The Letters and Sounds Program
(UK Gov free phonics program)
Letters and Sounds is a synthetic phonics resource published by the UK Department for Education and Skills in 2007, in response to the Rose Report. It was published under the 2005 to 2010 Labour government and has not been updated in the subsequent decade, and should therefore be regarded as a resource that could have been 'fit for purpose' at that time, bearing in mind what was being recommended. Download program
Along with the release of this phonics teaching resource the government invited phonics program developers to add their programs using a self-assessment sheet.
The government did not endorse or rank the publishers or products that appear in this list.
The National Reading Panel summary report clearly stated that 'systematic' phonics was deemed essential, if the aim is to teach as many children to read and spell as possible.
The summary did NOT state that this should be 'synthetic', as outlined in Dr Shanahan's blog.
The NRP concluded that early, explicit, systematic phonics teaching gives kids a learning advantage. Systematic, not synthetic. (Systematic means that the phonics instruction followed a scope-and-sequence, the teacher didn’t just teach phonics as she thought kids might need it.)
Unfortunately the Rose Report did not make this distinction, and has been used to promote a particular type of phonics; and yet there are huge discrepancies between those that promote themselves as 'synthetic'. Some are 'speech to print' and some 'print to speech', some put phonemes together for children and call them 'blends' (fr/o/g) and some teach high frequency graphemes and teach children TO blend (f/r/o/g) Some start with an introduction that has a focus on phonemes, (listening for speech sounds in words, understanding how words segment, and practising blending phonemes into spoken words) to develop phonemic awareness, and some start with graphemes and presume phonemic awareness will develop as part of this teaching. Other than teaching high frequency graphemes in a particular order, systematically, there seems to be confusion about what separates 'synthetic' phonics from 'systematic' phonics.
Much to my dismay certain individuals started to use the term 'systematic synthetic phonics' in the UK perhaps to address this confusion, which is the abbreviation is the same as the name of my approach! (SSP) My pleadings fell on deaf ears.
SSP (the Speech Sound Pics) Approach obviously also falls under their definition of a systematic synthetic phonics. However SSP is so well established in Australia that teachers will use 'SSP' to explain that they are using the Speech Sound Pics Approach.
When you have used an approach for over 5 years it's difficult to change!
However it is important to explain that when I first arrived in Australia in 2008 I soon realised that teachers needed a structure; a way to teach phonics, and as there were so many free resources available from the UK government, I followed the grapheme teaching order fairly closely.
One of the biggest differences can be seen within SSP Phase 1 and Letters and Sounds Phase 1.
We focus on teaching children to identify, segment and blend phonemes (speech sounds) so that they can quickly and easily map phonemes to graphemes (Phase 2) Children are also manipulating phonemes in phase 1, within the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach.
Letters and Sounds
Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach Phase 1
Phase One fell largely within the Communication, Language and Literacy area of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage. In particular, it was supposed to support linking sounds and letters in the order in which they occur in words, and naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet.
There were seven aspects and three strands
Phase One activities were arranged under the following seven aspects.
■ Aspect 1: General sound discrimination – environmental sounds
■ Aspect 2: General sound discrimination – instrumental sounds
■ Aspect 3: General sound discrimination – body percussion
■ Aspect 4: Rhythm and rhyme
■ Aspect 5: Alliteration
■ Aspect 6: Voice sounds
■ Aspect 7: Oral blending and segmenting
Activities within the seven aspects were designed to help children:
1. listen attentively;
2. enlarge their vocabulary;
3. speak confidently to adults and other children; 4. discriminate phonemes;
5. reproduce audibly the phonemes they hear, in order, all through the word;
6. use sound-talk to segment words into phonemes
Of these activities only Aspect 7 is specific to reading and spelling, and activities 4,5 and 6.
They may have been fun, interesting and useful for general EY learning, but only a small part of the over-all 'Phase 1' program was going to help children at risk of struggling to learn to read. We are so time poor, and so many children are going to struggle, and so we needed the purpose of this phase to be really clear, and 'phonemic awareness' specific.
