Phonics (the SSP Way!)

One of the most consistent findings from methodologically sound scientific research is that learning to decode words using phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction

Hulme, C. & Snowling, M. J. (2013) ‘Learning to read: what we know and what we need to understand better’, Child Development Perspectives, 7 (1) pp. 1–5.

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about how to teach this effectively.
Orthographic mapping is considered “the most current theory of how children form sight word representations” (Torgesen 2004b, p.36) David Kilpatrick explains, “Orthographic mapping proposes that we use the pronunciations of words that are already stored in long-term memory as the anchoring points for the orthographic sequences (letters) used to represent those pronunciations.” If this process is going to work well, a student will need to be proficient in their letter-sound knowledge and advanced phonemic awareness; this is often the element of teaching reading and spelling that is described as 'phonics'.
One issue is that many who write books or design the school curriculum (based on the science of reading) seem to overlook the fact that teacher have 25 or so unique individuals to teach; who all need to practice, consolidate current skills and learn new concepts at their own pace. And, despite the assertion that 'systematic phonics instruction' is an essential component, the interpretation of how to break this down into sequential teaching skills is as clear as mud; for example whether to start at the phoneme level, or first introduce larger 'sound units' (onset and rime, 'blends' or syllables)  
It is time to share real 'application and organisation' stories, in real classrooms, with the question:

' What is the QUICKEST way to teach the HIGHEST NUMBER of children (without an II) to read age appropriate chapter books with fluency and comprehension in real classroom setting, before grade 2?       

We refer to age appropriate chapter books as our aim is that children acquire the ability to recognise words fluently and to use this ability to facilitate and enrich their everyday lives. If able to read 'chapter books' it is likely that this can be achieved, and the child at the stage of visiting a library and choosing the books they want to read. The goal is that they read for pleasure, not a level.
 Reading for pleasure is more important for children's cognitive development than their parents' level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.
DfE (2015) Reading: the next steps p.13]

We are avoiding, here, equating the skill of 'reading' with a mathematically calculated 'reading level'. Three of the most common levelled reading methods include Guided Reading Level (GRL), Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and Lexile Measures, and they encourage parents and teachers (and students) to think of reading in terms of 'grade level' or 'reading age'. It is in the research community that the nature of reading becomes a defined area of study, and there are major disagreements between different academic traditions over what is included and implied by the term ‘reading’. So, as with everything we do, we want to make the process as simple as possible for all. Can your students read what they choose? We are not saying teachers should not use assessment tools, but by simplifying the target we focus on the learning process, and not test scores.   

So the way we approach the teaching of phonics revolves around differentiated instruction, and reading for pleasure EARLY.
As this leads to higher 'test scores' we hope that this can also help to shape the curriculum at state and national level. 

Children are still taught in a standardised and industrialised way around the world. As with anything that comes from centralised control, it can be highly inefficient, bureaucratic, and wasteful. By continuing along with this standardised type of schooling, we are not teaching every child to read, write and spell quickly and easily, regardless of 'research' that tells us what is needed.  

The systematic phonics teaching above, in combination with the other 'Phase 2 activities undertaken with the literacy block, is an example of 'quality first teaching'.

' In practice, this means teaching relatively short, discrete daily sessions, designed to progress from simple elements to the more complex aspects of phonic knowledge, skills and understanding.The best teaching seen during the review was at a brisk pace, fired children's interest, often by engaging them in multi-sensory activities, drew upon a mix of stimulating resources, and made sure that they received praise for effort and achievement. Children’s response to these sessions was, overwhelmingly, one in which success was its own reward. For example, they took pride in demonstrating phonic skills, were becoming confident communicators, and showed positive attitudes to reading and writing. Such practice fell well within what the Primary National Strategy has described as ‘quality first teaching’.

Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading : Final (Jim Rose) Report  

In a paper presented at a seminar on phonics conducted by the DfES in March 2003, Linnea Ehri wrote: What is Systematic Phonics Instruction? Phonics is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondences between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spoken language and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words. Phonics instruction is systematic when all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and they are covered in a clearly defined sequence.

 In summarising the findings of the Reading Panel in the United States, she concluded: These findings show that systematic phonics instruction produced superior performance in reading compared to all types of unsystematic or no phonics instruction.

