The Six Essential Skills

What are we looking for in an 'evidence based' program? 


Drawing from the seminal work of the National Reading Panel on evidence-based reading instruction in Grades K–12,4 the International Reading Association (IRA) defined evidence based instruction as a program or instructional practice that is derived from rigorous research and has demonstrated a record of success. There is reliable, trustworthy, and valid evidence to suggest that when this instruction is used with a particular group of children, the children can be expected to make adequate gains in

reading achievement.
Sometimes the terms “research-based instruction” or “scientifically based research” can be used to express the same idea.( International Reading Association, 2002

​Evidence-based instruction is an instructional approach, practice, or methodology that is derived from evidence. Such evidence is often a derivative of empirical research, resulting in reliable, trustworthy, and valid substantiation suggesting that a program or practice is effective and that all proofs or facts that support such a program or practice are scientifically based. Professional wisdom, based on educators’ individual experiences and consensus, also provides a source of evidence.

It is VITAL that we do not dismiss approaches and programs used successfully by real teachers, simply because (although the activities are supported by research) there is no peer reviewed research. Keep asking questions! Keep open minded. Do not be mislead by those write lists of their 'approved' programs (many of those are currently being circulated by groups with a clear agenda) 

Claim after claim after claim, all under the apparent guise (or more accurately, the imaginative or hopeful guise) of science. Some of these claims seem highly unlikely to me, because existing research has already demonstrated them not to be true. Some of these claims could be right, but we won’t really know until studies are done. Ideas can’t be rejected out-of-hand just because of an absence of determining evidence. Perhaps, someday those claims will be transformed into the kind of research-based ideas that should be incorporated in our teaching.'
Shanahan - Have the Reading Wars Become Research Wars 

The Steps to Reading (& Spelling) Program is an evidence-based instructional approach.
However we already have data and evidence, from hundreds of teachers, that the activities could change the way children are taught, so that they read and spell earlier, and with less difficulties.

Revolutionary theories succeed when the new framework makes it possible to solve problems that stymied the previous intellectual regime. 

Following the regional hearings, the Panel considered, discussed, and debated several dozen possible topic areas and then settled on the following topics for intensive study:
• Alphabetics -
Phonemic Awareness Instruction - Phonics Instruction • Fluency • Comprehension - Vocabulary Instruction - Text Comprehension Instruction - Teacher Preparation and Comprehension Strategies Instruction • Teacher Education and Reading Instruction • Computer Technology and Reading Instruction

The National Reading Panel (2000) identified five essential components of reading instruction.
These are 'evidence-based strategies' according to the 
National Reading Panel’s report of 2000 and the National Early Literacy Panel Report of 2008

Similar National Inquiries took place in the UK and Australia 

What MUST teachers look for when choosing a program?

Phonemic Awareness


Phonics, taught systematically


Note the following:

One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards. That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter. Such programs disregard the fact that speech evolved at least 30,000 years before writing. Alphabetic writing was invented to represent speech; speech was not learned from reading.
Following the logic of history, we should teach awareness of the sound system (phonology) and anchor letters to it.


The print-to-sound (conventional phonics) approach leaves gaps, invites confusion, and creates inefficiencies. The first problem with such a system is its incompleteness; it typically teaches only part of the code. This is because instruction follows from the alphabet sequence and the sounds of its 26 letters.






This shows an overview of the essential elements (The Big Six Skills) in video form (Deslea Konza)

So, in addition to the 'Big Five' elements shown above, Oral Language is recognised as important in its own right.

Oral language lays the foundation for the reading and writing skills children will develop as they enter and progress through school. They will use oral language in all aspects of their education, in the classroom as they connect with their peers and teachers, and throughout their lives as they grow into adulthood. Having a solid foundation in oral language will help children become successful readers and strong communicators as well as build their confidence and overall sense of well-being.

The Steps are explicit;

Explicit instruction begins with direct instruction and includes guided practice with decreasing levels of support. In explicit instruction, the objective of the lesson is clear and teaching is intentional (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983; Archer & Hughes, 2011).

The Steps are systematic;

Systematic instruction provides a definite scope and sequence of skills from less complex to more complex and includes cumulative review. When instruction is systematic, nothing is left to chance; for example, all 44 phonemes are taught in a deliberate progression (NICHD 2000; Shaywitz, 2003; McCardle & Chhabra, 2004).

The Steps are engaging.


When students understand the purpose for the learning tasks, are provided opportunities for incremental steps of success, and see their own realities reflected in the curriculum, they see learning as relevant to their lives and are therefore more deeply engaged (Pressley, et al., 2001; Chopra, 1994; Jackson & Zmuda, 2014).

