top of page

Validation of Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programmes
(Commercial SSP Programs) 

Most teachers in Australia think of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach when they hear someone talking about 'SSP'. At the time when the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach launched in Australia programs like Jolly Phonics were referred to as synthetic phonics. In order to give the 'synthetic phonics' approach more credibility, the term 'systematic' was added, and 'SSP' was used to describe Systematic Synthetic Phonics, primarily in the UK. The abbreviation is unfortunate as the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach is a way to teach reading and spelling that INCLUDES systematically taught phonics, but it is not a Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme! Although research suggests that a systematic approach to phonics produces gains in word reading and spelling, there is no clear evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective approach for teaching phonics. The DfE, however. has recently listed 'validated' SSP programmes, and although parents and teachers in the UK are often asking 'what is the best synthetic phonics program?' we think a better question might be 'what is the best way for teachers to learn about teaching reading and spelling, and to effectively meet the learning needs of all children in a diverse classroom? All will need the same skills, but not all will need the same instruction' Miss Emma created an approach that not only takes the pressure off teachers, with technology teaching the children the phonics content seen in commercial synthetic phonics programmes  but is also more SoR informed.
The reality is that reading does not begin or end with phonics or whole-word instruction (Seidenberg, 2013). It is far broader and more complex. Reviews of DfE validated SSP programmes will be undertaken, to ascertain which are more SoR informed than others. 
Despite the16 essential core criteria published SSP Programmes must meet, some have been validated even though some clearly do not adhere to the basic principles outlined within the documentation. For example  (see Note 1) 
The focus should be on phonemes, and not on ‘consonant clusters’ (/s/+/p/+/l/ not /spl/) or ‘onset and rime’ (/c/+/a/+/t/ not c-at, m-at, b-at). 
This also applies to 'consonant blends' eg sp cl br etc

Is anyone talking about DfE Validated (Commercial) Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programmes from the perspective of the Science of Reading, and the criteria used by the DfE; teachers need to know what to question, and what is missing. 

A few questions about the Core Criteria that validated systematic synthetic phonics programmes had to adhere to, in order to be validated. 

From 'Background' info:

A complete programme is one that provides all that is essential to teach SSP to children in reception and key stage 1 years of mainstream primary schools, up to or beyond the standards expected by the national curriculum*, and provides sufficient support for them to become fluent readers. Although it may cover other aspects of reading, writing and spelling, or extend beyond key stage 1, these elements will not be included in the assessment or validation.

ie aspects of reading, writing and spelling other than phonics are not included in the assessment or validation. Without the other aspects of teaching reading ie oral language, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (and by separating phonics from aspects that all complement each other) teachers will need to add those elements, to provide 'sufficient support' for children to become fluent readers.  

This expectation for the end of KS1 is interesting:

Year 1 programme of study Reading – word reading

Statutory requirements
Pupils should be taught to:

* apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words
* respond speedily with the correct sound to graphemes (letters or groups of letters) for all 40+ phonemes, including, where applicable, alternative sounds for graphemes
*  read accurately by blending sounds in unfamiliar words containing GPCs that have been taught
* read common exception words, noting unusual correspondences between spelling and sound and where these occur in the word
* read words containing taught GPCs and –s, –es, –ing, –ed, –er and –est endings
*read other words of more than one syllable that contain taught GPCs
*read words with contractions [for example, I’m, I’ll, we’ll], and understand that the apostrophe represents the omitted letter(s)
*read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words
*re-read these books to build up their fluency and confidence in word reading


What are the 'correct sound to graphemes' for all 40+ phonemes? Does this not depend on the word?
The correct phoneme to grapheme correspondences are shown on the Speech Sound Wall. 
There are over 350. 



So they must mean just the phoneme to grapheme correspondences covered in the explicit teaching. 

Within the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach that includes these correspondences, taught within 4 Code Levels




* read common exception words, noting unusual correspondences between spelling and sound and where these occur in the word.

Is this to occur 'speech to print' or 'print to speech'.
As shown by Fry, Dolch etc there are hundreds of these words. The correspondences are only 'unusual' if the children are not aware that there are 350+ correspondences.
Might it not be easier for the children to learn with a speech to print approach, exploring all the graphemes that might map with the 44+ phonemes? 
Children will struggle to read 'real' texts if they are only exposed to texts that are deemed 'decodable' because they consist of words with the phoneme to grapheme correspondences shown in the 4 Code Levels, with only a few high-frequency words (which include correspondences not shown here)

How many of these words are children exploring in the validated SSP Programmes?
Children in Reception explore over 400 with the Speech Sound Pics Approach, again working through them using technology. The class teacher isn't highlighting the new correspondences - the children can see and hear them, because of Code Mapping, the embedded Speech Sound Pictographs, and SSP technology! But what happens within these validated SSP programmes? How are these 'exception' words being taught - and does this restrict how many the children are LEARNING?

