Using child-friendly characters in place of the IPA phonetic symbols. Speech Sound Monsters from the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach. Does research support this technique? Is there evidence to support the use of the Speech Sound Monsters? Absolutely!

The Speech Sound Monsters and the Science of Reading
A child-friendly alternative to the IPA.
SSP phoneme 'characters' are used to develop phonemic awareness and
also integrated into letters to develop phonics skills.


Someone recently asked me 'is an approach whereby graphemes are represented with special characters considered 'evidence-based'?' Yes, of course. This is exactly what the IPA is. Is the person questioning the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)? Do they not understand research into dyslexia or the teaching of children with hearing impairments?

As Lintunen (2005) points out, phonemic transcription is a teaching method that has traditionally been used for foreign language learners of English, especially at advanced levels. Gomes de Matos (2002: 314) marked transcription reading skills as one of the fundamental abilities that every foreign language learner should master and certainly most books for EFL learners include phonemic symbols in vocabulary sections.

As you will know we are working on software that enables the user to type any word, and see it as (phoneme) Monsters, or type words as Speech Sound Monsters and see the word. It will be groundbreaking! It is an extension of applications like 

Lintunen, Pekka (2005). Phonemic Transcription and its Effect on Learning. University of Turku, Finland

'..dyslexia can be remediated through a focus on writing spoken words exactly how they sound using the initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.) for children whose deficit was a lack of the phonological awareness skills needed to encode and decode words'...J. Flynn, & W. Deering, ”Eavesdropping on the Brain: The Gundersen Medical Foundation Dyslexia Studies,” The Gundersen Medical Journal, 1, 49-54, 1993

'... successful remediation of reading disability resulted in normalization of brain function
J. Flynn, W. Deering, M. Goldstein, and M. Rahbar, “Electrophysiological correlates of dyslexic
subtypes,” Journal of Learning Disabilities. 25, 133-14, 1992.


Our English written code is highly complex, even though far more consistent than many realise. Languages such as German, Finnish, and Spanish that have a transparent sound-symbol relationship are reported to have smaller
incidences of reading failure than orthographically-dense languages such as ours. E. Nagourney, "Geography of Dyslexia is Explained," New York Times, April 10, 2001.


'Visual' phonics (combined with linguistic phonics) is an ESSENTIAL part of the teaching tool kit for those who work with children who have a hearing impairment, along with techniques such as 'Cued Articulation'. The written code is based on blended speech sounds, and as such the child who struggles to hear speech sounds and words, as well as the child with poor phonemic awareness, is at a disadvantage. 'While their normally developing peers in kindergarten are writing words the way they sound, e.g., “sed” for “said,” children with phonological deficits fail to “crack the sound-symbol code” that leads to reading success.'
This is the same for deaf children. So 'visual phonics' has been around for some time. How could we not create resources and strategies to ensure that all children are included?


The Speech Sound Monsters were introduced to an already highly popular approach to teaching phonics systematically, because of this very reason! My non-verbal ASD, deaf and dyslexic learners needed MORE from me. As teachers, we do everything we can to promote inclusion. Any effective teacher who cares not only about the Science of Reading but CHILDREN will understand this.

If interested in 'rewiring the dyslexic brain' you may have read about this study, for example.

'The most striking result of this study was the students’ gain on the Auditory Analysis Test-Revised (AAT-R). Although this investigation did not directly work on the skills tested on the AAT-R, students went from a pretest average standard score of 81 to 103 on post-test (p.=.02). This suggested normalization of their underlying neurophysiological deficits in phonological processing, supporting the finding of normalization of brain function using electrophysiological brain mapping procedures in previous studies.' (Debner and Anderson)

All aspects of reading failure can be traced back to phonological deficits beginning in the preschool years. (see Kilpatrick 2015 and our Science of Reading 'Cheat Sheet')

This is why so many programs have attempted to use child-friendly images to SHOW learners how letter/s link with the speech sounds. Characters, in essence, are an alternative to phonetic symbols, but still serve the same purpose. You can read the research relating to Letterland here, for example.
They claim
'The use of characters and actions to teach phonics is supported by scientific research. The Letterland system is also in line with research on memory and the way we learn.
Each Letterland character has a personality and lives in a realistic environment filled with alliterative objects. By integrating phonics with life experience, they provide children with a systematic and motivating framework for learning all 44 sounds and their spellings and for developing full literacy.'

Unfortunately, as I wrote here, programs that use these picture clues overlook the issues with children misunderstanding what the image represents.  They also often seem to take a 'print to speech' focus (an 'a says /a/as in apple type program) Within my approach I removed any ambiguity - the characters represent the phonetic symbol/ phoneme. Simple.

The monsters are just aligned with the speech sound, and do NOT 'hook' with a letter until in a word.

However the research that supports Letterland can also be applied to 'Monster Mapping'.

eg Theresa Roberts and Carol D. Sadler (2018) Early Childhood Research Quarterly: Volume 42. Pages 97-111.

"To help children learn all of the letter-sound correspondences, some phonics programs teach mnemonic devices. Research shows that this makes it easier for the children to learn the correspondences (Ehri, Deffer, & Wilce, 1984)"

"Integrated, or embedded, mnemonics is a promising approach for teaching letter sounds (de Graaf, Verhoeven, Bosman, &Hasselman, 2007; Ehri, Deffner & Wilce, 1984; Shmidman & Ehri,2010).


Integrated letter mnemonics are letter shapes embedded in a familiar action, object, or character. Three small-scale experimental studies have shown that integrated mnemonics promoted greater learning of letter sounds than did carefully matched alternatives (de Graaff et al., 2007; Ehri, Deffner, & Wilce, 1984; Shmidman & Ehri, 2010)."


As usual, I've just gone further as I'm a teacher and I will always search for even BETTER ways to include all learners. Researchers may struggle to keep up, but always happy to be contacted, and of course SSP teachers submit data to their education dept on a regular basis. If you want evidence GO AND TALK TO TEACHERS.

Hope this helps!


Miss Emma
BEd Hons. MA Special Educational Needs (Dyslexia focus) Doctoral Student

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The Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach. Wiring Brains® for Literacy. Code Mapping® and Monster Mapping®
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