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.