Q: How does your system of reading work?

A: Sounds First Reading System, which I call a linguistic approach to teaching reading, provides an alternative code that allows a reliable pronunciation of English words. This code serves as an aid to learn how to read words.

Once the word is known, the aid is no longer needed.

The code is a phonemic respelling, similar to those that are in the dictionary that are designed to explain pronunciation. Those codes, or the international phonemic alphabet codes, represent speech sounds. SFRS also represents speech sounds. However, with SFRS, the speech sounds use a spelling of the speech sound from our alphabetic code. The code is written in color, primarily green, and appears over words that do not follow it. Words that do not have a code above them can be reliably decoded using the same code.

English is difficult to read because our alphabetic code does not easily translate into speech sounds. In fact, according to an article in Nature Neuroscience, the 41 speech sounds have over 1,100 different spellings, making English one of the most difficult languages to read. Instruction in phonics can further inform spellings, to do so requires many rules, all of which are heavily language based.

The difficulty of decoding English led to a parallel with languages that are characters. Mandarin Chinese is taught using a phonemic code called Pinyan. Children first learn this code, which provides a roman characters to represent each speech sound. Once they have the code, the children learn to pronounce the characters. Once they know the characters, they no longer need to use the Pinyan code. This is the underlying theory behind SFRS.

SFRS assigns one spelling to each of the speech sounds. The spellings were chosen as the most common self-contained sounds. Therefore the first 23 sounds are one letter. This works well because most of them are taught in kindergarten and 1st grade. They are as follows: a as in apple, b as in bat, d as in dog, e as in egg, f as in foot, g as in goat, h as in hat, i as in itch, j as in jump, k as in kite, l as in leg, m as in mop, n as in net, o as in October, p as in pig, r as in rock, s as in sock, t as in top, u as in up, v as in vest, w as in wig, y as in yell, z as in zip.

You may notice there are three letters in the alphabet not represented here. The x and q are not represented because they do not spell unique speech sounds but sound blends. The letter x most commonly spells a blend of k and s. The letter q, which is accompanied by a u, most commonly spells a blend of k and w. These two letters are not represented in the code.

The letter c is represented but only in the ch sound. As a single letter it most commonly represents the k sound as in cat or s sound as in cyst. These sounds are better represented by the other letters because they are both more consistent in simple words.

At this point most of the sounds addressed in basic phonics have been covered. In kindergarten, at least here in Indiana, a child is taught these pronunciations. They will also be taught the c, q and x with little explanation of the overlap. The difficulty of course is that this represents just over half of the speech sounds and if a child tries to use these spellings to decode words, they will find it inadequate.

To rectify this children are given some more phonics instruction. Children are taught the difference between consonant sounds and vowel sounds. Then they are taught short vowel sounds versus long vowel sounds. Children are then taught terms like digraphs and diphthongs. In fact, defining these words is part of the I Read test in Indiana that children are required to pass in order to be promoted to 4th grade. However, these are inadequate to lead to reading for a large percent of children. Along with these, children are taught what are thought of as common rules, most of which have numerous exceptions. This additional phonics instruction generally only adds 8 more sounds (ch, sh, th, ai, ee, igh, oa, ng). Most of the rules are to inform multiple spellings of these same sounds.

SFRS avoids complex labels and any rules. In addition to the 23 one letter sounds, listed above, there are 17 two letter sounds: ai as in aid, ee as in see, oa as in oat, ch as in chimp, sh as in shell, th as in thin, ng as in hang, ar as in car, er as in her, or as in or, au as in haul, oo as in oops, ou as in out, oi as in oil, oo as in look, th as in that, and si as in vision. The last three are written in red, rather than green. They are red to indicate that they are second spellings.

One speech sound is spelled with three letters; igh as in high. This was chosen because it is the most common, self-contained spelling of that sound. It was a difficult choice but in the end, I believe it was a good choice. The other spellings of the sound like ie as in tied, are more commonly pronounced differently, such as in priest, field, brief. One of the primary points in creating this code was so that children did not have to relearn but any other learning would build on what is in the code. By using actual spellings of the sounds, they are recognizing them in real words.

