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Picture embedded mnemonics and the Speech Sound Monsters (Phonetic Symbol Embedded!)

Updated: Jun 20



There have been lots of discussions about picture embedded mnemonics in SoR groups as a result of Shanahan talking about the benefits . However we must think 'bigger' - setting kids up to understand the complexities of our written code ie how we 'talk on paper'.

Here are the Speech Sound Monsters.


The 'pictures' (spelling choices) of their speech sounds are shown in the Spelling Clouds, along with an example word. Letters don't represent phonemes, until being used in a word:-)




A 4 year old is seen here exploring the mapping of irregular spelling patterns in words. This is the word 'because' Code Mapped and Monster Mapped. She sees the 'phonetic symbols for kids' (Speech Sound Monsters) first to know the sounds, and the word (as she blends them) and then she sees the whole word. Most then write them - but some of our pre-schoolers fine motor skills aren't as advanced as their cognitive abilities. She obviously didn't start here - she built to this stage over a few months as part of my 'I Can Read Without You' (ICRWY) Project.

The research by Ehri (1984, 201) etc was naturally limited, as is most educational research; variables need to be controlled when undertaking qualitative research and you can only look at so much. Researchers are only able to look at the potential effects in the very beginning stages of learning to map phonemes to graphemes, and this can ignore the issues children are going to then face as they navigate the whole code, and that prior learning tool or skill cannot be applied. Letters do not 'make sounds', they represent speech sounds in word, and the phonemes (speech sounds) they represent DEPEND ON THE WORD. So teaching a child to say 'æ' when they look at the letter a is all well and good, until they see more words, and the letter a does not represent that sound at all, as demonstrated by Millie who is 'following the (phoneme) monster sounds to say the word - the word is 'any'.

After a couple of weeks the 3 and 4 year olds are blending graphemes with ease and understand that the letter 'a' only represents æ because of the words. Everything is carefully scaffolded, so that learning to read and spell is a progression that leads each child towards 'orthographic mapping'

If children are given any type of aid to remember 'letter sounds' of course it will be of benefit.

https://www.letterland.com Annie Apple But we have to ask for how long, and whether the short term benefits outweigh the potential confusion. This is why I used the positives ( as an early years teacher of course I understood the attraction of Letterland when first introduced) but also needed to reduce the confusion I saw children experiencing using these tools. I wanted the picture clues to represent phonemes, as do phonetic symbols. This avoids issues of accents (some picture clues don't make sense if you say the word differently!) Now, using my own phonemic awareness and phonics program to teach very young children to read, these issues are overcome, and all but around 5% learn to read by 6 quickly and easily- the 5% are working at their pace and able to reach their potential. The other 95% can then read more, and are in the 'self-teaching' phase before you know it. I simply improved on what was seen as useful for many kids ie having a clue to navigate those funny squiggles. It may help children learn to see the letter a and say æ because 'Annie Apple says æ ' but many will think that they need to say æ when they see this letter. We see that in the very early stages as they say that when they read 'It is a pan' They say 'It Iz æ pæn'. However I cannot tell you how many times I have been told a child 'knows their letter sounds' (whatever that means) and the child happily looks at the word and says the characters names, or sounds, but can't actually say the whole word as the vital skill of phonemic awareness wasn't the priority - they had learnt to parrot 'letter sounds' without being able to USE them to figure out words. Figuring out words is the aim of the game! Surely we want the children exposed to other words quickly, and to realise these letters (even without us telling them) don't 'make sounds' unless in a word. As educators and vehicles of positive change we can think bigger picture, and focus on what we are trying to do - get the kids reading as quickly and easily as possible. Maya understands what the letter a represents in the words said, any, was...and even follows the sounds upside down to show her audience:-) The letter a can represent at least EIGHT different speech sounds, just on it's own! And if course it is also used within digraphs, trigraphs...

