Culty as Charged: Why the Speech to Print Movement Needs Brakes

‘Get the popcorn out, Lyn’s about to make a statement that’s going to annoy some people!’

My job isn’t, in fact, to annoy anyone. Nor is it to poke fun, be disrespectful, or rain on anyone’s parade. My job, as I see it, is to do whatever I possibly can to get the best deal for teachers and students. Sometimes that annoys people. Sometimes it requires me to poke fun at people. See here and here for that kind of thing. Sometimes it requires me to confront people, which feels, to them, like disrespect, but is simply confrontation. Sometimes it requires me to say, ‘Whoah! Slow down!’

I’m happy for people to poke fun, confront and put the brakes on me. It makes me a stronger, better person. It might hurt a bit, but remember: Adult’s feelings are not more valuable than children’s literacy.

It’s time I made my position on something very clear, and that something is the Speech to Print (S2P) movement. That something is not one individual. That something is not one program. That something is a movement that is rapidly dominating the current phonics landscape. And like anything that moves at speed, brakes are also a good idea.

What do I mean by ‘Speech to Print’? The phrase came to prominence when the seminal Speech to Print book by Louisa Moats hit the shelves. One of the key underpinnings of this book is listed as ‘…how print represents speech in English…’.

Not THAT print represents speech in English. HOW. Important distinction right there.

In fact, one of the functions of print is to represent speech in English. Phonics, in all its varieties, shows how this happens. That’s great. That’s what initial literacy teaching should contain, and lots of it, in a good sequence, just like Doug Carnine proposed. But…


…and it’s a big but (with thanks to Ben Goldacre)…

Just because your trainer/principal/manager/best friend said that S2P is the best thing for humanity since the polio vaccine, doesn’t mean it’s true. Any systematic, synthetic phonics program, by definition,  is structured, systematic, cumulative, explicit, and the big one: multisensory (are there monosensory programs out there that I don’t know about?). They’re all like that. They’re all informed by research. So?

The truth of the matter is that if you took and applied the UFLI manual or Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Engelmann, you would get your students reading just as well as you would using a big, expensive S2P program. It doesn’t have to be much more complex than that. It’s just that selling a phonics ‘system/approach/way/lifestyle/orientation/whatever’ can be a licence to print money in education, so out come the business people to bind you to their particular niche. I’m not saying you’re in a cult, but if you call yourself a ‘Brand Name’ practitioner/school/trainer, there’s a bit of a problem. And that problem occurs when your method is touted as the method to end all methods. That problem occurs when the only tool in your toolbox is fairly blunt, and when you’re expressly forbidden to use ‘outside’ tools even though you know you should. That problem occurs when your students get better at reading, but they still can’t write very well, but your training doesn’t tell you why. It happens in the cult of balanced literacy, and it’s beginning to happen with disturbing frequency in S2P circles now too.

Why do people get culty about S2P?

One possible answer is relief. After years of using awful methods and knowing, deep in their hearts, that they weren’t doing the best for their students, along came a much, much better approach. Systematic phonics, even S2P, after all, is a much, much better approach to teaching reading than balanced literacy. It’s positively captivating. So captivating, however, that those who are captivated by it can start to develop a kind of Stockholm Syndrome response. They identify so closely with the brand, that they become blind to its flaws and instead turn in on themselves when the flaws become apparent. See the multiple daily iterations on social media of the S2P cry for help:

‘Why can’t these children make the right spelling choices? It must be something in me/them/the word that makes it this way, as it can’t be X-Brand!’

We know that balanced literacy creates instructional casualties. That’s why we don’t recommend three-cueing and predictable text. However, at my practice, I am seeing instructional casualties of approaches to teaching reading that posit that print is simply speech written down. If you’ve heard me talk in the last couple of years, chances are you may be aware of the excerpt from a report sent to us when referring ‘Emily’. The referring practitioner could get no further with Emily because all the ‘spelling choices’ she had learned were not delivering higher spelling proficiency.

The practitioner’s training consisted of one S2P program, and an inventory of about 200 ‘spellings’ for ‘sounds’. This is what she said:

‘I am very concerned regarding Emily’s spelling choices. This is Emily’s challenge. Her reading and comprehension is of a high standard as is her ability to have great ideas for sentences and stories. It is Emily’s spelling choices that are holding her back. She was choosing the incorrect spelling combinations almost all the time. We will revise a sound and do all of the “usual” activities and revision but she seemed to spell with the wrong letter choice. (skrap – scrap, sok – sock, thing – think). I am wondering if Emily needs more time to complete her writing and spelling and emphasise listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them. I also wonder if Emily has a short term/long term memory issue.’