The Australian report, Teaching Reading, came to much the same conclusion: In sum, the incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based literacy research is that for children during the early years of schooling (and subsequently if needed), to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that link written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well. 

Teaching Reading,the final report of the national inquiry into the teaching of literacy,Rowe,K.,on behalf of the Australian Government,2005

Phonemic awareness is an essential skill that underlies a child's ability to learn to read and spell.


Phonemic awareness falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness; however, it only pertains to the phonemes (sounds) in words. Other sound units, such as onset and rime and syllables are considered phonological awareness rather than phonemic awareness. As rhyming does not relate to the individual phonemes in the word it is also excluded from phonemic awareness. Using phonemic awareness, children are young as 2 and 3 can match, blend, segment, and rearrange sounds in words (or nonsense words) as seen within Phase 1.

Without strong skills in phonemic awareness a child cannot begin to connect the sounds of our spoken language to graphemes, in order to 'talk on paper'. A child must be able to isolate, segment, blend and manipulate speech sounds in order to be ABLE to read and spell. The hallmark of dyslexia is a deficit in phonemic awareness. This is why 'Phase 1' is vital as an early intervention. 

We can assess children's initial attempts at phonemic awareness as early as the ages of 2 and 3. It is never too early to start speaking in speech sounds and using 'duck hands'!

SSP Phase 1
- A great stand-alone pre-school program, or used in the first 2 weeks of Reception (or first week or year 1) to wire their brains to be ABLE to learn phonics. The focus is phonemic awareness, and we start at the phoneme level

“One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards.  That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter.”

Louisa Moats, 1998

Learn how to introduce Phase 1 on day 1 of Kindergarten in the online training.

'Monster Mapping' is used. 

By the end of week 1 the first 6 'sound pics' are usually introduced (depending on the phonemic awareness skills of the children by that stage. Based around a story of the 'Speech Sound Cloud Land' they start using 'Duck Hands' to encode (segment words into phonemes, and then blend back into the whole word) and they then add in 'Speech Sound Lines and Numbers' to use the Phase 1 Monster Routine.  This is the basis of spelling (encoding)
They also 'follow the Monster Sounds to say the word', to understand the concept of blending 'sound pics' (graphemes) in words, for meaning. This is the basis of reading (decoding)

This phase allows for an easy transition to Phase 2; phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary knowledge. All elements of literacy instruction are covered within the 2 hour block, however we are giving an over-view of the main phonemic awareness and phonics activities on this page.  



Character (phoneme monster) instead
of phonetic symbol


SSP teachers use the Monster Mapping handbook to teach Phase 1 in the first two weeks of Reception; to more easily transition them into phonics.

Are you teaching your child to read and spell at home? Or helping to prepare them for school? The Code in a Box Home Kit is ideal ! 

Phase 2. The 30 Minute Daily Phonics Program 
Use as part of your SSP Phase 2 routine or as a stand-alone phonics program.
Fast paced, fully differentiated. Every child works through the 4 Code Levels at their pace. 

You will need SSP decodable readers, the Code Level student videos and A3 coding posters

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Decodable readers align with the systematic phonics instruction


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Also exploring the 350  or so spelling choices, using graphemes not covered within the 4 Code Levels; within words they will see in 'real' books! 

Use stories and characters the children love, to create Code Mapped texts.  

Working with an older student who didn't have SSP in F/1?

Before you start please use the 'Starting Points' video in the members' area or at least check their phonemic awareness and basic phonics skills as follows;

Checking the Basics

When I first meet new students I am often told they 'read slowly', are 'guessing at words, or missing them out', or that they are 'still trying to sound out words' (as if that's a bad thing) or that they 'can't remember what they just read' or 'don't seem to understand what they just read'.  With every single one of them I start by checking their phonemic awareness and basic code knowledge; without this everything else is difficult for the student!

You can access the full 20 minute assessment video and the student record sheet for this Code Knowledge test on the site, if you have a membership. 
If the students have issues with working memory, have ADHD etc then split the video into very small parts, and if they obviously cannot do certain parts then just record your observations and move to the next part. The video is split, to identify grapheme recognition, to spell code level words etc  

Preview of SSP student 'Starting Points' assessment video.

SSP Duck Hands are used to develop phonemic awareness every day ! 