Note her hesitation after saying the last speech sound in her name? This was because of prior discussion relating to which Speech Sound Monster to use- Monster ʌ or Monster ə. (The Schwa Monster)

Yes, these are discussions with 4 year olds! She doesn't even start school until 2022.


So our 'I Can Read Without You' (ICRWY) 3 and 4 year olds know that letters do not 'make sounds' unless in a word and happily navigate that. Graphemes (letters or letter strings) are used to represent multiple speech sounds, and speech sounds are represented by multiple graphemes ( we call these 'Sound Pics because they are introduced to graphemes as pictures of speech sounds). They look at words with the phonetic symbols for kids embedded, know the word, see the word without clues, write the word. And this all aligns with what we understand about orthographic mapping...

Hopefully, scientists will compare picture embedded mnemonics, where the letters have a link to just one associated phoneme, with the Speech Sound Monsters so that we aren't limiting children to words with just that one phoneme to grapheme combination. So 'phonetic symbol embedded phonics' (but with child friendly phonetic symbols so they are engaged and interested, and learn them really quickly)


Children need to be excited about those 'phonetic symbols for kids' - teachers too!! They need to be suitable for English as a Second Language learners, and those with speech and language difficulties.









The 'phonetic symbols for kids' enable many of our 3-year-olds to blend 13 phoneme words because the only focus is on the phoneme! Parents put out the Speech Sound Monster cards when going places - eg the physiotherapist! The words are meaningful. The parent then puts the graphemes on the speech sound lines, to show the real word. We use letters from week 1, and pretty much all the time, but the Speech Sound Monsters can isolated and used to target specific skills, and also for assessment purposes (showing us which phonemes they hear, and in which order, when we give a word - before they know how to spell those words with graphemes)


We must use research to keep improving practice. That's one of the joys of being a teacher. We are action researchers, and can keep poking at existing research because we are on the front lines, and need to protect and strengthen our army of learners. Anyone claiming to support the science of reading must ask whether they are part of the problem, or solution, if blocking me (and those using my methods) from explaining why this 'works'. Many seem to find it easier to accept the Speech Sound Monsters by watching children, and listening to them, and so I have created a brand new channel of children teaching children. I hope you find it interesting - if you don't want to listen to me, listen to them:-)

Schools have been using the Speech Sound Monsters in Australia for several years now. They will happily chat about their experiences with the Speech Sound Monsters, and share data! This is a clip from a 2016 youtube video with about 50k views. Kids love the Monster Moves, and learn them really quickly. One of the reasons why picture embedded mnemonics are so popular is because they engage children, and get them excited about speech sounds! Look at these faces.

Picture embedded mnemonics for phonics are great, as supported by research. If these are replaced by kid friendly phonetic symbols are we not reducing cognitive load? Not only because children don't have to learn an associated word (that may not align with the way they say that word using their accent or dialect) but because they don't have to set aside that one phoneme to grapheme choice when looking at words in which that letter doesn't map with that learned phoneme, and the phoneme doesn't map with that learned grapheme. We are starting, from day 1 (in the Orange Level) with the idea that when we talk we use speech sounds - they may be different to the speech sounds used by our friends - and to 'talk on paper' we take pictures of those sounds. We explore the universally recognised 'phonics' code, mapping phonemes to graphemes starting with the Green Code Level, and with a scaffolded approach - understanding that letters are used to represent sounds, but the mapping depends on the word, and the meaning of that word, depends on context.

Any scientists interested in investigating 'phonetic symbol embedded mnemonics for phonics'? Please do get in touch. Miss Emma BEd Hons. MA Special Educational Needs. Doctoral Student, University of Reading


Ehri, L. C., Deffner, N. D., & Wilce, L. S. (1984). Pictorial mnemonics for phonics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(5), 880–893. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.76.5.880

Shmidman, A., & Ehri, L. (2010) Embedded picture mnemonics to learn letters. Scientific Studies of Reading, 14:2, 159-182, DOI: 10.1080/10888430903117492

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