I’m haunted by the thousands of S2P practitioners around the world throwing up their arms at incorrect ‘spelling choices’, as if that’s all to it. I’m haunted by the repeated telling children to ‘emphasise listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them’. This is fine up to simple CCVC/CVCC words, but you and I know that written English is filled with:

  • Homophones: there/they’re/their, your/you’re
  • Etymological markers: would/should
  • Silent letters (usually etymological markers too): Yes they do exist, unless you can tell me what the <h> spells in honour, or the <b> in crumb or the <p> in pterodactyl, or the <e> in lapse, or the <t> in fasten. What are they all ‘spellings’ for? And please don’t give me that smug “bUt All LeTTErs aRe SiLeNt” line. You can define silent as ‘not representing a phoneme’. You’re aware that words can have more than one meaning, right? Besides, ask any layperson what a silent letter is and I bet they can give you an example. This is a useful, well-understood term. Do you really want to expunge something this useful because someone quipped about it to justify their approach?
  • Schwa and reduced vowels: respect, banana, necessary, definitely, and in fact a large majority of polysyllabic words
  • Elided (or ‘collapsed’) syllables: camera, restaurant, Wednesday
  • Rules (yes, rules!) surrounding possible letter sequences and impossible letter sequences: You can’t have <zbq> consecutively, you can’t use the digraph <ck> word-initially, you can’t use <i,j,q,u,v> word-finally. If you didn’t know the rules, you would be rubbish at Wordle. But you do know the rules because you’re an adult with a lexicon. Why keep it from your students? Some of them need you to help them with these rules because they can’t figure it out themselves. If you’re a fan of systematic teaching, what’s stopping you from teaching the rules systematically so that more kids can build their lexicon?
  • Rules (yes, as I keep saying, rules!) surrounding the effect letters can have on one another in certain sequences: was (contrast it with has – that’s right, you know the rule even if you don’t use the term), ice(it’s not pronounced ‘icky’ because you know the rules even if you’re trained to consider rules a swearword)
  • Accent variation: How you say words may be different from how your students say words – the sounds in words are the least stable, predictable thing about them. Heck you even say words differently from yourself in different contexts. Think about coarticulation (e.g. the <t> in the word ‘cat’ is said differently from the <t> in the phrase ‘cat-call’). You say ‘because’ one way in isolation but I bet you it changes when you say it in a sentence, hence the erroneous spelling in younger students (‘cuz/cos/bcos’ etc.). Spelling is stable. Morphemes are stable. Pronunciation is not stable, so basing your teaching on how you think you say words in your head is pretty limited.
  • Letter names: Then there’s the strawman about teaching alphabet letters. Typical S2P training goes something like this:

TRAINER: Teach the sounds, not the names of letters. If you teach the letter names for a word like map, the children will pronounce it ‘em-ay-pee’, which is not a word in English as far as I know haha! (insert patronising chuckle)

No. If you teach letter names and then instruct the child to blend those names to form a word, you’ll get something like ‘em-ay-pee’, but who does that? Seriously. No one does that. Stop making things up.

Of course you teach sound to symbol correspondences, but this dogma comes unstuck very quickly if you don’t also make children aware of letter names. Tell me about ‘sounding out’ one, eye, was, there/they’re/there, Wednesday, restaurant, honest, lamb, queue… the list is vast. What do you suggest here? ‘Heart word memorisation?’ The names of letters are critical metalanguage. If you teach them in a way that confuses children, that’s on you. Students deserve to know the whole story, not the one crafted to suit a company’s ‘phonics charts’ and sets of decodable readers.

How will 'listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them' help with any of the above?

It won’t. You know it won’t. And yet schools and districts and practitioners are pouring money and energy and time into buying training that tells you to ignore the above because ‘print is just speech written down’!

No. It isn’t. Speech and print are different beasts. If you teach them as one and the same with a giant ‘code’ chart and a bunch of ‘extended/complex code’ after that, and don’t consider the above, people like me have to go into schools to fix it. People like Emily have to go to private tutoring to fix it if their parents can afford it, and if their parents can’t afford it, they suffer all the consequences of not being able to write well, whatever they may be.

