachers, and the effectiveness for learners.

But what I’m not happy about is the constant claim by ‘speech to print’ advocates that this approach is superior to ‘print to speech’ or ‘traditional phonics’ for the teaching of READING.

I dispute this.

In any event, there are so many ‘phonics’ programmes that it is probably not possible to ascertain the efficacy of every programme, and I would go so far as to suggest that ‘systematic’ phonics programmes even when badly or tastelessly designed will still work with most children – simply because ‘phonics’ is the basis of the English spelling and reading code. There doesn’t seem to be any interest from the UK or international research community to look across multiple phonics programmes which is, arguably, what should be the focus in reading and spelling research moving forwards. Otherwise, perhaps the job of research into reading instruction is sufficiently ‘job done’!!!

Speech to print: One of the reasons for this claim of superiority seems to be the rationale for teaching reading must, or should, start with a child’s spoken language – a simple spoken word that the child ALREADY KNOWS. Included in this view may be the argument that speaking is a primary (in-built) capacity and so it is presented as a logical, better approach.

I dispute this is a necessary or superior approach for beginners. It’s just ‘an’ approach.

And better than what?

Print to speech: The approach of teaching children a few letter-sound links at first (including for consonant sounds and vowel sounds), then providing printed UNKNOWN words for children to practise how to ‘sound out’ (in response to each letter they have already learnt) and to ‘blend’ (the sounds) to discern the target spoken word. This is known as synthesising which has given rise to the description of ‘synthetic phonics’. The printed words are not ‘unknown’ in the sense of the children not knowing that word in their spoken language, they are unknown in the sense that they did not know what the printed word is having not seen it in print before. Cumulative, printed words and simple sentences can be included at a very early stage of this approach. It’s not an inferior approach.

This process is what any readers need to be able to do when reading/decoding an unknown printed word (and that includes whether or not that word is already known in speech as we learn many new words for our spoken language from print in texts/literature and not direct from speech).

However, I need to expand on how at least some ‘speech to print’ advocates teach reading – and that is through, in effect, a spelling route.

As I said, proponents are adamant that the introduction to reading starts with a simple, known spoken word. Then the adult says that word in such a way to highlight the first sound, the middle sound and then the end sound (the identified sounds might be indicated by three drawn lines or Elkonin boxes) – whilst using selected letters (each letter written on a post-it, or with letter tiles, or magnetic letters) to then construct the spelling of the word.

So far, this is a process of ‘orally segmenting the known spoken word ‘, and ‘counting how many sounds identified from beginning to end of the spoken word’, then allocating the correct (already provided) letter shapes to construct the spelling of the word.

So far, then, this is actually modelling a phonics spelling process – and not reading.

So far, then, this is how the adult would, or should, model the spelling routine in any phonics programme described as ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ in England’s context.

Let’s go further for the ‘speech to print’ approach…

Having constructed the (already known) spoken word as a spelling with letter shapes, then the ‘sounding out and blending’ process is modelled from beginning to end of that word. BUT, there is NO process of having to ‘discern the target, unknown spoken word’ from ‘an unknown printed word’ – as is required for an actual reading/decoding process. This kind of modelling in an SSP programme would merely be ‘checking the spelling of the word you have spelt’. It’s a CHECKING PROCESS for spelling. And it’s an end step of the spelling process. When learners are spelling words by themselves, they may have missed out some letters for the identified sounds, for example – so they just need how to check and take care.

Let’s think this through – with the ‘speech to print’ approach to introducing reading, the children still have to learn to recognise those letter-sound links. In effect, they are being introduced to the letter shapes first through identified sounds. So, the direction is sound-to-print. And they are introduced to three new letter shapes at once (unless they already happen to know those letter shapes and sounds from another source – such as, at home or in a nursery setting).

But – children need to know both directions, sound-to-print for spelling and PRINT-TO-SOUND for reading. They start with a spoken word they need to write down for spelling/writing. They start with print on the page for reading.

It’s a myth that it’s superior to approach the ‘sounding out and blending’ for reading to get back to the known spoken word you started with through modelling a spelling process.

Children don’t have to intellectually ‘understand’ how spelling and writing came about originally. Another part of the logic or rationale for the ‘speech to print’ approach at the beginning is that ‘speech came first before writing’ – but that is an historic order of events and does not persuade me that therefore teaching reading should start with speech as such. This is not a logical argument, it is illogical.

Now, ironically, I personally do advocate that teachers engage children with the history of the spoken language and the development of writing – the alphabetic code – for intellectual interest. But that doesn’t warrant suggesting that any introduction and modelling for beginners must start with speech to teach reading – or that this ‘understanding’ is necessary or superior. It isn’t. The children (certainly in England’s context) are only four plus years old when we begin with formally, planned systematic phonics provision!

