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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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Year 1 Phonics Check

The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check was introduced in all English primary schools in 2012. Since then, there have been substantial improvements in Year 1 and 2 students’ decoding skills as measured by the Check, and promising signs of improvement in standardised reading assessments in later years.

After several years of sometimes vigorous debate and consistent evidence-based advocacy from researchers, educators, and parent groups, the Year 1 Phonics Check is beginning to be adopted around Australia.

  • It has been implemented in South Australian primary schools each year since 2018
  • More than 500 primary schools have joined a voluntary trial in NSW in August 2020
  • An online version has been provided to all schools by the federal government in August 2020

It should go without saying (but apparently still needs to be said) that phonics instruction is one element of an effective reading instruction program, albeit an essential one. Students also need comprehensive instruction in the language and meaning aspects of literacy. It should also be self-evident that, just like any other assessment, the stated benefits of the check derive from the judicious use of the data to inform improvements in teaching practices.

The message about the educational value of the Year 1 Phonics Check is reaching policy makers, schools, and the wider community. Below is a selection of articles and reports that provide accurate information about the Year 1 Phonics Check — what it is and isn’t, why it was developed, and what evidence exists of its benefits for students and teachers.

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Grattan report is on the right track but could be even better

The latest report from Julie Sonneman and Peter Goss at the Grattan Institute was published on Monday. The Grattan report didn’t get a lot of media attention because the more obviously newsworthy part of the report – estimates of learning losses — was gazumped by a CIS report a few weeks ago.

Estimates of learning losses necessarily make a lot of assumptions that make it hard to know how accurate they are but it is fair to say that many children will have made less progress in their literacy learning in the past few months than they usually would have in school, and in some cases will have lost progress they had made since the beginning of the school year. This is not reason to panic, but it is reason to have a comprehensive plan to help these children catch up.

The Grattan report has a characteristically measured set of proposals for schools to regain some of the academic ground lost during the Covid crisis. The fact that Sonneman and Goss understand that children’s literacy learning will recover only by providing high quality literacy instruction is a welcome antidote to some of the other ideas floating around.

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Children lost between the lines long before high school

At the start of last year, 17,000 ­­12- and 13-year-olds walked into high school classrooms all across the country unable to read even at a minimal level. They achieved scores below the minimum standard in the Year 7 National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy reading test. A further 35,000 students achieved only the minimum standard, in which they can barely find basic information in simple written text.

Similar numbers of students achieved at and below the minimum standard in Year 5 in 2017 and in Year 3 in 2015, indicating their literacy difficulties had been identified but never remediated.

For these students the challenge of remote learning without the support of their teachers and peers would have been frustrating and probably futile.

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