From this, I conceive a spelling program can continue to teach other spelling patterns for the sounds. A curriculum for this instruction is being developed. But children will already be reading.

Above is the theoretical basis for SFRS. In addition, the system includes a practical sequence with tools for introducing the sounds and building skills for blending the sounds. The materials can be used for first time readers as well as children (or adults) who have failed to acquire reading in general education.

In both cases, it begins with what a child knows. The first lesson includes a visual drill, first of the one letter sounds (and multi-letter sounds for older children). Those that the child knows the sounds for become the beginning deck. From that point new sounds are introduced in subsequent lessons.

Non-readers must then be taught to blend sounds. This is the most difficult teaching task. There are videos demonstrating these strategies in the teaching materials. Children are taught to say the sounds. Then, after learning a few they are taught to put them together; initially two, and then three, and recognize a word. Then they can move to word segments. While this must be done initially in individual words, it is ongoing in reading materials as students encounter unknown words. Once a child decodes a word, it becomes easier when it is encountered in subsequent text until they recognize it and no longer have to decode it.

While a student is learning sounds it is important that they are only decoding words that include sounds they know. A strategy I often implore when a word includes sounds the child does not know is to give the unknown sound and allow the child to blend it. All of the instruction is out loud and therefore the unknown sound can be inserted at the correct moment for the student. Otherwise, it would be appropriate to give the child the entire word.

The reading material in the beginning kit is sequenced to first include words that are predominantly made up of one letter sounds and have three and four sounds. As the books progress the words get larger and include more two letter sounds. All of the reading includes some sounds the child does not know. However, often a child can read a word with some unknown words. This is based on some level of incidental learning and word recognition. Pictures are used to reinforce the reader. Content is also used to reinforce reading. The primary instruction is based on the actual act of reading with accuracy and understanding. The pace is determined by the student’s progress.

Most students I have worked with only use this method for reading instruction but universally, my students report finding other reading improved. All of the testing is done with regular text and it demonstrates improvement. This methodology is in its infancy, but it is based on sound theory and research.

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Let me introduce myself and share my background. My journey has many dimensions. I am an individual with a diagnosed learning disability. I am the mother of three, now adult, children who have diagnosed learning disabilities. I am, as a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham, an expert in the instruction of phonics and ran a tutoring center for 7 years. I am a licensed School Psychologist in the State of Indiana and have worked for ten years in that capacity in schools. I have a PhD in School Psychology and am a member of the American Psychological Association. I am the inventor of Sounds First Reading System and have worked developing that tool over the past 10 years.

As a child I struggled with reading. I have a memory of not knowing how to read. When I learned to read, sometime in the 4th grade, it was limited. I was and am a very slow reader. I could not reliably decode words. Except for reading novels, which I enjoyed, I avoided reading. Reading was not a good tool for me to learn. Thankfully, I was able to get through school, including college, doing little to no reading for most of my courses. In college the best I could manage was reading the first sentence of each paragraph. I felt like a cheat, and would not have admitted it at the time. I never finished any timed tests but was often able to squeak by with barely passing grades. But I got through it. When I was in school there was no broad understanding of a reading disability. I simply saw myself as inadequate, but, I thank God, I was generally resilient.

When I left college I did not look back. School was what one had to do. I had benefited from education, I was just not very good at it. I did not worry about it until one day, when I was 37 years old, my son’s kindergarten teacher expressed concern about his lack of progress in reading. That was the day my life shifted, although as with most things, I did not know it at the time.

As it turned out my son had dyslexia (a learning disability involving decoding, reading rate and spelling skills). He was tested, thanks to that vigilant teacher, during the summer after his kindergarten year. Testing revealed, even at that early age, a clear discrepancy between his cognitive skills and aspects of achievement. No doubt. But, as a parent these numbers were meaningless to me. I had to rely exclusively on the advice of others.

