Speech to Print or Print to Speech? It Makes a Difference
By Louisa Moats, Ed.D.
Written words represent speech and language. This fundamental truth explains why reading and spelling skill depend on language abilities; why explicit teaching of sounds, words, and discourse is the most effective way to ensure all students learn to read and write; and why we have been persistent advocates for teachers’ knowledge of language—which is the focus of LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) professional learning course for educators. Within that big idea is a less settled question: How should instruction in beginning reading and writing proceed?
As reported in a recent summary paper by the research team at the Florida Center for Reading Research (Petscher et al., 2020), one bedrock finding from recent research is that good readers have acquired the alphabetic principle—the insight that alphabetic symbols represent speech sounds. In addition, good readers can identify the individual phonemes that make up spoken words and recognize the correspondences between phonemes and graphemes, spoken and written syllable patterns, and common morphemes. It is through the process of accurately decoding and naming new words that learners can store printed words in memory for instant recognition and recall.
Two contrasting approaches
There are two contrasting approaches to teaching this foundational step in early reading. Traditional code-focused teaching points first to elements in the print, especially individual letters, and then asks the student to associate sounds with the written symbol(s). In other words, the logic of the code is built from print to speech. For example, letters (a, e, i, o, u) are identified as vowels, and students must learn and recall the long and short sounds associated with each one, then do the same with the 21 consonant letters. In a decoding lesson, the letter or letter pattern is said to “say” a given sound. Letter sounds are then blended to make words. Students don’t know what word they are blending until they succeed in this.
In a speech-to-print approach, instruction builds knowledge of the system from spoken to written words. The lesson begins with a focus on an aspect of speech (phoneme, syllable, or morpheme), as these linguistic elements serve as Velcro or mental parking spots for the letters in printed words. Individual phonemes are identified by what we say as well as what we hear; thus, articulatory features of sounds that might cause confusion are explicitly noted. For example, the three nasal consonants /m/, /n/, /ng/ are contrasted by place of articulation (front, middle, and back of the mouth) as their symbols are learned.
A speech-to-print approach begins with phoneme awareness. A target phoneme, explored as a “speech bit,” is identified in spoken words which are then segmented orally. Next, the target phoneme is linked with its corresponding grapheme, which is often more than one letter in English (th, ng, ck, oy, er). Dictated words are built with grapheme tiles, and graphemes are learned as readily as single-letter correspondences, with phoneme-grapheme matching and word building preceding the reading of pattern-based words in lists and in text. With this approach, students develop essential neural pathways in the brain that connect the visual word form area with spoken language and consolidate the habit of word analysis for decoding. Once that mental process is ingrained, students have the cognitive architecture to internalize many other complex letter patterns and sequences that they will see in print (Hoover & Tunmer, 2020).
Why use speech to print to teach beginning reading?
While I do not know of a controlled study that has directly compared the speech-to-print and print-to-speech approaches, research reviews have shown that inclusion of encoding activities (speech to print) in code-focused reading lessons produces better results than decoding (print to speech) only (Weiser & Mathes, 2011). Furthermore, the speech-to-print approach allows for a more logical and complete understanding of how the English system works; our 26 alphabet letters do not contain symbols for some speech sounds that still must be represented (/sh/, /ng/, and others), and many letters often do several different jobs in our orthography. For example, if we teach students that “u” is a vowel, there is an obvious contradiction: In quit, it represents a consonant (/w/). Letters are not consonants or vowels—they are used singly and in combination to represent consonant and vowel phonemes.
In the big picture, any systematic, explicit teaching of the code is better than none. Unfortunately, too many prevalent practices reflect the (unstated) assumption that learning to read and spell depends on rote visual memory of strings of letters. This assumption underlies the use of leveled readers that beginners are expected to “read” by pointing to whole words as they recite the text from memory. With this look-and-say approach, context-driven guessing substitutes for knowing what the letters represent. To be clear, this is not what we mean by “speech to print,” and it’s time we got this right in our classrooms.
To learn more about LETRS literacy professional learning click below.
Hoover, W. & Tunmer, W. (2020). Cognitive foundations of learning to read.
Petscher, Y., Cabell, S. Q., Catts, H. W., Compton, D. L., Foorman, B. R., Hart, S. A., Lonigan, C. J., Phillips, B. M., Schatschneider, C., Steacy, L. M., Terry, N. P., Wagner, R. K. (2020). How the science of reading informs 21st century education. Reading Research Quarterly, 55 (S1), S67-S82.
Weiser, B., & Mathes, P. (2011). Using encoding instruction to improve the reading and spelling performances of elementary students at risk for literacy difficulties: A best- evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 170–200.