A HUGE issue with the suggestion from the DfE validation panel to only teach children a few of these words per week (as a whole class) and that these words align with the Decodable Reader text, is that children need to write these words as well - and will not choose to write sentences with only those words. The more they can read AND SPELL early, the better. Perhaps this is one reason why the SSP programmes are only assessed on the 'print to speech' aspect of decoding.  
Doing this may mean it is easier to create a one-size-fits-all handbook, and programme, outlining a 'teaching sequence' but it ignores the realities of learning to read, write and spell. Children can learn more of the correspondences, at their pace, with SSP technology. The teacher is then freed up to support children more easily, as they navigate the learning to read and spell journey for 25+ children; the technology teaches the closed skills of basic phonics and the learning of high-frequency words so that the words they are exposed to can be read by 'sight'.

* read words containing taught GPCs and –s, –es, –ing, –ed, –er and –est endings

If they are decoding through the word then of course they will read the whole word.
Why have suffixes been mentioned as if separate? 

All words are segmented, and the children explore the mapping. An 'est' ending eg quickest is decoded in the same way as all other words? They map the phonemes to graphemes. 
The phoneme is the smallest sound unit, and maps to the graphemes. (qu is not a grapheme)

We will be interested to see which Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes are true to these correspondences. For example, understanding that the e grapheme in the words 'quickest' -  kwɪkɪst - 
is not mapped with the same phoneme as when they say 'estate'

These are the concepts children learn with the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach, and we hope with these validated DfE SSP programmes. 

They explore these alongside the basic phonics (in the 4 code levels) because they are also writing. 
Most of the words they will want to write will consist of a least one phoneme to grapheme correspondence not covered in the 4 Code Levels.
As mentioned earlier, the other aspects of reading and also spelling, very much complement each other.   

Even 4-year-olds are more than capable of exploring suffixes when a speech to print approach is taken, and when decoding AND encoding are explored simultaneously. Because she knows the words she can think about the spelling, and apply this when writing. 
Kensi is figuring out which sounds the /ed/ represents - and whether the /ed/ is further segmented ie e/d  

Kensi is using a decodable reader from Phonics Books Ltd.

She is discovering /ed/ could be mapped differently and is using the Speech Sound Pictographs (phonetic symbols for kids)

wicked   wɪkɪd
started   stɑːtəd 
trapped  træpt 
stayed  steɪd

*read other words of more than one syllable that contain taught GPCs

And what about reading words of more than one syllable that do not contain the GPCs taught within validated SSP programmes? What are the strategies used? What are the validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes asking teachers to do? eg if they see this sentence, or want to write it?  

The validation panel has said that ONLY decoding strategies can be used. The 'decoding' of the word castle' is c/a/st/le

If they look at the picture they can figure out the word - and know the phoneme mapping is either k/ɑː/s/l or k/æ/s/l depending on their accent. So Speech Sound Pics Approach children would then further develop their orthographic mapping skills - without the teacher - as they can check the Spelling Clouds. They note the /st/ grapheme. However the validation panel is insistent that children are not taught to do this. So what do they do, if they do not look at the picture?
Or use context?

We will explore this when analysing the validated SSP programmes, and ask each developer the strategies they expect children to use when the presenting code is not known or unclear. 

Of course, Code Mapped texts with embedded Speech Sound Pictographs enable Speech Sound Pics (SSP) students to figure out the words using phonemic awareness, without needing an adult around. They would also write these sentences in Reception. They will also see that 'ui' is another phoneme to correspondence to I 




When using the SSP technology, Code Mapping and 'phonetic symbols for kids'  ALL words are 'decodable' and they learn to use decoding as the primary strategy, but use the skills efficient readers use when faced with unfamiliar words ie all the 'cues' available to them at the time. 

We can't ignore the 'learning to read' process by just presenting children with text that can be decoded using the 100 or so commonly used correspondences 

*read words with contractions [for example, I’m, I’ll, we’ll], and understand that the apostrophe represents the omitted letter(s)

This goes without saying; that children explore how we 'talk on paper'. However, spelling, grammar and punctuation are not assessed by the validation panel. As teachers of reading, writing and spelling this would be something that would come up really early on - because the children will be writing daily. These are included in SSP technology as they explore 'Code Mapping', however, it is also something teachers would be doing regardless of teaching phonics. As this is outlined, it seems unusual that it is not included within the validation assessment criteria - which is supposed to enable children to reach (and ideally exceed) these expectations before the end of KS1.