At the time my son was diagnosed, my husband felt called to Ministry. We moved from Chicago, Illinois to Richmond, Indiana. We were in a new community. I left behind a career in Social Services. From that point on, although I had not planned it, my life work has been in the field of Special Education. While in Richmond I met Phyllis Hutson who became my mentor. She was a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham and she provided tutoring to all three of my children. During the three years we lived in Richmond it became apparent all three of my children had learning differences that met criteria for specific learning disabilities and qualified them for Special Education Services. Also while in Richmond, I took advantage of the opportunity to learn multi-sensory phonics from Phyllis.

We moved to Greenfield Indiana, which would be our home for the next 15 years. In those years I learned much through the hard knocks of parenting children with learning differences. Each of my children were bright, enthusiastic learners who, unfortunately, did not quite fit the mold to be a “good student.” In my struggles we were forced to request an educational hearing for each of our children. That was a terrible strain.

Also while in Greenfield, I became the Director of the Indianapolis 32° Masonic Learning Center for Children. This center, run by the Scottish Rite, gave free tutoring to children with dyslexia. While doing this I decided to return to school. I was admitted into the School Psychology program at Ball State University. Really I did not know what I was getting myself into, but I knew I wanted more formal education. Over the years of working with my children, it became clear to me that they had gotten their learning differences from their mother. I reflected back on my education and saw all the signs. It was when I went back to school and recognized that I could not go through this difficult program without acknowledging my own challenges that I was evaluated. And it was no surprise to me, I had dyslexia.

Again I was blessed. At Ball State, through the disability services, I was introduced to Kurzweil, a premier text reading software. Kurzweil reads text while tracking it. With Kurzweil I would read 400 words a minute and not become tired. In graduate school, for the first time in my life, I could use reading to learn. And reading the material makes school a whole lot easier.

Also at this time, myself and two mothers were working to open a school in Indianapolis, for children with language based learning differences. My son, who went to a boarding school in Massachusetts for two years, was able to come home and attend school at the Hutson School. Which opened on the first day I started graduate school.

I went on to earn a PhD in School Psychology from Ball State University, but it took 10 years. The challenge was not getting through the course work, it was what happened while I was researching for my dissertation proposal that I got held up. I knew I wanted to do some kind of study to support the efficacy of the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading. I just didn’t know what. So I was reading, using Kurzweil, for hours and hours about many theories of reading pedagogy. As I clicked from academic article to article, I drifted into topics of linguistics and concepts of language transparency (how clear is a code; does one symbol represent one sound?) when I had an “ah ha

moment.” It stuck me, after learning about how people in China are taught to read and speak Mandarin Chinese at the same time using a phonetic code, that such a code could be used to make English transparent. That night I realized the concept that became Sounds First Reading System.

In the end, after six years of development and an initial trial, I wrote my dissertation comparing Sounds First Reading System to an Orton-Gillingham approach. This research, which is available here, was based on the first students to receive SFRS as an intervention over the course of one year. It compared their progress in that year to the progress they made the year before using Orton-Gillingham, and comparing them to progress a matched set made exclusively using Orton-Gillingham over two years. At that time, all materials were hand coded. The results of the study were promising.

The following year I approached a friend, Bill Hodson, a computer programmer, to create a program that would be able to rapidly put coded text over regular English. He did so in a remarkable rapid time by adapting text to speech software. An interesting out come to this was that I learned that there were not 42 sounds in English, as I had argued in my dissertation, but 41. I had used the sound commonly known as the long u sound. But in fact, that is a blend of two sounds y and oo. Therefore, if you read my dissertation, it is inaccurate on that point.

In 2015 my husband and I moved to Evansville Indiana. Another new home. Since being here I have worked with a wide range of children developing the materials to teach SFRS. These materials are designed for teaching children of any age. The art work and many of the stories are taken from works that are in public domain. Besides the practical reason of avoiding costs, these materials are unique and therefore interesting even for older children. With the publication of the first set of 80 books, comes an opportunity to put SFRS into the hands of parents and teachers. The concept addresses the fundamental flaw in our code. It is a tool I hope to continue to develop as people share their experiences with me.

This code serves as an aid

to learn how to read words.


 Once the word is known,

the aid is no longer needed.