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Two Friends with a Tablet

The Speech Sound Monsters

Map and Drag!
Orthographic Mapping is a permanent storage system for written words; the brain's word bank
ant - if embedded on the word some children won't know the connection

Orthographic mapping (OM) involves the formation of grapheme-phoneme connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. It explains how children learn to read words by sight, spell words from memory, and acquire vocabulary words from print.

OM is enabled by phonemic awareness and grapheme-phoneme knowledge.

As our Monster Mappers demonstrate, OM support for reading words without conscious effort is facilitated when learners are taught about the articulatory features of phonemes, and when grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught with visual markers, such as sound-symbol-embedded mnemonics. Although research has shown improved learning of initial correspondence using picture-embedded mnemonics (e.g., an apple on the letter 'a'), this is not an effective long-term solution for understanding English and its opaque orthography. 

Furthermore, children with poor phonemic awareness—who find it challenging to isolate sounds within words—need visuals for sounds that do not introduce additional cognitive challenges. Relying on picture mnemonics, such as an image of an ant, assumes a child will make the connection to the sound /æ/, which may not be intuitive for all. This is especially true if the child does not recognise the picture or has learned a different phoneme for the object depicted due to regional pronunciations. For instance, what is identified as an 'ant' in one dialect may be pronounced distinctly in another, leading to confusion.

“Education materials and practices cannot assume all students talk in a certain way or share the same experiences or background knowledge, as such assumptions are not valid and make learning difficult” (Seidenberg, 2022) Phoneme characters that are explicitly designed to represent specific sounds provide a more direct and accessible route to understanding, helping to minimise cognitive load and support the development of reading skills.

Vocabulary learning is facilitated when speech sounds and visually marked graphemes accompany the pronunciations and meanings of new words to activate OM. Teaching students the strategy of pronouncing novel words aloud as they read text activates OM and helps them build their vocabularies. Because spelling-sound connections are retained in memory, they affect the processing of phonological constituents and phonological memory for words.

“While there are commercially available programs that use mnemonics, many are unlikely to be successful because there are too many associations to remember, and the associations are not personally relevant” (Shmidman & Ehri, 2010).

Moreover, mnemonics that present information that is too complex, lacks relevance or provides insufficient sensory stimulation will be more difficult to learn (Sousa, 2006).

The IPA-aligned characters allow us to fill the learning gap for children who traditionally have to learn print-to-speech in the UK, i.e., they are shown graphemes and told it maps to a speech sound, e.g., /a/ - æ as in "ant". The issue is that English has an opaque orthography, and the letter /a/ as a single-letter grapheme can map to at least 9 different speech sounds (phonemes). Teachers cannot explicitly teach them all.

The DfE directs those writing programs they validate (systematic synthetic phonics programs, SSP) to start by introducing a group of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences, e.g., s = /s/, a = /æ/, t = /t/, p = /p/, i = /ɪ/, n = /n/, and to hold back on words with grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences they haven't learnt, e.g., words they call 'exception' words like 'said'. The children will learn /e/ for but not be taught /ai/ for the same phoneme, and they may learn /ea/ as in "head" but not the other 9. And herein lies the issue - there are over 44 phonemes and at least 350 ways to represent them. So, when learning /e/ for ɛ as in "end", they will also need to know that /e/ can map to other phonemes, e.g., dɪˈmænd.


When learning phonics in England, they only learn 100, and are tested on those 100. To become a skilled reader, they need to store words in the orthographic lexicon, which means understanding the word sounds (phonemes), spelling (graphemes), and meaning. It is unsurprising to me that even if 100% of children pass the PSC, they have so much more to learn in order to read and spell, and why we need to be looking less at how many pass the PSC and more at why 1 in 4 can't read at minimum levels by the end of primary school. As I am so worried about the way children are being taught phonics in England, in a whole class setting, I am supporting parents of children under 3 - to understand their brains, and to accelerate learning for THEIR child, and not need to hope for the best when they start school.

With the phoneme characters, children can learn about reading and writing - left to right, blending sounds, 'finger space', homophones, etc., by going speech to print. They can decode and encode (spell) in speech sound monsters, and all that is different is that they do not have to figure out the opaque orthography - it's SHOWN to them.

So, a 2-year-old can see sɔː and know how to pronounce the word (sounds) and its meaning (sore - I have a sore knee) and saw (I saw the sharp saw) and be shown the different sound pic (grapheme).


They can still explicitly learn a group of phoneme-to-grapheme correspondences - but rather than s = /s/, a = /æ/, t = /t/, p = /p/, i = /ɪ/, n = /n/, they are going the other way around - for example, here is monster s - who says /s/ - and the picture of the sound in this word 'sat' is /s/, here is monster æ who says /æ/ - and the picture of the sound in this word 'sat' is æ, here is monster t - who says /t/ - and the picture of the sound in this word 'sat' is /t/, here is monster /p/ who says 'p' and the picture of the sound in this word 'pan' is /p/, here is monster ɪ who says /ɪ/ and the picture of the sound in this word 'pin' is ɪ, here is the monster /n/ and the picture of the sound in this word 'pin' is /n/. We can then build over 20 words, but the speech sound to sound pic connection is secure, and if the child has difficulties isolating, segmenting, and blending the speech sounds, they have a visual that links with the graphemes, making it easier to track and learn. Otherwise, they have to rely on memory - what is the phoneme?

