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  • Writer's pictureErica Klein Grasp Reading

What is "Print to Speech"?

Updated: Jan 8

a book page with the word "Bold" in bold and words about typography

For this next post, I'm going to do my best to explain the "Print to Speech" approach to literacy instruction. I will discuss "Speech to Print" in another post as covering both would be too long. This is an area that can get grey and murky fast because well, nothing is really black and white when it comes to teaching or reading. It can be a touchy subject as well as stake-holders get concerned if somebody attempts to say that their particular way of instruction is inferior to a different one. I am going to do my best to avoid all those potholes and make an explanation that is geared toward improving the average parent or potential client's understanding.

The first roadblock in understanding "Print to Speech" and "Speech to Print" is that they aren't really clearly defined, agreed-upon terms for describing a program/approach to literacy intervention. In basic terms "speech to print" refers to taking the sounds you hear or say and applying them to text (like we would do when spelling a word - we say the word (speech) and print it (print). Conversely, print to speech is seeing the print/text on paper and then saying the sounds that match that print. Any decent literacy instruction includes elements of both speech to print and print to speech - spelling and reading are closely related. This, however, is not what I want to talk about. I want to discuss these as overall approaches to literacy instruction.

"Print to Speech" is a broad category that includes programs like Barton Reading and Spelling, Wilsons, OG (Orton Gillingham), All About Reading, Logic of English, etc. These programs organize the curriculum around print. For example, in the Barton Reading and Spelling program, (which we offer at Grasp Reading) students will learn the most common consonant sounds and short vowels. Then they learn digraphs. Then they learn some spelling rules like 3 ways to spell the /k/ sound (as in "kick" and "can." Then 2 ways to spell /ch/ as in "witch" or "pinch" etc. Students are generally taught these "rules" and the text and spelling they are asked to do follow the rules so that the student can internalize the "logic of English." Exceptions to the "rules" are often taught as sight words or "rule breakers" or some other term that points out they are exceptions to the rules.

These speech to print programs usually include rules about dividing words by syllables as well. When a student learns the types of syllables, they, in theory, can divide the word up on paper and read each chunk by following the "rule" for that chunk. For example, if a syllable ends in a vowel (like in the word "BA - BY" then we use the long sound (letter name) for that vowel. If it ends with a consonant, like "COP-PER" the vowel will be short. Later on students learn about "r-controlled" vowels or "Bossy/magic/silent-E" etc. They may learn a way to spell /ai/, /ee/ or /eye/ at the end of a word one lesson, and then a few lessons later they learn how to spell /ai/, /ee/, /eye/ in the middle of words.

The point is, the overall approach is based on the written code and how we can break the "rules" (and their exceptions) into manageable chunks for students. Students use decodable readers for quite some time in order to eliminate any need to guess and ensure they are actually applying their knowledge. The order of the rules or spelling patterns can differ across programs - for instance, in the Barton Reading and Spelling program, students spend Book 6 exploring "silent-E" - up until this point, no "silent-E" words have been introduced. Students learn how to read single and multi-syllabic words with this pattern, how to add suffixes that change the silent-E, etc. In All About Reading, students learn about silent E in Book 2 - but only as it shows up in obvious ways in single and multisyllable words (like "game" or "makeshift." (Note: All About Reading has a separate spelling program, so does not explicitly and simultaneously introduce spelling rules along with reading rules, as Barton does).

The upside of these programs is that they are often extensive and thorough. I have learned so much about our language by teaching with these approaches. I have seen "logic" in spelling that never occurred to me before. They can be great for students who enjoy predictability and thrive on knowing "rules" (really better described as patterns, I think) and how to follow them. They can help students get over a hurdle of muddling through a word willy-nilly to taking the time to divide it into syllables and read each piece in a small, manageable chunk.

The downside to these programs is that they can take a while to get through. For the Barton Reading and Spelling program, on their website they estimate 2-3 years for a student meeting 2 hours a week. That is about 312 hours and even at a fairly modest rate of $35/hour for a new or inexperienced tutor - that's over $10,000 for reading remediation for one kid. The Barton Reading and Spelling program also strongly emphasizes mastery before moving on (especially if we talk about certification or teaching with "fidelity" to the program). That's an average time line for the student with "classic" dyslexia where 4-5 years is estimated for severe cases.

There will always be children who enjoy having rules they can rely on to help them with reading and spelling. Having picture cards to help them remember rules, and a system to help them decode a word can be really helpful. However some students quickly become overwhelmed and struggle to remember syllable division rules or spelling rules at all, let alone how to apply them when reading or spelling. Where one student may relish the spelling rules cards I create, another may take them home to immediately lose them and never think of them except for our 2/hours a week together.

Another tricky point is the decodable readers. Students are often encouraged to limit

2 children on the floor, reading together

their reading to decodable texts in the initial phases of reading so that the patterns they have learned are all they see or read. This can be a great tool to help stop horrendous guessing habits. Students are more likely to decode text if they aren't overwhelmed by a bunch of letter patterns they have never seen before. Yet, the reality of this is often different. If a student IS interested in reading, they are likely wanting to access books that their peers are reading (not decodables) and you have a choice to either limit their access to reading, or let them "read" books they can't handle (yet). If they are NOT interested in reading, presenting them with decodable readers may not be what gets them excited to read. While there are some FANTASTIC decodable readers out there, they all follow their own "scope and sequence" so it can be challenging to find one that matches what your child knows AND is engaging. Luckily, learning to read is often very motivational and our adult perspective of interesting can harshly judge "lame" decodables. Students know when they are reading and when they are guessing. Quality of decodables can vary drastically (as with any reading material). Limiting words to only decodable words can create awkward sentences or stifled sounding language that actually encourage guessing because they are unnatural and not in the child's normal language. Finding a good mix of decodables (fitting your program) AND well written (and illustrated) is important.

Overall, there are many positives to Print to Speech programs. By the end of a program like Barton Reading and Spelling, a student can be a competent reader and speller (at a 9th grade level - which is "adult level") despite dyslexia or other challenges. The program may go slower, but it is very thorough. Programs like Barton are also created so that a parent, even if they are also dyslexic, can use the program to teach reading and spelling themselves. For a homeschooling parent, All About Reading will help you feel confident you have left no stone unturned and given the child a very thorough start in reading. Progress can feel slow at times, and quality of texts are variable, but a good instructor can make a speech to print approach engaging and productive for many learners.

Tune in next time for an explanation of the Speech to Print approach!

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