Whether for reading or spelling, children need to learn the letter-sound links (the ‘correspondences’), and the sound-letter links. It’s a futile argument to say one ‘direction’ is superior to the other, or should come first. Here is a graphic to show the ingredients of teaching the three core phonics skills and their sub-skills for reading, spelling and handwriting.

Teaching and learning letter/s-sound correspondences is why Flash Cards with letters and letter groups are commonly found in phonics programmes and provision. Children need to know these correspondences to the level of ‘automaticity’. It’s common to see the word ‘speedy’ being used such as ‘speedy recognition’ but not all children are, or ever will be, ‘speedy’. Give them time to think and respond – especially slower-to-learn children, and children with dyslexic tendencies and other challenges and differences. Classroom activities should include BOTH the print-to-sound and sound-to-print directions as these are the phonics sub-skills of reading and spelling.

But sometimes ‘speech to print’ advocates speak against the use of grapheme Flash Cards. This is not warranted. In any event, that is another topic – understanding the design and best use of different types of Flash Cards which I won’t go into here. Their generic use for phonics provision, however, should not be undermined as they do have a good use, and they can be used very effectively for teaching and embedding alphabetic code knowledge (the letter/s-sound correspondences).

[I have several different types of Flash Cards in my free Phonics International programme used for different purposes and giving teachers choices, and the ones we provide as ‘ready made‘ have multiple purposes for teaching and learning: the code, decoding, encoding and letter formation of both lower case and capital letters.]

Just to clarify, again, I am not saying that the initial approach of modelling the oral segmenting, and allotting letter shapes in order, then modelling the sounding out and blending of the letters does not work as such. I’m saying it is not ‘necessary’, it is not ‘superior’ – and it is not really modelling the reading process, it’s using the spelling process as a route to sounding out and blending. Ultimately, the children need to be able to do this with printed words ‘not known already’ and not even known in their actual speech.

More about the ‘speech to print’ approach:

The very complex English alphabetic code (a spelling/writing code with Roman letters that enables speech to be spelt/written as well as print to be read – so a reversible code) is organised on the basis of the ‘sounds’ (phonemes – the smallest, sensible unit of sound identified in spoken words) and the many spelling alternatives that are code for the sounds. Generally-speaking, there are around 44 identifiable phonemes in the English language, although when actual print is brought into the picture, some units of sound are ‘combined phonemes’ (such as the letter x in fox which is code for two sounds /k+s/) so more than 44 units of sound to account for in total. There are hundreds of spelling alternatives in English spelling but formal, planned, phonics teaching limits the number of correspondences taught to a practical number (in all phonics programmes – but it’s a good idea to find out just how comprehensive the coverage of the code is in any phonics programme).

This organising of the alphabetic code based on the sounds (mainly phonemes) is also the basis for the design of my Alphabetic Code Charts but I do not identify or label my phonics programmes as ‘speech to print’.

In other words, ‘speech to print’ phonics programmes do not have a monopoly of explaining the alphabetic code based around the 44+ phonemes. I expect all the 45 DfE validated phonics programmes (in England) to be organised around the phonemes as the driving factor and systematic introduction of the code. The programmes will mainly introduce the sounds one by one with one corresponding grapheme (letter or letter group) for each sound at first (the ‘simple code’ stage), then revisit some of the sounds to introduce further spelling alternatives, and revisit some graphemes to introduce some pronunciation alternatives (the ‘complex code’ or ‘extended code’ stage).

Where there may be a difference between SSP programmes and ‘speech to print’ programmes is the approach of the latter to introduce many spelling alternatives for a sound much sooner than an SSP programme.

[Note: My approach is to show children the ever-present, overview Alphabetic Code Charts from the outset, to introduce the sounds in a systematic order – but to introduce some useful spelling alternatives at an earlier stage than some other SSP programmes – such as ‘ai’ followed by ‘ay’ rather than only one or the other.]

Speech to print programmes, compared to print to speech programmes and the third alternative of ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ programmes including a balance of print to speech provision and speech to print provision – what does this look like for daily practice for each and every child?

Certainly in England’s context, the phonics programmes that have been ‘validated’ by the Department for Education and entitled ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ programmes include BOTH processes of print-to-sound modelling and activities, and sound to print modelling and activities. The alphabetic code is taught as a reversible code – and there should be a good balance of both reading activities and spelling/writing activities.