Also, there was no attention to 'order' as would be displayed when graphemes introduced; children counted how many phonemes on fingers, and did not use 'duck hands' as we do (to show how the sounds will be placed on paper from left to right)
Teachers were told to avoid using words with adjacent consonants (e.g. ‘sp’ as in ‘spoon’) and so phonemic awareness activities were restricted, and mainly with a focus just on s,a,t,p,i,n.
Teachers were also told only to segment and blend the last word in a sentence or phrase and not words that occur at the beginning or middle of the sentence.
Teachers were warned about adding extra sounds (a schwa) which was brilliant (and a huge issue with phonics programs, when words are segmented into phonemes- try saying the sound 'p' across a room without adding an 'uh'!)
Whereas we use the mouth of a puppet or 'duck hands' to show how each word is segmented, from left to right, teachers were told not to use puppets as the idea was that children look at the mouth of the teacher. Although this is, of course, useful, phonemic awareness is something children can do with eyes closed.
Identify speech sounds (phonemes) in words, segment (order) and blend them.
Small Sound Units used.
Reading, singing and rhyming activities used to make Phase 1 more exciting.
The aim is that teachers can identify which students do not have brains 'wired' for reading and spelling ie they have poor phonemic awareness.
This deficit is identified and work to overcome it starts immediately.
Phonemic awareness is vital.
There is an idea that children need to go through a 'hierarchy' in order to reach this essential stage eg
We start at the phoneme level.
Schools using SSP test students at the end of their first year, using tests such as the Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test.
The SPAT-R was developed by Dr Roslyn Neilson, who is a speech-language pathologist.
'Since using SSP we have had the best SPAT-R testing results ever. We are thrilled!'
By starting at the phonemic awareness level children can do all syllable and onset-rime tasks, without going through any explicit syllable or onset and rime teaching.
Within Letters and Sounds the high frequency graphemes are taught within groups, and is intended for 'whole class teaching' ie Phase 2 is taught over around 6 weeks. There doesn't seem to have been a way to check starting points, and offer differentiated teaching (eg if some children already had the skills covered within these first 6 weeks, what did they do?) Within SSP children work through the grapheme 'groups' at their pace, not the pace of the 'middle' of the class.
Children who can segment and blend phonemes within SSP Phase 1, for example, will move straight to phase 2 during week 1 of reception. If they can recognise, segment and blend the Green Level graphemes (reading and spelling) then they move to the Purple Code level (even if they have only just started school)
We identify where they are within the 'skills acquisition process' and make sure they are actually going to LEARN; we don't make them wait because of our 'curriculum planning'.
This is also why SSP is great for multi-age teaching. I had to learn how to do this within my first year of teaching, as I had 4 years olds in term 1, another 8 or so joined me in term 2, and then by term 3 I had 28 children (with a 12-18 month age difference) I had to learn (quickly!) to teach each child according to their own starting points. I used an 'integrated day', and children worked at different tables on different tasks - but each worked at their level (so they would get their literacy or maths task when they went to that table) In the classroom I would have about 5 or 6 'stations', and each child would get through their 'jobs'! It was a lot of work, but every child was challenged - and I could sit with children to work through difficult concepts. I often think that this is one of the reasons I created the Speech sound Pics (SSP) Approach. I wanted every child to be learning what THEY needed to learn, and more time to plan activities based around what I could SEE that they were doing. You will see teachers walk around the classroom observing the children far more than in any other approach - and they are at the front of the class talking far less ! (Less teaching, more learning)
SSP is a Speech to Print approach' we actually focus far more on 'spelling to reading'.
