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Learning to Read and Spell in the Early Years with the Speech Sound Monsters
We are Mini Monster Mappers!

The Early Reading Centre. 
Reading Teacher Training, Research & Tech Development Lab

I'm obsessed with getting toddlers brain 'reading ready', and teaching 2, 3 and 4 year olds to read.
Reading literally changes the brain. I could not do this without my Speech Sound Monsters - especially if the children have neurodivergent brains, like mine!   

Data shows that at least 25% are instructional casualties in the UK, Australia and the USA, and will not read with fluency and comprehension when they start high school. It's horrifying - and unnecessary. If we send them to school with 'reading brains' we know that THOSE children are far less likely to struggle within the education system. Other Early Years educators may feel the same way and want to do the same. I hope so.
It is especially important that parents of ND kids hear about this unique and innovative approach - there really is nothing like it, in the world.  
The past ten years in Australia showed me what children (and teachers) are up against - especially when there are learning differences, and children think (and behave) 'differently'.
We are light years away from a single unified Science of Reading, not because 'there is no one method that meets the needs of all learners within the neurodiverse classroom' (
there is) but because so many who make decisions regarding budgets and policy cannot even consider something that goes against their existing belief system.

So I have partnered with some amazing researchers and educators to launch The Early Reading Centre in the UK. Every child's journey from day 1 to being a reader recorded - a great keepsake for parents, but also a fantastic tool for teachers and researchers - pick apart every detail. I teach really young children to read - you will get to SEE how. I understand why children, teens and adults are struggling, and know what they need - and I want to share that.  

Business coaches and experts can do what they are great at, and I can do what I'm great at - wiring brains for reading, thinking up innovative tech solutions. and training educators. I can stay in my lane - as an action researcher - this time surrounded by those who can do what they do best! It doesn't matter how good I am if the 'method' isn't effectively shared with the world. By creating a 'base' - a physical space - we can make that method accessible to all, and keep making it even better (children learn faster, and earlier, and with an even greater desire to read) I'm so excited! 

I've also been approached to set up a similar facility in Australia. Again, 'The Early Reading Centre'.
Rather than fighting against 'the system' we will create something new for teachers and families.
The 5 year plan also includes a USA centre (center!) but I will mainly divide my time between the UK and Australia. I'll back to wracking up those air miles before you know it. 

Miss Emma
Emma Hartnell-Baker
MA SEN, Doctoral Student (University of Reading) 



Explicit instruction - these graphemes are taught within the 4 code levels.


We are Code Mapping and Monster Mapping our way towards Orthographic Mapping!

Students read unfamiliar words using phonic decoding, set for variability and context (when useful). The Speech Sound Monsters show children the 'sound value' of the segmented graphemes (Code Mapped) - in the same way that they could figure this out if they understood the IPA. The IPA / phonetic symbols are not suitable for beginning readers as they would need to learn the symbols, understand their role ...which would be too much information (and confusing as the symbols look like the letters they are learning about!) However the monsters are meaningful - they understand that a dog says 'woof' - and that each monster has its own sound. 
With phonemic awareness they can 'follow the monster sounds' from left to right, and blend, and simulate 'decoding' - even before learning the first grapheme to phoneme correspondences (Green Code Level -  s/s   æ/a/   t/t  p/p  I/i  n/n)   They are going 'speech to print' which also makes more sense as they are starting with what they already understand ie spoken language - even if they do not yet have the PA skills. They can blend really long words, because not having to wait until they have those phonics skills. 

Although one might wonder 'why bother' with the speech sound monsters ( and the question would be valid if English orthography was transparent/ shallow) the many uses become apparent as you watch children using them throughout the primary years. Without explicit instruction the children start using the 'real' phonetic symbols like pros by grade 2! They check the IPA when doing the Speedy Six and when exploring etymology and morphology. 

The monsters are a visual representation of something that children cannot see- they make a speech sound (phoneme) into something meaningful. They enable us to focus on phase 1 (phonemic awareness and oral language) and create an easier transition into phase 2, when the Speech Sound Monsters are mapped with graphemes, while learning phonics.
This approach also means the children UNDERSTAND the one phoneme can be represented in numerous ways, from day 1, and that one grapheme can represent numerous speech sounds ! Code Mapping and Monster Mapping is integral to our teacher training workshops, and help even the most experienced teachers find more effective ways to teach reading and spelling so that MORE students learn to read and spell EARLIER than ever before. They all come away saying 'it just makes sense!' They love it, and their students love it. Teaching children becomes so much fun, and the focus becomes on reading and writing for pleasure. 