I doubt this is the case for every programme. I have watched videos in the public domain, for example, where the adults’ modelling is very conflated – a mix (or a mish-mash) of whether they are teaching in the direction of speech to print for spelling purposes, and print to sound for reading purposes. It’s not uncommon for teachers’ modelling to be a muddle – neither a clear spelling routine, nor a clear reading routine. Does this matter?

Just like I consider the staunch ‘speech to print’ advocates insistence of teaching reading through an initial spelling process as a muddle. Does this matter?

THIS DOESN’T MEAN THEY DON’T WORK. These muddled approaches and modelling may well work for the vast number of children, or all children, because ‘systematic phonics’ works – and certainly works much better than no phonics, or ad hoc phonics. This is well-researched and should not be disputed.

My thoughts:

Any further research for foundational literacy should be across different phonics programmes/provision to see what they look like on a daily basis, for each and every child.

Where is the professional curiosity to see if it even matters ‘which’ phonics programmes and approaches are adopted by schools? And what is the cost/benefit analysis of different phonics programmes, including their training, linked to children’s outcomes?

If the Department for Education is to be fully accountable, these are the next steps that should be taken as I certainly don’t see phonics programmes as ‘the same’ in how they deliver their content to the children and how much practice children actually experience – and indeed how does the actual content compare? Does it matter?

In other words, phonics programmes are not ‘the same’ even when they have the same labels (such as ‘speech to print’ or ‘linguistic phonics’ or ‘systematic synthetic phonics’). Every phonics programme needs to be looked at closely to evaluate it in some detail and with some knowledge and understanding. Is this even readily possible when some phonics programmes are hidden behind walls or you have to register to take a look? With the advent of the internet, it’s not hard to be transparent about the rationale and contents of the programme.

We should celebrate to an extent where schools have adopted ‘systematic’ phonics programmes/provision because this is much better than ‘whole language’ or ‘whole word’ or ‘multi-cueing reading strategies’. Sadly, however, the reading wars are not over in some countries and contexts. How can this be? It’s even the case in the UK where the Department for Education in England has genuinely looked at established research findings and leading-edge classroom practice – but in other UK countries, this is not yet the case. Arguably, England is world-leading in official guidance and teacher-training. What teachers are trained in, and what children receive, should not be left to chance. I’ve been saying this for decades now – it’s a tragedy.

In England’s context, it is pointless spending a lot of money on ‘research’ of only one or two phonics programmes when there are now so many that have been officially ‘validated’. Although people always refer to research that is ‘gold standard’ RCT (randomised controlled trials), the most suitable research now would be classroom observations and analysis – TIME ON TASK – what is the daily experience of each and every child? I will not stop repeating this message.

And I am an advocate of an objective, national phonics screening check to provide a snapshot of effectiveness. But what about spelling and handwriting?

But, back to why I have raised types of phonics programmes and approaches as a topic – because I object to the enthusiasm of ‘speech to print’ advocates implying or stating that other phonics programmes and approaches are not good or not as good. Because we don’t truly know what the full extent of differences amount to, and we don’t really know what this means for children’s outcomes.

Finally, when I have been invited to join a Facebook group ‘Speech 2 Print’, and raised various points of clarity and questions, the thread was shut down even when other contributors said they were really enjoying the discussion; and when another lady tried to describe her personal experiences of what Professor Diane McGuinness actually said or believed, she was fully banned. It has not been possible to share discussions with ‘speech to print’ advocates. They are so adamant that what they propose and prefer is ‘the’ gold standard.

And in other Facebook groups described as something akin to the ‘Science of Reading’, more often than not any association with ‘commercial’ programmes is not permitted so someone like me with a wealth of experience is left out of the discussions or seen in a negative light. So the very people who have seen the need for supportive bodies of work for phonics provision and put in the hard graft of creating the materials and guidance, and trialled the usefulness in the classroom, and trained teachers for years, are not necessarily welcomed or appreciated. Dearie me.

By the way, I promote a specific approach of ‘Two-pronged systematic AND incidental phonics provision‘ for reading and spelling – and the overview Alphabetic Code Chart is ‘ever-present’. This is above and beyond a systematic approach only! I believe it is the best way forwards but who is interested in that….?

Perhaps I should be thinking of yet another ‘label’ to describe what I advocate?

Here is a post at the UK Reading Reform Foundation about this topic:

Speech-to-print (aka sound-to-print)

***Myths and misunderstandings about the claimed superiority of the ‘Speech to Print’ phonics approach for teaching reading, compared to programmes said to be based on ‘Print to Speech’ – and the THIRD approach with equal attention to BOTH directions where speech to print is taught for spelling, and print to speech is taught for reading

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