* SSP Validation Criteria


Essential core criteria

Published SSP programmes must meet all of the following essential criteria. Further explanatory notes are offered below. If your programme is new, or you are developing a programme based on Letters and Sounds, please also refer to the note for publishers of new programmes section.

The programme should:

  1. constitute a complete SSP programme providing fidelity to its teaching framework for the duration of the programme (see note 1).

  2. present systematic, synthetic phonic work as the prime approach to decoding print (see note 1)

  3. enable children to start learning phonic knowledge and skills early in reception, and provide a structured route for most children to meet or exceed the expected standard in the year one (Y1) Phonics Screening Check and all national curriculum expectations for word reading through decoding by the end of key stage 1

  4. be designed for daily teaching sessions and teach the main grapheme-phoneme correspondences of English (the alphabetic principle) in a clearly defined, incremental sequence

  5. begin by introducing a defined group of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that enable children to read and spell many words early on

  6. progress from simple to more complex phonic knowledge and skills, cumulatively covering all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English

  7. teach children to read printed words by identifying and blending (synthesising) individual phonemes, from left to right all through the word

  8. teach children to apply the skill of segmenting spoken words into their constituent phonemes for spelling and that this is the reverse of blending phonemes to read words

  9. provide opportunity for children to practise and apply known phoneme-grapheme correspondences for spelling through dictation of sounds, words and sentences

  10. ensure that children are taught to decode and spell common exception words (sometimes called ‘tricky’ words), appropriate to their level of progress in the programme (see note 2)

  11. provide resources that support the teaching of lower-case and capital letters correctly, with clear start and finish points. The programme should move children on by teaching them to write words made up of learned GPCs, followed by simple sentences composed from such words as well as any common exception words (‘tricky words’) learned (see note 3)

  12. be built around direct teaching sessions, with extensive teacher-child interaction and involve a multi-sensory approach. The programme should include guidance on how direct teaching sessions can be adapted for online delivery (live or recorded) (see notes 4 and 5)

  13. provide resources to enable teachers to deliver the programme effectively including sufficient decodable reading material ( see notes 6 and 7) to ensure that, as children move through the early stages of acquiring phonic knowledge and skills, they can practise by reading texts closely matched to their level of phonic attainment, that do not require them to use alternative strategies to read unknown words (important, see note 7)

  14. include guidance and resources to ensure children practise and apply the core phonics they have been taught [footnote 1] (see note 8)

  15. enable children’s progress to be assessed and highlight the ways in which the programme meets the needs of those who are at risk of falling behind, including the lowest attaining 20% of children (see note 9)

  16. provide full guidance for teachers to support the effective delivery of the programme and appropriate, programme-specific training either directly, through appointed agents or remotely; with assurances that there is sufficient capacity to do so and that those delivering this training will have appropriately high levels of expertise and relevant experience (see note 10)

The criteria really is just about recognising the grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences (as seen in the 4 SSP Code Levels) and using them within decodable readers. 
That means a LOT is missing, if the expectation is that children become independent readers. Teachers will need to know this.
Who is telling teachers this? That will happen on

*read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words*re-read these books to build up their fluency and confidence in word reading

Already mentioned earlier. This is really just decoding fluency of words ONLY consisting of known GPCs and 'exception' words. It will mean ONLY using the decodable readers that align. That is really limiting for children, and not really in line with the Science of Reading OR the Science of Learning. At least 20% will struggle to learn to read in this way. Even if they get there, it's going to be a huge struggle. A huge percentage of children will not be reading for pleasure before the end of KS1. Not because they are unable to learn to read, and therefore want to read, but because of the instruction and narrow focus on phonics (as if Engish has a transparent orthography) 
We would also want to see 'and with 'expression' because children might decode accurately, but expression is a good indicator of comprehension.  


*re-read these books to build up their fluency and confidence in word reading

Repeated reading of familiar texts does improve fluency and confidence, our concern is their ability to tackle 'real' texts as quickly as possible, which they will need to read in order to understand the written world around them eg maths word problems. 

This all seems to be about an easier way for teachers to teach as if all children learn in the same way and at the same time, rather than a focus on the children themselves. The validation panel might ask 'when will the children have covered the main GPCs' and this will be easy to demonstrate when programmes are written in this way. However, this is about what the teacher is doing, not what the children are learning. Teachers need to know when each child has mastery over skills, not just when the children say in the classroom during a particular lesson (and may have simply copied the person sitting next to them)


More here soon - DfE Validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programmes; Fit for Purpose, in the Neurodiverse UK Classroom?

 “It is currently and will not be statutory for schools to follow a validated programme from March 2022, neither will it be a legal requirement.” 
(shared by Nicola Martin, Senior Consultant for Primary English and Literacy, Lancashire Professional Development Service)

bottom of page