If you take a look at the suggested Letters and Sounds lesson, in Phase 2, the wording (and activity) suggests that a Print to Speech approach is being taken. (eg page 57)
Three-part example session for teaching the letter s
Purpose ■ To learn to say a discrete phoneme, recognise and write the letter that represents that phoneme
The session does not seem to be to help children understand that /s/ is a phoneme used in a lot of spoken words, and can be represented by the letter s. This way of explaining the concept (speech to print) means that they understand, straight away, that Celia isn't spelling her name incorrectly in her book. The /s/ sound in her name is represented on paper with the letter 'c'. If children are listening for that sound, then Celia can be excited to hear the first sound in her name, even if the lesson is to focus on ONE of the representations for that sound today (the 's')
If a snake is shown, that hisses, the children also may be confused between phonemes (speech sounds) and other sounds (eg the woof of a dog or the hiss of a snake) If English is not a first language all explanations must be really clear - the focus is on speech sounds of a language they are not confident using.
So the purpose should not be to 'recognise and write the letter that represents that phoneme' but to
'learn to say a discrete phoneme, recognise and write ONE of the spelling choices for that phoneme.
The language used by the teacher will make a big difference with regards to understanding how we talk on paper.
Remember that the child is likely to be looking out for the letter 's' after the lesson. If the language used suggests that the letter 's' CAN be used to represent the phoneme /s/ it also leaves it open for the letter 's' to represent other speech sounds. By not taking a 'black and white' approach (as we do with maths ie 2 and 2 will always be 4, it won't depend on something else!) then children are more 'ready' for the problem solving that will take place during reading and spelling activities. When they see 'sugar' or 'is' - where the s doesn't represent the /s/ phoneme it won't confuse them (but you said the letter s makes a ssss sound?!) - it will interest them!
Phase 2 of SSP refers to the stage in which children learn 90 or so high frequency graphemes in 4 'Code Levels' however while recognising the graphemes in each level, they are also reading 'code level' texts that only consist of these target graphemes, and are also writing sentences in order to use the graphemes within writing activities. They also learn to read and spell 400+ high frequency words, but at their pace.
All 6 skills are used within SSP: Oral language, Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocab and Comprehension.
Within 'Letters and Sounds HFWs are introduced however many are fully decodable. Others are known as 'tricky words' as they include graphemes the children do not yet know (and will not cover in the grapheme teaching) There are no HFWs taught until week 3.
Students using SSP move through the 7 'Duck Levels' at their pace. Duck Level 1 is introduced alongside the first Code Level (s a t p i n) SSP allows each child to work at their pace, but is also much more fast paced - with children reading their first 'Green Level' decodable readers within the first week or so of starting that level.
It is not clear where vocab knowledge, fluency or comprehension was explicitly taught within the program.
There are some really good features, but also many activities that would no doubt have been removed or adapted if the program were to be updated since 2010. We have moved on a lot since 2010!
eg Page 189
These are likely to be words that they use regularly and find difficult to spell.
For really tricky words the following process – simultaneous oral spelling – has proved useful for children.
1. The children copy out word to be learned on a card.
2. They read it aloud then turn the card over.
3. Ask them to write out the word, naming each letter as they write it.
4. They read aloud the word they have written.
5. Then ask them to turn the card over and compare their spelling with the correct spelling.
6. Repeat 2–5 three times.
Do this for six consecutive days.
Most who create phonics program do so as they found more effective ways to meet the highest number of learners. Programs like Letters and Sounds can be a good starting point if you have never taught phonics before. I have found that inexperienced teacher do like 'Week 1, Lesson 1' type programs they just follow, or 'scripted' programs. School leaders like them as they can see what the teachers is going to teach, and its easier when a relief teacher is covering the class.
I would hope that as teachers gain in confidence, they stop using a 'one size fits all' type program. There will be 25 or so unique individuals in the class, all with different interests and learning needs. They need to work at their pace, and planning should be based around their learning journeys. How can we know what students will need in week 7 of term 1, before we have even met the children? So these programs can suit a purpose (while the teacher is learning to teach phonics) but the children being taught during this 'teacher learning' phase are unlikely to all thrive. It would be great if Universities allowed teachers to learn all this while still training.