S2P cannot, will not, even explain to a child the rules behind letter sequences. It’s just random ‘choices’ or ‘spellings for X sound’. And if you are a practitioner and you find yourself explaining the rules behind letter sequences, then you are not a S2P practitioner. You are using a supplement because S2P needs supplementing.

It’s like feeding people a diet of eggs exclusively. Eggs are very nutritious, and if you were only feeding them sugar beforehand, then you’re doing much better. But a lot of them are still going to get scurvy.

A lot of your students are still only going to be able to spell phonetically if you feed them the untruth that spelling is just speech written down or that every letter sequence is ‘code’ for a spoken sound.

We've come so far! We need to keep going!

There has been much effort over the past two decades to reinstate phonics as a viable, efficient way of helping children acquire literacy. Its good name is important. It’s been very hard to get teachers, whose training is progressive/constructivist in most cases, to embrace systematic, teacher-led approaches. It is therefore important that alternatives to whole language and balanced literacy be as high quality as possible. Speech to print is low quality for the reasons I outlined above. Just as whole language is built on the ‘learning to read is a social/natural process’ faulty premise, speech to print is based on the faulty premise that ‘print is simply speech written down’. Faulty premises lead to faulty practice. Faulty practice, or malpractice as it’s known in medical circles, leads to casualties.

So if your instruction is chiefly concerned with:

  • listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them as the major strategy after the basic GPCs are learned,
  • asking questions like ‘what are the sounds in this word?’, or
  • ‘how do you code this word?’, or
  • ‘how many syllables in this word?’,
  • having charts of 150-200 ‘spellings’ for ‘sounds’ that children have to somehow memorise,

you will leave some children behind.

All this, of course, is just my opinion. There is scant research to conclude the outright leader between S2P, or P2S, or MSL, or OG or any other phonics method that is systematic and synthetic, and I’m certainly not recommending one above the other. But right now, S2P is being hailed as some kind of ‘gold standard’ when it’s not.

Remember where I get my opinion from: casualties. Not from being personally wrapped up in admiration for someone or something. Not from mistaking my identity for my profession. Not from judging my self-worth on the basis of my beliefs. Not from an obligation to an employer. I get my opinion from seeing the results of low quality ideas in children who deserve a better deal. I get it from working with frustrated teachers who, despite the promise of systemic change, are still working with blunt tools.

S2P has gigantic tracts of wrong that create instructional casualties, and judging by the cult-like behaviour of plenty of its adherents, its massive popularity, and the steadfastness of its chief proponents in maintaining their stranglehold on the market, I’m not wrong to be concerned.

 ‘Know better…do better’ doesn’t mean ‘climb out of the BL frying pan and defend the S2P fire’, it means ‘keep learning’.


The second part of this article will contain some solutions to the S2P problem and some suggestions as to how things could be done better.

However, there’s an awful lot of piracy going on in education at the moment, so I’m a little wary of publishing too much. I’m seeing free resources that people willingly share, as well as illustrations, slides and book excerpts without permission/attribution cropping up in the work of a few new ‘edupreneurs’. If you have to steal content, you obviously don’t know your subject. If you see something that looks like piracy (of anyone’s content, not just mine), drop me a confidential line. All proven reports will be rewarded with a free, signed copy of one of my books and your identity as a whistleblower will be kept under wraps.

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10 thoughts on “Culty as Charged: Why the Speech to Print Movement Needs Brakes”

  1. Avatar
    Kate Egerton-Warburton

    As a teacher, trying to navigate this landscape is tremendously difficult. I appreciate your candour. I came out of university 23 years ago with a degree that did not equip me to successfully teach reading. Over my 7 year journey of trying to understand the process, I have listened to many touting their ‘way’, and our school has handed over truck loads of dollars for us to learn how to follow a program, with fidelity. An S2P program that has flaws. I feel like I’m forever on a learning journey and it’s very tiring!

    At the beginning of this year, I decided to explicitly teach letter names because my Pre-Primary/year1 classroom coupled with whole school data observations over many years told me that the children who came in with that knowledge (simply through learning their ‘ABC’s’ at home) became better spellers over time.

    We started using DIBELS last year and it struck me as strange that they assessed letter names. However, I found myself saying/questioning with a collegiate group of early years practitioners the other day, “If it’s assessed by DIBELS, it must be evident in the research that letter names are an important component?” One excellent practitioner even said, “If it assessed the sounds instead of names, my kids would have faired well!” They gingerly agreed with my ‘based on research’ statement but they feel confused because of the S2P ideology that has dominated our landscape.