The 30 Minute Phonics Program fills in the gaps quickly for students who do not generally struggle ( there is not an II) ; they do three activities : Speedy Code Mapping in pairs, Code Level Video and Coding Poster. You can also follow the Learning Support plan if you are a member. 

Ideally ask parents to get the SSP Monster Mapping app and especially focus on the Duck Level words, as they can see the code mapped words and hear my voice segmenting and blending the phonemes.  They can play it with headphones in the car with a whiteboard on the way home from school ! It's also very easy for parents to understand how to check these words, even if they have poor phonemic awareness themselves. Send home the Duck Level tick sheets, or use the PM Level 1 - 10 HFW sheet (video also in app)    

The UK phonics check is a very basic test of high frequency graphemes that are covered in the UK Letters and Sounds program, and also the 4 SSP Code Levels. So that we can evaluate if they are recognising these graphemes and blending them there are 'nonsense' words that they will not recognise / know by memory. This is because the test is purely to check grapheme recognition and blending, and not the other skills needed to be a 'reader'. 

Sample grapheme recognition and blending tests.

2017   2018  2019


They should be getting at least 32 right by the end of grade 1 at the latest (within SSP we check that they can get at least 32 by the end of their first year of school, if using the 30 Minute Phonics Program.)  

This will show if they have successfully learnt to recognise high frequency graphemes in words, and can blend them.


You can get an idea of their phonemic awareness by doing this really quickly. Answer in brackets.


If I say 'bedroom' without 'room' what would I say?   (bed)
If I say 'matchsticks' without 'match' what would I say?  (sticks)
You are now going to add and remove phonemes (speech sounds) and not letter names.  
If I say 'swig' without the 's' (sound) what would I say? (wig)
If I say 'flog' without the 'l' what would I say?  (fog)
If I add a 't' after the 's' sound in 'sock' what would I say?
Which speech sound did I change to say 'shark' instead of 'shook'? 

If they find these easy then sign in relief as they are very unlikely to be dyslexic!

If they struggle then this deficit will affect every reading and spelling activity you give them, across the curriculum. 

​If you do not have a member pass you can still also ask them to read Code Level sentences in a 'speaking voice' (ie without 'sounding out' the words.) You're checking if they can use (blend) these high frequency graphemes with automaticity. Their ability to do this will correlate with the 'Code Level' they struggled with, if any, during the SSP Assessment, and also the Phonics check. When you've used the UK Phonics check you will also see, roughly, which 'Code Level' they are working at. Often they have been taught phonics, but not quickly enough - and are stuck around the middle of SSP Yellow even by the end of Year 1. By the end of their first year of school they should be able to read all of these sentences without having to stop and pause at a word, after first scanning it. If not, or if they 'read' them but really slowly, there may be an issue with the instructional ie basic phonics not taught quickly enough, with a focus on fluency. If this is the case they will struggle to comprehend, as their basic decoding skills using high frequency graphemes are slow, and they may not even be exploring the other graphemes. Always ask 'is this looking like the student is an instructional casualty?' It is my experience that around 95% of students simply needed to be taught differently, and could have been reading chapter book by the end of grade 1 if they had different instruction. The good news is that it is never too late to teach then in the way that they can learn, just as it is never too late to retrain teachers!  

Example Assessment Sentences.


Pat and the ant sat in the pan.           (Green Code Level)

Jack and the red cat got stuck on the little hill.       (Purple Code Level)

Milly looks happy when she sings in the green boat under the bright moon.   (Yellow Code Level)

The grouchy brown bear started to play with the black and white cow in the field next to the tow truck.  

(Blue Code Level)  

So even before using the SSP Starting Point Phonics Test you will have an idea of which SSP Code Level they are currently working at. Members can also use the Phonics / Code Level check videos that are not available anywhere else. 

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The Coding Poster is a fantastic way to ensure that every student can recognise, blend and read words using the 90 or so high frequency graphemes at their pace. 'Spaced repetition' is used, so they learn, consolidate and reinforce every session. 

The Speech Sound Monsters enable SSP teachers to work on comprehension skills using text created using graphemes outside of their Code Level. 'Snap and Crack' can be used with Decodable Readers (free guide here) but also using the Speech Sound Monsters.

Members use the Punctuation Poems and of course the popular Spelling Cloud Poems. There is a poem for every English speech sound. We recommend that everyone gets the SSP Monster Mapping app, with videos that the children can watch with a white board. Start at Phase 1.