The SSP Approach very much seeks to ensure that every single student is working at their level, engaged and being challenged to learn to read and spell (and enter the 'self-teaching' phase as quickly as possible. (See Kilpatrick 2015) This self-teaching hypothesis proposes that every time these readers encounter an unfamiliar word, they sound out the word by attending to the structure of the word. They then use this new knowledge to establish an orthographic representation of the word in their long-term memory. It can take a huge number of children far longer to reach this stage using Letters and Sounds, because they are having to learn at the pace of the class, they are not given adequate time to explore the phoneme to grapheme mapping of unfamiliar words (outside of the 7 phases) and because there is little attention to identifying and overcoming phonemic awareness deficits from phase 1.
SSP 'Duck Hands, Lines and Numbers' as a way to explore mapping (the way phonemes map with graphemes from left to right on paper) is outstanding, and even more so now that the Speech Sound Monsters have been introduced; offering a visual that represents a phoneme (and not a letter) They have enabled teachers to introduce the schwa more easily, and also SEE which speech sounds the students are choosing. They have also enabled us to cover far more within Phase 1, and teachers are getting better data since introducing them (as opposed to SSP before the monsters) We use data to evaluate whether something is 'working' or not. Even within Phase 1 we use a tracking tool, to ascertain not only how quickly each child got to the stage of being able to isolate phonemes, segment and blend, but also to see where teachers need more support. Kylie discussed this in one of her Tuesday night 'facebook live' sessions in the Orthographic Mapping - from Theory to Practice' sessions. The tracker can be downloaded in the Member's area.
Within Phase 2 there are activities to ensure that all 6 skills are covered, and teachers do not, therefore need to 'mix and match' programs. I am covering these within the free lessons for children during school closures, even though I only have one code level lesson per week. Please do follow the lessons, to see the teaching sequence, and how so many skills and concepts are introduced, and over-lap between code levels. When the LANGUAGE is right (every child UNDERSTANDS) then we can do so much more. So, while we cover everything shown in the Letters and Sound program, it is HOW we do it that makes it so powerful. Yes, it can be more difficult to understand at first (whereas a lesson guide, and pre-written curriculum is easy for the teacher to just follow) we believe that every teacher is capable of meeting the individual needs of each child, with the right tools and support. This is what we offer to teachers around the world. Together we are stronger; and we start teaching children, not a curriculum.
If you do have to use the Letters and Sound Program, I have Code Mapped and Monster Mapped the 100 first words for you. At least the children can hear the sounds, and work through at their own pace (and not have to go through that procedure, shown earlier in red)
Updated April 2021
Phonics program developers can again submit their program, to be validated as an approved Systematic Synthetic Phonics program.
Validation will indicate that a programme has been self assessed by its publisher and assessed by a small panel with relevant expertise, and that both consider it to meet all of the most recent Department for Education (DfE) criteria for an effective systematic synthetic phonics (SPP) programme.
Note the term 'most recent'.
That criteria will be discussed by Miss Emma within her SSP for UK Schools Blog
The guidance more closely aligns with the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach that it did over a decade ago, however what about the APPLICATION? How does this impact the essential skills, other than systematically taught phonics, ie oral language, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary knowledge?
The following is taken from the UK Government web site, and we invite Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach teachers to submit feedback to us regarding their experiences as action researchers, and to comment about the following:
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:
constitute a complete SSP programme providing fidelity to its teaching framework for the duration of the programme (see note 1).
present systematic, synthetic phonic work as the prime approach to decoding print (see note 1)
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
be designed for daily teaching sessions and teach the main grapheme-phoneme correspondences of English (the alphabetic principle) in a clearly defined, incremental sequence
begin by introducing a defined group of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that enable children to read and spell many words early on
progress from simple to more complex phonic knowledge and skills, cumulatively covering all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English
teach children to read printed words by identifying and blending (synthesising) individual phonemes, from left to right all through the word
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
provide opportunity for children to practise and apply known phoneme-grapheme correspondences for spelling through dictation of sounds, words and sentences
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
If schools are achieving incredible outcomes using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach, after dropping synthetic phonics (eg Jolly Phonics) and it is NOT considered worthy of validation - what issues does that expose? See SSP Case Study findings when a synthetic phonics programme was dropped.
And why are some programmes being validated when they do not align with the criteria?
To be continued!