Very young children understand the speech sound (phoneme) to Sound Pic (grapheme) mapping more easily with the Speech Sound Monsters (they can clearly SEE with the /s/ represents a different sound, for example.)  
They can start developing and APPLYING specific skills earlier than when taught without the Speech Sound Monsters (eg Set for Variablity) -  without explicit instruction
Monster Mapping is empowering!

Pat has lots of ants in his pants!
Lots of ants!

We already have evidence that this lexical flexibility can be trained in children (Dyson, Best, Solity, & Hulme, 2017; Savage, Georgiou, Parilla, & Maiorino, 2018; Zipke, 2016). Training protocols have emphasized flexibility in applying different pronunciations for letters or letter combinations (Zipke, 2016), checking for matches and making approximations to known words (Dyson et al., 2017; Savage et al., 2018) but with this new method, we can see that children understand and LEARN this EARLIER and WITHOUT explicit training. They switch up the Speech Sound Monsters when writing, and understand the mapping when blending graphemes into words, even from week 3.
(at that point they can form the letters, again because of the method) Imagine how difficult for most children to understand if there isn't a 'visual' for a speech sound
(and without the numerous connections, concepts and skills needed for 's for snake  and 'a for apple' to be useful to the child - and then unpaired for most words as that sound can be represented by numerous graphemes, and that grapheme can represent numerous sounds)  

Monster Strip - Speech Sound Monsters - Monster Mapping!

Phase 1 resources are in the Monster Mapping Kit Handbook

Monster Mapping Kit Handbook - Phase 1 resources

During Phase 1 children develop great phonemic awareness and an understanding that speech sounds (phonemes) map with 'sound pictures' (graphemes)
They've been 'following the monster sounds' to say the word since week 1.

Since the end of week 1 they have been using Code Mapped words, showing the segmentation of the words using the 'black/ grey' sequence (so as to NOT detract from the word - and the contrast can be stark, or not) 

So when they see ANY words they can figure them out WITHOUT HELP or instruction. The adults help with meaning, and use of the word within sentences
(we are working on tech for that too - not all children have access to helpful adults) 

Only a few exposures to the word ensures it is retained into long term memory. They are also constantly identifying patterns and able to transfer that new 'orthographic learning' to other words.

Bottom line is that the resources and activities allow children to reach the 'self-teaching' phase much more quickly and easily, and are less reliant on face-to-face instruction, or using clues to try to deduce words. But if they DO deduce the word from clues, they can 'track back' to figure out the mapping. So it's a win, win, however you look at it. 


Why is Monster Mapping® helping the highest number of children learn to read and spell in the shortest amount of time - generally reaching the 'self-teaching' phase before the end of Year 1?
SSP teachers were already achieving outstanding results before the Speech Sound Monsters were added by Miss Emma. Why were they included within the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach?  
The alphabetic code was already being taught systematically, with close attention to the mapping of phonemes to graphemes with comprehension.

Speech Sound Monsters® make learning to read and spell easier!  
They are also ideal for non verbal and minimally verbal students who cannot
(or choose not to) produce speech sounds. 

Why? One HUGE reason is that children do not learn 'letter sounds' with a letter being shown to 'say a sound'. This is the traditional 'print to speech' approach used within commercial phonics programs, and children may learn to say /æ/ when they see the letter /a/ but this only takes them so far, and the pairing can be difficult to then 'un-see' - especially if embedded. 





This 'pairing' has been researched by Theresa Roberts recently. 

Theresa Roberts (2021) 'Learning Letters: Evidence and Questions From a Science-of-Reading Perspective' Reading Research Quarterly: 0(0) Pages 1-22.

Letterland, a recently validated 'synthetic phonics' program by the DfE, despite using onset and rime and that decodable readers do not align with an explicit grapheme group teaching order, has used the study to promote these pairings.  