Learning an action, e.g., a snake when looking at s is short-sighted as the letter /s/ will soon be shown as mapping with a different sound - which is easy to understand when shown by a phoneme character. So, the monsters reduce cognitive load and directly address phoneme awareness deficits. The monsters allow non-speaking children to show the sounds they can't articulate. They also allow us to more easily introduce high-frequency words - regardless of the graphemes - and build even better sentences, and more easily read code-level readers - see Braintree Forest Readers in the ICRWY lessons app.

So by the end of the SSP Purple Code Level, the children can actually start the 1,2,3 and away books - because they can see the monsters. They are learning the same content as children in UK KS1 classrooms - following the GPC order seen in synthetic phonics programs, but with more of the information needed by the children who struggle to learn phonics that way. ALL children get a boost - are able to learn more quickly - and can have finished the content - and be able to read and spell over 400 'exception' words before the end of Reception. Especially if parents are sent the resources!

Detecting a pattern within a sequence of ordered units is a cognitive ability that is important in learning and influential in learning to read. 
However, the traditionally slow pace of phonics skill introduction makes this extremely difficult. This is because the individual letter sounds that beginning readers do know often appear contradictory to the sounds they observe letters making in words they encounter across the day. The way we introduce word mapping overcomes this issue. 

So not only do we ensure that the 20% of children who fail - across the country - to read by year 7 - we get ALL reading well before the end of KS1. The reason the children are struggling becomes easy to see because the monsters are used in place of IPA characters. And the teachers learn so much more about English orthography while using them.

The monsters show us which teachers of phonics aren't correctly mapping words. This is such an issue there is a new support group - teachers only know what they know. Most have never been told about Orthographic Interference and how this can impact on their ability to support children who are learning to read and spell. If they are 'blinded by the letters' when supporting children - e.g., they do not switch the monsters on the grapheme /s/ for the word /is/, they are potentially going to slow down the learning of the children in their classrooms. The Level 1 award seeks to address that and build a growing number of teachers who can quickly and confidently map words for children - teaching the alphabetic principle anywhere in the world. Part of this involves exploring how the way we speak differs not only because of accents but the way in which we use words - and how that links with word mapping/orthographic mapping.

The monsters offer a versatile learning tool, with their application tailored to the unique needs of each child. Children develop an emotional connection to these characters, who come alive with their distinct music and movements, becoming easily identifiable as the children navigate through the Speech Sound (Spelling) Clouds. These Clouds serve as repositories for all the monster sounds' visual representations. The Speech Sound Wall, in turn, lays out the entirety of the code in a visible and accessible manner. This immersive approach ensures that children are fully engaged and become enthusiastic about their learning journey.

Music can work as a mnemonic to help facilitate recall (Lehmann & Seufert, 2018). Aniruddh D. Patel, Ph.D., a scientist at the Neurosciences Institute in California, theorises that rhythm and song, which are inherently predictable, may create a “supra-linguistic” structure that helps cue what is coming next in an utterance.

Muscle memory, or motor learning, operates beyond conscious awareness. It's a distinct memory system that functions separately from our higher-level cognitive processes, consolidating specific motor tasks through repetition without the need for conscious thought (Oxford University, 2017; Asher, 2012). As a task is practiced repeatedly, muscle memory for that action develops, enabling execution with minimal conscious effort.

The brain is a natural puzzle solver and releases endorphins when we solve a problem (Tik et al. 2018). It loves to find patterns and figure things out, and it is wired to reward us for our efforts. So, as children explore the code— noticing, comparing, and applying phonic patterns—their brain can reward them for their efforts (Dweck 2017)

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that organises and interprets information, enabling us to efficiently process large volumes of data by taking mental shortcuts (McLeod, 2023). Schemas can play an important role in the learning process: they influence what is paid attention to and how incoming information is interpreted. We learn information more quickly and easily when it fits in within our existing schemas. Schemas help us to simplify and make sense of things, so as to be able to classify and categorise new information by comparing it to what we already know. Schemas can help learners assimilate new information automatically, allowing them to think more quickly. The Spelling Routine evokes discussions about meaning in addition to connecting the sounds and spelling! We hear how they connect information using their real-world experiences.

Eliciting emotional arousal improves the odds that listeners will engage with the material (Morris et al., 2019).  Words that relate to the children personally have the power to transform students’ thinking about information they might otherwise think is boring, hard, or not important to their lives. (Immorindo-Yang, 2017).

“The external stimuli that make it past the brain’s mental filters tend to be of two varieties: those that stir emotions and those that arouse curiosity (typically in that order). Our brains default to ignoring almost everything else” (Goodwin, Gibson, Ruleau 2020).

 Research indicates that both body and mind hold memories, with some learners showing a greater affinity for physical memory (Asher, 2012). This phenomenon is particularly evident in very young children, whose cognitive processing capabilities are still developing: muscle memory, therefore, offers a quicker, more reliable method for recalling skills (Williams, 2017).

When learners engage in Monster Mapping Words, they are essentially using schemas to visually associate sounds with graphemes, facilitating a deeper understanding of language components. The technique of 'Map and Drag' further aids students in integrating new information into existing cognitive schemas, thereby streamlining the learning process towards automation. This approach not only simplifies the acquisition of new knowledge but also accelerates the development of automaticity in reading and writing skills by leveraging our innate ability to categorise and relate information through schemas.

“It is neurobiologically impossible for children to think deeply about things they don’t care about” 
“Our brains are wired to make connections, and it’s easier to learn and store information when there is a familiar hook to hang it on. That hook is background knowledge, which includes the human experiences and emotions that we all share” 
“When students find the right connections, they will learn. They won’t be able to help themselves”
(Immordino-Yang, 2017).



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