Threading together the sciences of reading

By Nicola Bell


Research that informs our collective understanding of literacy development is not conducted within one field of science. This is tricky, because it means that researchers working in different areas aren’t necessarily speaking the same language. As such, it’s not always obvious how various strands of evidence are woven together to form a coherent picture of the ‘science of reading’.

So, let’s get detangling. What exactly do people investigate to answer questions related to literacy development?

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Print-to-Speech vs. Speech-to-Print: What these terms mean and why we need both when teaching reading

Two sides of a single coin – speech-to-print, print-to-speech – let’s not devalue the currency.

By Anna Desjardins

In the world of reading instruction, the terms print-to-speech and speech-to-print have become confusing and unnecessarily divisive. This is because they have been used to categorise both the composite skills required for competent reading and spelling, and whole frameworks within which these composite skills can be taught.

When referring to the composite skills involved in spelling and reading (at the word level):

  • Print-to-speech skills are those required for decoding. To read words, graphemes (letters and letter combinations) must be translated into speech sounds, then blended together to produce spoken words in our vocabulary.
  • Speech-to-print skills are those required for encoding. To write words, spoken words must be segmented into speech sounds and these sounds must then be translated into graphemes.

Both of these skills rely on a knowledge of phonics (how speech sounds correspond to graphemes) and, consequently, phonics instruction is one of the crucial elements required in any comprehensive approach to teaching literacy (alongside explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension).

So far, so good. We know children need to be able to translate from print-to-speech when reading, and from speech-to-print when writing. We can help them develop these skills by teaching them phonics. However, now we hit a snag, because phonics can be taught in different ways and, unhelpfully, a dichotomy has developed between phonics instruction categorised as ‘print-to-speech’ versus instruction categorised as ‘speech-to-print’.

What do these labels mean in the context of instruction? Given the definitions above, you could be forgiven for thinking that in one approach children are taught only how to decode or read, while in the other they are taught only how to encode or spell. But this is not what is intended.

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