"Children who received the explicit instruction with...[Letterland] learned almost twice as many letter sounds." p.7
"This finding suggests that... [Letterland] was protective against low performance." p.16

This type of learning would be fine if English orthography was transparent ie if these letters did always map with the same 'sounds' (and if sounds always mapped with the same letters). This initial 'learning' to say a sound when looking at a letter can make the learning to read and spell process more difficult in the long run, for a high number of children, because they have to soon 'unpair' the connection that is often deeply embedded in their memories. Even teachers at training, who are obviously literate, get 'blinded by the letters' when asked to read texts in speech sounds. When I posted that there is no /ir/ grapheme in the word 'perspiration' (although there is a /ɜː/ speech sound) I was flooded with responses, arguing with me! When asked to segment 'kangaroo' many segment as k/a/ng/a/r/oo. They have been blinded by 'letter sounds'!

As Amelia, Lara and Ezra know, the letter /a/ in the child's 'real world' rarely represents the sound they are to say when they see the letter a in commercial phonics program resources.

Commercial synthetic phonics programs are designed to make specific TEACHING activities easier to DELIVER to a whole class. This can make LEARNING harder because so much is omitted or overlooked. 

If these 'validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics' programs were effective, with 'reading' the goal, 27% of children in the UK would not still be struggling to read at the end of primary school, after being taught using systematic synthetic phonics SSP programs (and testing of the target 'letter sounds' ) throughout primary school. 

Around 95% of children are CAPABLE to learning to read and spell with effective instruction.
But commercial 'synthetic phonics' programs are not offering this. Teaching phonics 'systematically' is NOT ENOUGH. The interpretation of SoR (ie that they claim to be SoR informed) is NOT ENOUGH.   

WHAT these programs seek to teach, as SoR informed, does not fully align with how children best LEARN.
It is, in part, WHY do many teachers refuse to let go of 'book bands' and 'levelled readers', and still teach 'sight words' as whole words. Teachers (action researchers) recognise that traditional phonics programs do not meet the LEARNING needs of all of their children. At least 20% are always failed. So they are often seen to reject 'phonics' - in fact, they have actually rejected the INSTRUCTION methods, and searching for answers for their students. The best teachers adapt commercial phonics programs because of the learning needs of their students.
The UK potentially offers great 'evidence' of a longitudinal study of synthetic phonics ie If the research question was whether commercial systematic synthetic phonics programs BEST meet the learning needs of the HIGHEST number of children then the data shows that no, too many are still not reading at the end of primary school.
hey may enable teachers to more easily implement and organise basic 'print to speech' phonics instruction systematically, in a whole class setting, but the science actually tells us this is not enough, and this is supported by UK data. 
If EARLY reading FOR PLEASURE (for 95% of children) is our goal, then teachers need more than to follow a commercial systematic synthetic phonics program. Our children with SpLDs, especially dyslexia, deserve better    

‘In a study by Ehri, Deffner and Wilce (1984), children were shown letters drawn to assume the shape of familiar objects, for example, s drawn as a snake, h drawn as a house (with a chimney) ...

Memory for the letter-sound relations was mediated by the name of the object.

Children were taught to look at the letter, be reminded of the object, say its name, and isolate the first sound of the name to identify the sound…With practice they were able to look at the letters and promptly say the sounds. Children who were taught letters in this way learned them better than:

  • Children who were taught letters by rehearsing the relations with pictures unrelated to the letter shapes…

 Children who simply rehearsed the associations without any pictures."

But this concept means the child understanding the pairing, and have the phonemic awareness to isolate that phoneme (sound). And what happens when the pairing doesn't apply? We can 'kick start' the process of learning to read and spell, with phonics, a different way...a way that DEVELOPS WITH THE CHILDREN, as they explore the whole code.


There is also the issue of spoken language v the written code. For example, think of the first few weeks when learning phonics; most Australian children will be taught to say æ/ when they see the letter /a/
do not pronounce 'ant' as ænt



Instead, children understand from that letters represent speech sounds, but the pairings depend on the word


The Speech Sound Pictographs (monsters) link DIRECTLY to the sound and this 'Speech to Print' approach results in less cognitive load as they begin to explore the whole code. Because we have such a focus on phonemic awareness, using Duck Hands, Speech Sound Lines and Numbers, SSP students move towards decoding with fluency, and into the phase of 'orthographic mapping' far more quickly and easily.    

Speech Sound Pictographs - Phonetic Symbols for Kids - 1

Speech Sound Pictographs - Phonetic Symbols for Kids - 1

Speech Sound Pictographs - Phonetic Symbols for Kids - 1
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perspiration. There's no /ir/ grapheme in 'perspiration'

perspiration. There's no /ir/ grapheme in 'perspiration'

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Use the app with the teaching kit!

Use the app with the teaching kit!

