Tag Archives: phonics

Reading books for beginners

I’ve been looking at (and writing) phonics and other beginner books for learning to read and wanted to make a few notes here.

Most systematic controlled beginner reading books are based on phonics, slowly introducing the different letter-sound combinations in the English language. (I say English, as I haven’t looked thoroughly or found books for other languages). There is more than one systematic phonics system out there, starting with slightly different sets of letters and words, but they all achieve a similar goal of gently and methodically introducing children (and sometimes illiterate adults) to the skill of reading.

Amongst some interesting innovations I have seen are the book Cat and Rat by Doug Oglesby, Melinda Thompson, and Melissa Ferrell. This book tells the story, which is well indicated by the illustrations, first with pictures only (where the child tells the story in their own words), then by gradually adding more words each read. Designed by the authors to help a child with reading difficulties, it is no doubt useful for many in the same situation.

A second innovative book series I have seen are published by Usborne. I read Pirate Pat by Mairi Mackinnon, which is a book that allows a child to read with an adult, with each taking a page in turn. The child would be able to handle their pages after only two weeks of Phase 2 in the Letters & Sounds phonics system plus the word “I”. The alternating pages approach allows a more complicated story to be told than possible with the letters s a t p i n m d constrained to words of up to three letters in length.

Most other phonics readers start with stories that are told via the illustrations, but with captions or short sentences that are possible with the highly constrained set of words and letters. As a result, one ends up with variations on “The cat sat on the mat” (for which the earliest reference I have found is 1863), many stories being OK, but some being clever. Stories get a bit easier to write by the end of Phase 3. The constraints tend to continue in that authors try to ensure enough repetition of the target letter-sounds (grapheme-phonemes) of the stage, such as “A win at the well”, a story written to introduce “w”.

For all these beginner readers, it is crucial to have attractive illustrations and some narrative. After all, we want beginners to be motivated to read more.

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Phonics readers and the birth of Rod the Red Rat

I’ve been looking at and writing phonics readers lately. These are beginner reading books that either use a small vocabulary of letters and sounds, or are simply written, with a focus on a set of letters and sounds.

One of the popular systems out there is called Letter & Sounds, which has widespread use in the UK. It famously starts by introducing the letters s a t p i n, or satpin. The programme is quite comprehensive, adding different grapheme-phoneme pairs – such as “ch” pronounced as in “church” – one at a time over many months.

Systematic phonics has been shown to be highly effective in getting children reading, and that it is most effective when done right from the start, but the ideal system is not clear. One research group suggests that teaching a combination of decoding and recognising words by sight as two strategies for reading is superior than purely focusing on phonics.

The origins of satpin were recently written about by Cochrane and Brooks (2022), who found that it can be traced back to the 1960s and was selected based on a number of criteria including initially avoiding pairs of sounds and letters that might be confused, sticking to one sound (phoneme) for each letter/grapheme, and ensuring a large set of simple short words can be written from a small set of letters/grapheme-phonemes.

The original research that the set of six letters was derived from was based on American English pronunciation. There are separate analyses for British standard English, such as one by Gontijo et al.(2003). These would also be useful for Australian and New Zealand English.

Before discovering all this, my initial approach was to look at letter, bigram and word frequencies, in descending frequency order (as a percentage of text), see what words could be created, then attempt to create stories. Through this process Rod the Red Rat was born, which has inspired my series of phonics readers, the first of which should be published soon.