Early instruction matters;

A prevention-oriented approach is more effective than intervention. There are devastating educational, social, and emotional consequences of reading failure that can be prevented with effective early instruction (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Foorman, 2003; Torgesen, 2002). Higher levels of literacy are possible when students achieve basic reading skills early in their school careers (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1997). Although older students with reading difficulties can improve, the later the intervention, the longer it takes (Torgesen, 2002); also, many times the effects of remedial instruction may dissipate over time (Quirk & Schwanenflugel, 2004).

The instruction is intensive.

Instruction is data-driven and focused on essential skills. All students receive high-quality, evidence-aligned tier one instruction. Students at risk are identified early on and are provided with specific, targeted instruction; progress is monitored and adjusted continually (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Vaughn, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015).

See More about this on the main SSP web site  

This is useful information, from Shanahan. When you are shown an 'Approved' or 'Recommended' list of programs, consider this... 

Even official reports with lots of research input need such scrutiny. Such documents often start out with research-supported assertions but devolve into more questionable claims. It is hard for readers who don’t already know the literature to separate wheat from chaff. Each of the contentions is supported by impressive looking references and citations; only those in the know or who have the time and resources to check it out can tell the difference between those cites of relevant empirical studies and those that are no more than opinion pieces or research only tangentially related to the claim.


As serious — and intense — as these literacy arguments may be, the governance issues may be even more important.

Educators must have ways of adjudicating curricular disputes without setting everyone’s hair on fire. And, school administrators, who too often buy into the shiniest new object, have to be able to protect themselves from bad choices.

When people make claims about what works in reading, they shouldn’t be allowed to win the argument without convincing evidence that their scheme has worked. That means that two measurably-equivalent groups of kids should have been taught — one with the usual approach and one with the “great new idea.” At the end of the day, the great-new-idea group should be successful before we decide that it really is a great idea.

And, because of the diversity of learners and instructional circumstances, more such studies are better than fewer and studies with kids who are like the ones we teach are particularly valuable. Often, something can be made to work in one situation or with a particular group of learners, but the results can’t be replicated anywhere else. If someone tells me third-graders need a particular regime of instruction, I’d be a lot less skeptical if the support study hadn’t been carried out with the Ed Psych subject pool at the local university.

Remember that the kind of research evidence that I’m calling for only guarantees that an approach can be effective; not that it necessarily will be in your hands. Educational research reveals what’s possible, not what will always succeed. Positive research results point us in what should be the most promising directions, but instructional diligence, effort, and wisdom will still be needed if kids are going to be 21st century literate.


To date numerous schools have used the Speech Sound Pics Approach in one or more class, and not in the other/s. Teachers could compare, as Shanahan recommended. 'Action research' is is definitely worthy of consideration, and especially when teachers can compare their own data when they switch, as well as the differences between their new data and that of their colleagues.

A school in South Australia dropped a very popular synthetic phonics for SSP, after only 51% of their students passed the UK phonics test ; within 12 months 87% passed. The average across all primary intervention students (years 3 – 7) within 3 x 30 minute sessions each week has resulted in an impressive ‘effect size’ of 1.2 after 6 months. The school is a state (public) school with high levels of English as a Second Language learners. The school has been recognised by the South Australian education dept as being one of the ‘most improved’ with regards to NAPLAN testing (similar to UK SATS) Teacher questionnaires indicate that academic outcomes are the natural outcome to a far more cohesive, self-reflective and confident teaching team; united with a shared vision that centres around higher expectations for all learners. Teachers now have much higher expectations, and a better understanding of how to meet the needs of their students more effectively. So same, school, same learners, same teachers...different program. 

It can often be teachers who bring about this change, with even the most cautious and 'change averse' leaders finally agreeing to a school wide shift in pedagogy when mandated testing (eg NAPLAN) indicates significant improvements.  This teacher shared her experiences at a training workshop (QLD teacher) Teacher led 'action research' can be powerful, and sustainable (and aligns with Hattie's findings regarding collective teacher efficacy) 

Collective Teacher Efficacy is the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students. With an effect size of d=1.57 Collective Teacher Efficacy is strongly correlated with student achievement. This is John Hattie’s “new number one” influence.

  • Steps to Reading - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach

© 2020 Steps to Reading Program - Teaching Reading and Spelling in the Early Years - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach from Miss Emma, The Reading Whisperer 

Steps to Reading Program

Parents and EY Teachers please use this link to order a membership.