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Fun, multisensory learning

Fun, multisensory learning

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Trying to read an unfamiliar word with graphemes taught in the regular way eg with a synthetic phonics program
(thinks /er/ must be /ɜː/ as in perfect and /ar/ must be  /ɑː/ as in car. Both actually represent the schwa. 
Takes so long that any child with poor phonemic awareness is going to struggle to reach the word, and likely become less motivated to persist. He does not decode the word.

Trying now to to read the unfamiliar word with graphemes segmented (Code Mapped) and Speech Sound Pictographs embedded, so he now knows the phoneme to grapheme mapping. Because he knows the 'sound value' for each Speech Sound Pictograph (ICRWY project child) he gets to the word in half the time and looks so much happier. With good phonemic awareness a child only needs 1 or 2 exposures to a word (understanding the mapping) to retain. Wouldn't you prefer that your child was able to decode through the word more efficiently, and figure out words in half the time?
Use our Home School kit and the app!

code_mappers_logo2020 (1).jpg

Pictograph Mnemonics have been around for decades, with a picture integrated (embedded) in letters for beginner readers - see Letterland. However, research is limited to the very beginning stages of the learning to read journey. The students learn the associated speech sound, however, this only represents ONE spelling choice for that sound. So the children do not associate the picture with a phoneme, they associate it with ONE phoneme-grapheme 'map'. Children have to learn these as many are not obvious.
A huge drawback is that children with poor phonemic awareness (or who speak little English) are taught to memorise this association - they may not understand that they are looking at a snake, and are to say 'sss' because the first sound in the spoken word is /s/ - they may think it is because the snake is hissing, or presented in the shape of the letter s. And they may then become confused when they see the word 'sugar' on their 'cereal' packet...Children with poor phonemic awareness struggle to understand that there are speech sounds in words, as they can't isolate, segment or blend them easily, and yet they are to associate that pictograph with one of those speech sounds, usually the 'first sound' (but not always) There can be a range of issues that prevent the child from actually using the picture embedded mnemonic as intended, and this type of pictograph mnemonic is arguably more beneficial to children who have good phonemic awareness to begin with. The child also needs to pronounce the word as intended (listen to children say 'a' for 'ant' in Australia to understand what I mean; because of accent they do not use the sound æ when they say 'ant'.

I, therefore, use Speech Sound characters as Speech Sound Pictographs - so all the learners need to learn is the associated sound - nothing else- so far less opportunities for confusion. The 'phonetic symbols for kids' represent the speech sound and are not linked with letters until in a word. Letters do not represent anything until in a word. They also enable non-verbal students to clearly demonstrate the speech sounds they hear and want to use when spelling. My non-verbal ASD students actually gave me the idea initially - they really needed them! Sound Pictographs (Monster Mapping) help learners at ALL stages - not just in the beginning.  

If you use the SSP ICRWY lessons app you can see how ANY child, with the cognitive capacity to read, is able to learn to read and spell using the ICRWY (I Can Read Without You) lessons. Just follow them and see how much easier it is for children (or adults) to learn to read using Code Mapping® and Monster Mapping®! Parents can learn to read with their child, using the SSP Monster Mapping app lessons. By using the SSP Monster Mapping app you will quickly understand how these Sound Pictographs (Sound Pics®) also help learners figure out unfamiliar words, especially words they will not decode using the phonics taught systematically within the 4 Code Levels - the 100 high-frequency graphemes needed to pass the UK Phonics Screener check, but not sufficient for all to be able to read. Once these words are understood they only need 1 or 2 exposures to retain the 'irregular' word (and understand the mapping) and store within long-term memory. The Speech Sound Pics Approach has helped thousands of teachers ensure that the highest number of their students reach the phase of 'orthographic mapping' and 'self-teaching' phase earlier - for 95% of children this can be before the end of year 1. The new Transition Readers are my latest (and very exciting) addition to the teacher toolkits; bridging the gap between the stage of using decodable readers and that of independently reading authentic texts. Our goal? Reading earlier for pleasure, not a level! Importantly, the Speech Sound Monsters help students figure out any Monster Mapped word, without needing help - because they simply act as substitute phonetic symbols for kids. No one seems to have even thought to research this yet - only the use of picture-embedded mnemonics for the BEGINNING stages of learning to read. If anyone would like to compare my approach to another with regular picture mnemonics, comparing reading AND SPELLING learning outcomes at all stages, please do contact me. We could compare outcomes for Reception-aged children using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach to those using a picture mnemonics based program for a whole academic year? I have details of school leaders and teachers who would be happy to be involved in such a research study. Let's compare effect sizes? Email  


Miss Emma 

MA SEN. Doctoral Student, University of Reading

Here are some of the reasons why Speech Sound Monsters were added to an already effective approach.

