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  • Writer's pictureErica Klein Grasp Reading

What is "Speech to Print"?

Updated: Jan 8

As mentioned in my other posts about a "Print to Speech," my attempt to simply explain "Speech to Print" approaches is not meant to prove that one particular approach is better than another. There are significant differences, and a lot of misunderstandings between proponents of these two approaches. There are also many great things about each. The most important thing is that any approach to literacy, particularly literacy remediation, be explicit, systematic, and structured. I will talk more about those terms another time.

The first thing one will notice is that Speech to Print approaches, also known in some places as "Linguistic Phonics" organize the scope and sequence very differently than Print to Speech approaches. Print to speech approaches are organized around spellings (for example: this week we work on "silent E" when it "makes the vowel say it's name. Next week we work on "ow" and "ou" when they say /ow/ like in "how" or "house). Speech to print approaches are organized around sounds. Depending on your accent, English has about 44 phonemes or "sounds." Phonemes can not be further separated into sounds, they are the smallest unit. For example /a/ as in the word "hat" is a sound. /ai/ as in the word "bay" is a sound (or in the word weigh, or make, or acorn). Speech to print approaches organize the scope and sequence as well as the whole approach with "sounds first."

What does this mean in practice? Well, many things! First, in English we have around 250 graphemes. That is, we have 250 letters or combinations of letters to represent 44 sounds. This is a complex code. Not all languages are this complicated - Italian, for example, has about 28 phonemes and 21 graphemes (source). In English, we can spell one sound in multiple different ways - for almost all of our phonemes can be spelled with multiple graphemes. For example, /ai/ can be in "acorn, rain, they, great, play, weigh." /ee/ can be "he, see, key, meat, chief, funny, ski." What this means for a speech to print approach, however, is that the scope and sequence seems shorter. We have 44 sounds to learn about, rather than 200+ spellings. However, both approaches deal with both spelling and reading so it can seem like more information is being dumped in at once.

One activity in many speech to print approaches is a sound sort. There are different approaches to this activity, but the main goal is that you are discussing one particular sound with a student (lets say it is the sound /f/. Then they explore the variety of ways that sound can be spelled in English. (like "fat, gruff, phone, tough, calf, and "knife).* A student reads different words and decides which spelling for /f/ their word matches and sorts it. This can seem like a lot at first - teaching a kid 6 different ways to spell /f/ - how will they know which to choose!? How will they ever master this for reading or spelling?

This is another big difference with Speech to Print approaches. You can take all the "rules" and ... throw them out the window. What I mean is that there is less emphasis on repeating and memorizing "rules" for when we use a particular spelling or how to divide a word. In fact, there are no "rules" to dividing syllables or spelling. Instead, the focus is on patterns that occur. This is a subtle difference that intially, to be honest, made me roll my eyes. "Pattern" - isn't that just a euphamism for rules? Well, no, not really. I have had many students say to me "Well - YOU said that English words NEVER end in "i" - what is "What about ski, spaghetti, alibi, emoji, chili, khaki, fungi, sushi." Okay - my students have never come at me with a list like that, but they have pointed out contradictions when teaching "rules." The truth is, there are very few rules that English follows 100%. "E" doesn't always "make the vowel say it's name (like in give or have). When two vowels go walking, the first doesn't always do the talking (great, chief, through), and "i before e except after "c" ... well weigh, their, reimburse, seize, fancier, weird...

Our love as a society for clear cut answers and putting things into neat and tidy boxes just doesn't work with the English language. To try to provide order, most of the "rules" were made well after the language was established, so there are ALWAYS exceptions. We also keep adopting new words from other languages and cultures and this provides even more complexity. This can be really frustrating for students. Some don't care. They (like me) just absorb it like "okay, this gives me some great info for a good chunk of words and then I have to be "wrong" every once in a while and/or learn all the exceptions. It also tends to mean the print to speech approaches tightly control the text for quite a long time. It is not ideal to expose the student to all the "exceptions" or "rule breakers" at once. Or, these exceptions are taught as "sight words" because some of them are such high frequency words that we can't just ignore them until introducing a new rule that explains why they are exceptions.

You may be wondering - without rules and syllable division - how on earth do kids learn anything? Well, the key "ingredient" they are learning is that they need to be "set for variability." Both approaches teach that letters represent sounds and sounds can be represented by letters. Rather than have a student count vowels in a word and divide it based on rules, or remember that a word is "french" or figure out which syllable is "stressed" they just need a LOT of practice with reading and spelling words from the beginning and to set themselves up to be flexible. If they read "castle" as /c/a/s/T/l/ - they simply need to recognize that 1. that's not a word they know. 2. that doesn't mean they can go switching out all the letters and sounds - there are likely only a few options. Then they might think, "Oh hey, yeah. I've seen that before in a sound sort. "st" is a spelling for /s/ in some words. And they adjust and try again. Initially, students might panic and try switching up everything at random. This is where a competent instructor is necessary.

Scaffolding, guidance, and error correction are key with this approach. Kids are very quickly introduced to authentic text (not just limited to decodables of "spellings they have learned" so when they approach an unknown word, they need to know how to tackle it. They start by sound - sound by sound. Error corrections are given at the SOUND level (teacher tells them the correct sound to say for a particular spelling) and then they continue sound by sound. They work to blend sounds into syllables and syllables into words. With lots of practice, students begin to do this on their own. They don't need to divide words up, they don't need to verbalize a "rule" they are applying, they often just need help with an unusual spelling or two. And they need to persevere through the entire word.

In a speech to print approach, nothing is taught in isolation. Students do not practice letter sounds with flash cards - they practice them in the context of reading a word because the teacher repeatedly offers those sound-level corrections if necessary. Spelling is completed and corrected by sound. SAYING the sound as they write or move letter tiles or magnets, the students get multisensory input to remember the different spellings. Rather than "that word is wrong" we can adjust just a sound - "Oh, that is one spelling for /ai/ but in "neighbour" it is this spelling -eigh-. Students learn to decode multi-syllable words as they are learning more complex spellings. All this tends to mean faster progress, particularly when it comes to reading.

The two Orton-Gillingham-based programs (print to speech) I am familiar with, trained in, and have used are "All About Reading" and Barton Reading and Spelling. The "Speech to Print" approaches I have trained in and used are Reading Simplified and EBLI. I have learned many valuable things from all my training, but I personally enjoy using a Speech to Print approach with my students. Mixing these approaches doesn't really guarantee better results, in fact, in can create confusion. If a parent prefers to go with OG (as this is what many are told is the "Gold Standard" for Dyslexia, I incorporate some of what I have learned from my other trainings and professional development, as any tutor would likely do, but combining two very different curriculums and approaches can be confusing and slow progress.

I (Erica) prefer to use EBLI with fidelity, as I find mixing in "Print to Speech" methods (rules, syllable division, etc.) to add confusion, not clarity. That being said, Grasp Reading continues to also offer services from tutors who exclusively offer Barton, so parents and students can make a choice that's best for them. Both are valuable, systematic, explicit approaches to literacy instruction. No matter what remediation or literacy instruction you choose for your student, make sure it is systematic, explicit, and rooted in the science of reading. We have learned a lot about how children learn to read in the past few decades and this is what we know for certain: reading is a skill that must be taught explicitly, not absorbed haphazardly.

*some programs will deal with "silent e" as a "split vowel spelling - example: "i_e" is a spelling for the "long i" as in "wife." Other programs deal with the "e" as a part of the consonant spelling - example: "ve" is a spelling for /v/ in "give" or "live" as well as in "gave."

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