Why a Speech-to-Print Approach to learning Letters is Best (and How to do it!)

If you’re anything like me and LOVE watching true crime documentaries, you may have noticed how far science and technology have come in the last 30 years.

With DNA, GPS, and cameras everywhere, it’s amazing people still do some of the crazy stuff I see on TV!

Just as the world of investigation has completely changed in the past 50 years, the same thing is happening in the world of teaching literacy. 

As we learn more about the brain and how it interprets the written word, we need to shift how we teach young children to read. 

Instead of teaching starting with the letter symbol, we now know that the science of reading (SOR) backs up a speech-to-print, or sound-to-letter, approach.

One of the most basic tenets of teaching is building on what kids already know. 

When kids come to us in a kindergarten classroom, they already have language and sound knowledge. They’ve heard all of the sounds in our language, and can likely make most, if not all of them.

They already know the sounds, so it makes sense to begin teaching letters by building on that knowledge foundation. This simple shift in the way we introduce letters is what’s at the heart of the Speech-to-Print approach.

How is a Speech-to-PRint Approach Different?

Traditionally, kids have been taught letters and sounds starting with the letter symbol, then the sound.

Here’s what it looked like:  “This is the letter A and it makes the /a/ sound, as in apple.”

I taught this way for many years and many of my students made the association quickly, but some really struggled to make that connection.

They already have heard the sound. The new information is the letter symbol. So it makes sense to start with the sound when introducing a letter, then connect it to its grapheme. That’s building on what they already know.

Where to start?

Teaching the alphabet using a sound-to-letters approach, by introducing letters first by phoneme and then by grapheme, is aligned with the science of reading.

Remind me, what are phonemes and graphemes?

  • A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech. (ex: the sound /a/ or /m/)
  • The grapheme is a written symbol that represents a phoneme (or sound). It can be a single letter or a sequence of letters. 

If you want to learn more about the science behind the shift to teaching the sound-to-letter approach, read Speech-to-Print: Language Essentials for Teachers by Louisa Cook Moats.

This book offers so much useful information about the Speech-to-Print approach as well as practical ideas for how to implement the approach in your classroom. 

One of my top takeaways was the distinction between the different sounds. For example, there are so many sounds that kids confuse like /f/ and /v/. Analyzing the feel of what your lips, tongue, and teeth are doing can help to clarify those distinctions. And, it really helped me to understand more about the science of reading and why we’re looking at teaching reading differently.

What will the Speech-to-Print Approach look like in my classroom?

There is SO much you can teach your students about types of sounds, phonetic rules, morphology, and language that it can be quite overwhelming.

But, you can start with this simple shift:

1. Identify the Sound

Start with the sound. Instead of showing kids a letter and telling them the sound it makes, have kids repeat and identify a sound, discuss its articulation, then introduce the letter representation for that sound (starting with the most common one). 

Here’s how you can do that with pictures (shown is the first slide of my Kinesthetic Alphabet PowerPoints):

  • First, ask students to say the name of each picture. 
  • Then, have them extend and isolate the first sound: aaaaaaapple, /a/. You can also brainstorm more words that begin with the sound, have them give you a thumbs/up down for other words you say, or any other activity that has them identifying the sound.

2. Analyze the Articulation

Talk with your students about how the sounds they make “feel.”

Analyze what the mouth is doing when they make each particular sound. If possible, use mirrors so they can see what their mouths do too!

Ask them to make observations about what they see and feel their own mouths doing…

  • Is their mouth wide open, slightly open, or closed?
  • Are their lips touching each other? Are their lips touching their teeth?
  • Is the tongue touching the roof of their mouth? Is it near the front or the back?

Finally, teach the letter. Have students name it, trace it, and write it, having them attach the sound by saying it as they write.

  • When your students have learned a few letters, you can have them start blending simple words so it’s helpful to start with letters that can be used to make CVC words.
  • Another tip is starting with letters that have continuous sounds, or sounds that can be extended, like /m/, /s/, and vowels. These are much easier to blend with.
  • Separate vowel instruction, since many kids confuse them often.
  • Many scope and sequence guides start with the letters m, s, t, and a. (T is not continuous but many words can be made with the -at rime (word family) so it’s helpful to learn right away.

Alphabet Bundle Speech-to-Print

It’s not always easy finding resources to use for this approach but I’ve created these alphabet pages to help you introduce the alphabet by phoneme first, then grapheme.

Each letter has 2 pages, designed to be copied back-to-back. The back page has practice with the capital letter.

The bundle also includes an interactive PowerPoint for each letter, as well as pages to review 3 letters at a time. Use these multisensory resources to help your students make letter-sound connections faster.

Check it out in my Tejeda’s Tots shop or in my TpT store:

I hope these tips help you to feel more confident in using a speech-to-print approach to teaching letters with your students! Remember, it’s easy for kids to build upon things they already know. They already know the sounds in our language, so build on that!

If you have any questions about using a speech-to-print approach to teach letters, please leave them below!

If you’re looking for more spelling strategies for beginning writers, check out this post! And, you can learn more about phonemic awareness right here!

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