They can be used as single speech sound cards, or embedded speech sound pictographs.
They show us the speech sounds students hear, even if non-verbal (and cannot tell us), they allow use to develop advanced phonemic awareness skills well in advance of their code knowledge (phonics skills) and when embedded enable students to figure out any words. They can explore 'irregular' spelling patterns within high frequency words, from the very early stages of learning to read and spell, which does not happen in 'synthetic phonics' programs because of the instruction - not the learning capacity of the children. 
When the instruction and tools change, the students are capable of so much more - far more quickly and easily. 
Although SoR is incredibly helpful with regards to WHAT we know effective readers do, it has been far less helpful with regards to the HOW.  Monster Mapping facilitates phonemic awareness proficiency far earlier, which makes mapping phonemes to graphemes far easier. The goal is to ensure that children are OUT of the explicit phonics instruction stage by the middle of Year 1. We have found that this in only possible when they are given the tools to 'self-teach' earlier, and reach the phase of 'Orthographic Mapping' with 'less teaching' and 'more learning'. The pandemic, and wide spread remote learning, has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.
Parents can now learn to read and spell WITH their children, when necessary, using the SSP I Can Read (Without You) ICRWY app.


The Speech Sound Pictographs represent one speech sound each; a direct link for the learner. 
They are alternatives to phonetic symbols.

Even pre-schoolers can develop advanced phonemic awareness skills using these speech sound pictographs, using each character as a visual for something they cannot see. Although phonemic awareness 'can be done in the dark' there are issues relating to working memory when blending multiple speech sounds. Having the visual allows the learner to keep track of all the 'sounds' and track back when necessary. 
This is, generally, why people use letters as soon as possible. However this then limits the children to the graphemes taught. By using Speech Sound Pictographs (Speech Sound Monsters) they can focus on phonemic awareness - segmenting, blending and manipulating any sounds, and any number of sounds. eg physiotherapist
(13 speech sounds!)


Speech Sound Pictographs are not only used in the beginning stages of learning to read, to prompt a speech sound link to a grapheme. They reduce cognitive load because it is a direct speech sound link - the students do not need to remember what a pictograph represents. They will go straight to the sound. When looking at the word 'cat' they go straight to kæt 
(not Clever Cat, Annie Apple etc) 
And when the letters do not represent those speech sounds here is no confusion. The same 'phonetic symbols' for kids are used throughout; they are a DIRECT link to the sound.

Even 3 and 4 year olds can figure out words many teachers struggle to decode, when these Speech Sound Pictographs are embedded!  

Children see the 'Speech Sound Monster'
and think of the speech sound. They go directly to the sound when they see the 'Speech Sound Pictograph' embedded onto a letter/ grapheme


The Speech Sound Monsters are helping us to introduce Transition Readers earlier. Transition Readers bridge the gap between 'decodable readers' and 'authentic texts'. Decodable readers only include about 100 high frequency graphemes, and there are more than 3 times this number used within authentic texts. Transition Readers ensure that they are exposed to more words, especially the 'high frequency words that make up a huge percentage of the words found in books, and can do this alongside learning the high frequency graphemes within the 4 'code levels'. 
They can start these alongside Purple (One, Two, Three and Away! pre-readers) and Yellow Code Level Readers (One, Two, Three and Away! Introductory Books A - P).
See E-Books in the ICRWY Lessons App. 
They will PM benchmark 10 - 12 when reading Yellow Code Level readers, and around PM 20 when reading at Blue. 
With the Transition Readers we are finding that they are benchmarking even higher than this - earlier - and are still decoding with comprehension, and not relying on guesswork or 'three-cueing' strategies.
This is unique to Miss Emma's work, and she shares this with SSP teachers. Miss Emma initially introduced the Speech Sound Monsters as a way to give her non verbal ASD students a way to communicate with her, regardless of phonics skills. She soon sound that they also dramatically improved (and engaged) her students with phonemic awareness deficits, including those with dyslexia. They are now being used in all grade levels, and have recently proven to be a highly effective way to improve the spelling skills of upper primary aged students.