    So, thank you for continuing to fight the good fight so that teachers may become confident teachers of literacy and kill the confusion that causes so much anxiety and stress for the profession and most importantly, the children.

    1. Avatar

      The research I know of does not favor one of the other, and it actually appears to favor doing both at the same time. In and of itself, knowing letter names has historically been highly predictive of later reading outcomes. There is simply nothing we currently know that suggest kids will get “confused” if you teach both at the same time as many S2P proponents claim. Perhaps if the teacher themselves are confused and don’t know how and when to use letter name/sound then this might be the case (which I have seen) – but I have found that as long as you are very clear with students, even kids with very significant learning disabilities have little issue picking things up with enough practice and direct teaching.

  2. Avatar

    This blog post is misleading. If you’ve read the Louisa Moats book that you are referencing, everything you’ve discussed is there. And as far as I can tell, Speech to Print is a textbook or theory book for educators to help us understand how to teach reading and not an “expensive culty program” as you claimed.

    Because I read this book in my preparation I understand how to find and use the best reading and phonics programs and/or to take the best parts of programs that are available to me and modify as needed.

    1. Avatar

      As I read this post I found myself saying the exact same thing!! If she had read Moats’ book in it’s entirety, she clearly would not be as critical as she is about it. Many of her above mentioned points are addressed and discussed throughout the text. Perhaps she is lumping the book into the S2P ‘cult’ simply because of the name of the book? Or maybe she read the previous edition (I have not compared the multiple editions) and not the most recent? Regardless, she has valid points and we do need to remember to be critical consumers of the ‘latest and greatest’ so we are not supporting the publishing companies and their drive for royalities.

    2. Avatar

      Rachel, it might be better if you reread my post. It was not critical of the ‘Speech to Print’ book. Read everything up to the phrase ‘important distinction’. You’ve also put the words “expensive culty program” in quotation marks. This implies I said this. Show me where I said this. I think you’re reacting to something I didn’t say, which makes it very hard to answer you.

  3. Avatar
    Barbara Petronelli, Ph. D.

    “S2P cannot, will not, even explain to a child the rules behind letter sequences. It’s just random ‘choices’ or ‘spellings for X sound’. And if you are a practitioner and you find yourself explaining the rules behind letter sequences, then you are not a S2P practitioner. You are using a supplement because S2P needs supplementing.”

    The quote above is inaccurate. Some S2P methods DO employ rules and morphologies. And etymology CAN be used to explain word features. The assumption within the above comment is that all “S2P practitioner[s]” use the approach in one way. This isn’t accurate. “S2P” approaches are better described as linguistic phonics approaches. While I agree that linguistic phonics approaches CAN leave gaps in spelling, they don’t have to.

    We need BALANCED practitioners who have a complete arsenal of tools to use to teach children to read, write, and spell. While a linguistic phonics approach CAN teach students to decode early in their literacy instruction, ENCODING is a separate skill–and I agree that most LP programs are weak in in teaching encoding. But let’s NOT throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. We need to make a distinction between LP methods and LP Programs.

    As for being “culty”, most PROGRAMS tend to be that way. There is a lot of co-opting, hijacking, and misappropriating occurring in the world of literacy instruction. There is also a lot of monetization and exploitation of the current newly found awareness of the failure of balanced literacy (once whole language) instruction. Many OG-based practitioners, specifically those trained by OG Academy, are at odds with specific, highly regarded programs that utilize OG-based practices. But I will call out another elephant in the room: There is no pure OG instruction. The name “OG” has been misappropriated and monetized. I use OG-based practices, and I use LP-based practices. Neither approach is monolithic. My instruction is a structured literacy approach based on sound research.

    As to spelling, I believe it should be taught as a technology to communicate meaning. Many graphemes are implemented within the orthographic system as markers to give readers a heads-up on meaning and pronunciation. We spell homophones differently yo mark meaning. We use some letters within words to signal pronunciations that encourage meaning; /gu/, for instance can signal to the reader that within the word /guide/ , the /u/ follows the /g/ to signal that the /g/ is voiced–because often /g/ is unvoiced when followed by /e, I, or y/. So, at times, albeit rarely, /gu/ represents the voiced /g/ e.g. (guide, guy, Guiness).

    All that being said, I think we can rail against movements that promise miraculous literacy growth–without dismissing them out-of-hand.

    I have no sole stake in any method or approach.
    /g/ is