Research and Evidence

Why does Smart Kids Letters and Sounds work?

The answer is simple, but very important. Smart Kids Letters and Sounds reflects the latest evidence-based understanding of how children learn. What's the research? We strongly recommend these two books by neuroscientist Dr Duncan Milne and Stanislas Dehaene:

  1. Teaching the Brain to Read (Smart Kids, 2005)
  2. Reading in the Brain (Penguin Books, 2010)
  3. How We Learn (Penguin Books, 2021)

These are particularly useful because they give a detailed background and a clear summary of the latest thinking on how children learn, based on evidence from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and educational research.


Learning to read

Neurological research has identified an area of the brain dedicated to the process of reading which Dehaene calls ‘the letterbox’. This area is not operational from birth; rather, the neurological pathways are established as we learn the connections between letters and sounds. These pathways and activation of ‘the letterbox’ provide the basis for automatic word recognition and fluent reading.

Reading is complex: it is more than just word recognition. Comprehension plays a vital role in reading too. Comprehension starts with our understanding of oral language and develops rapidly on the back of word and sentence reading.

Both of these are strong reasons for children learning to build words from their letter-sound components at an early age, when their brains are at their most plastic. Smart Kids Letters and Sounds is firmly based on these principles.

How we learn

Effective learning is dependent not only on what is learned, but on how it is learned. Dehaene identifies four ‘pillars of learning’. These are simple ideas in themselves, but they form the basis of understanding that unites education with neuroscience and leads to the most effective learning.

These four pillars are central to the resources and teaching approach of Smart Kids Letters and Sounds.

1. Focused attention

Preferably for short periods, regularly and frequently repeated.

Our short, daily lessons achieve precisely this focus on what needs to be learned, without extraneous distracting activity. Teachers maintain focused engagement using the exactly matched and engaging resources.

Each lesson gets to the true understanding of the purpose of the learning, not as chanted ‘learning objectives’ written up on a whiteboard, but by children knowing that each new sound learned means that they can read more words.

This is immediately demonstrated through reading words and sentences in the lesson, and applied in fully decodable reading books.

2. Active engagement

Continual expectation of children in chorus and individual oral response

Dehaene is clear that active engagement does not mean children are left to find out things for themselves, nor that there are involved in poorly focused activities. During Smart Kids lessons, active engagement is achieved through the continual expectation of children in chorus and individual oral response. This is immediately followed up by the activity of reading and writing words and sentences to apply new sounds learned as well as to practise previously learned ones.

Further active application comes in regular reading practice sessions with decodable books, demonstrating to children themselves their rapidly growing ability to read.

3. Error feedback

Errors are best countered by a teacher modelling the correct response.

Learners need errors corrected so that they can continually adjust and improve the mental model they are constructing. However, this needs to be achieved without the disincentive of overtly negative response or the creation of a fear of failure. In letter-sound (GPC) learning and in word reading, errors are best countered by a teacher modelling the correct response, encouraging the child to repeat this, and so providing the correction without any negativity.

This approach is central to our pedagogy. It is supported in our materials, picture mnemonics and word cards with sound buttons provide the opportunity to quickly go back to secure learning as a way of correcting errors in a positively encouraging way.

4. Practice and consolidation

Small items of learning are practised and repeated many times.

This repeated practice in our lessons is an essential element of committing learning to memory. Learning is also revisited frequently, both discretely and through direct and immediate application with continuous revision and consolidation in every lesson.

Learning is also regularly practised and consolidated through application in reading practice sessions with decodable books, in writing sessions, and with further opportunities encouraged throughout the school day.

In conclusion

Smart Kids Letters and Sounds provides all the planning, resources and support needed. Our pedagogy ensures optimum learning for the maximum number of children. Taught with fidelity, in parallel to the committed development of vocabulary and comprehension, and in a context that embraces Reading for Pleasure, it can provide reading success for all children, regardless of their background.