True Phonics System


The dove dove!

I read that somewhere… or did I read that wrong? English is very tricky. It is in a league of its own, a language where the printed word doesn’t tell you what sound to make.

The problem is enormous. There are 8 different ways the letter “A” must be pronounced, yet only one way to write it. The most common pronunciation of an “E” is to not pronounce it at all. It’s hard to explain to a child that the “C” in Ocean sounds like “SH”, in Cello sounds like “CH”, is silent in Yacht, is an “S” in Race, and a good old “C” in Cook. Not Chef, just Cook.

While the above is amusing to a literate adult, for a child, it creates a hopeless web of confusion. What they think they know proves wrong more often than it proves right. Children simply can not succeed in sounding out words on their own, because reading English is a story of countless exceptions to every rule.

Introducing a New System

The True Phonics System (“TPS”) introduces an expanded alphabet that allows English to be read easily, from left to right, without error and without exception. Every letter in the TPS is presented with marks (we call them “reading tips”) to indicate what sound the letter should make. Every time you see this letter with this mark, you know what to do. This consistency creates the ability for positive reinforcement, which leads to reading success.

An Ā is always the Ā in Āpe, never the  in Âut

Most reading systems rely on at least 50-100 power words, learned through rote memorization. If instead we teach 49 Building Blocks, a child would be able to decode, by themselves, over 32,000 words. They become able to learn from reading, instead of needing to learn to read.

Our Foundations

Since the original publication in 1986, Gough and Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading has grown in popularity as a proven framework for understanding literacy development. This model explains that:

Reading Comprehension (RC) = Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC)

In addition, we posit that for all healthy, young children:

Decoding (D) < Language Comprehension (LC)

At the limit of the Simple View equation (when a child’s decoding skills are zero) gains in Language Comprehension yield no gains in Reading Comprehension. Put another way, the youngest children can communicate, but can not read. For early learners, to achieve significant Reading Comprehension gains, we must therefore focus on improving Decoding skills. 

Decoding itself can be thought of as a combination of two equally important systems: 

  1. Rules System: Learning and applying a set of rules that govern the pronunciation of words
  2. Exception System: Memorizing and identifying the exceptions to those rules

Typical phonics instruction involves teaching children this series of rules: the common pronunciations for vowels and consonants, blended sounds such as TH and SH, various word-parts such as TION and ER, and various rules such as CVCe (consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e). 

Yet for children’s literature, we posit that this type of Rules System instruction is inadequate, due to the preponderance of exceptions in our written language. In a recent survey of the top 10 best-selling children’s books, 85% of written words contain a decoding exception. 

The exception is, quite often, more common than the rule. The most common “E” sound is not in Elephant, it is the silent “E” in time. The underlying challenge is the Phoneme-Grapheme correspondence in English. While English is commonly understood to have forty-four distinct phonemes (sounds), these sounds are created by as many as 240 combinations of graphemes (letters). There are no visual cues explaining these combinations to the reader. The letter “A” in Ant and Ape looks the same.

From the child’s perspective, decoding letter by letter rarely, if ever, yields a known result in the child’s vocabulary. This is true even when the word is known by the child. The lack of success leads to boredom and frustration, which in turn reduce the likelihood of continued practice.

There is not enough progress.
Despite our improved understanding of the young mind and how it learns to read, there has been little if any progress in closing the broad literacy gaps which plague our country on both economic and ethnic dimensions. These gaps emerge early and persist for a lifetime. Remediation is extremely rare on an individual level. When it does occur, too often success is tied to programs, tools, technology and individualized instruction that have proven too expensive to be applied at scale to address the underlying societal challenge. The challenge of improving literacy in America’s youth remains fundamental and unsolved.

Fundamentals of the True Phonics System

The True Phonics System (“TPS”) was invented to dramatically simplify Decoding of English, by creating a set of Graphemes that yield a single, consistent Phoneme. The True Phonics System orthography is rooted firmly in the standard Latin alphabet, applying various marks to characters so that their proper pronunciation is clear. Applying TPS allows written English to be decoded without error and without exception. TPS has significant applications in numerous literacy programs including early childhood education, literacy remediation, and ESL. 

Building Blocks

In order to enable Decoding without error, TPS introduces an extended alphabet comprised of 62 Graphemes. In addition, “silent” Graphemes are introduced for those cases where a letter is not pronounced. Collectively, these are known as the Building Blocks of the True Phonics System.

Building Blocks were designed under several constraints:

  • Minimal Change: Building Blocks must be visually unique, but still closely resemble their alphabetical origin. This is critical in order for readers of TPS to develop an accurate “word picture”, which can be sight read correctly in either TPS or traditional written English. 
  • Minimal Count: The total number of Blocks should be minimized to improve learnability. This often led to the collapsing of various IPA pronunciations, in particular when the non-traditional grapheme is creating this phoneme (such as an “A” creating common “E” sounds).
  • Easily Reproducible: The fonts and language-accessibility features native to modern computers are deeply ingrained into their operating systems. In order for TPS to be widely adopted, the Blocks must be accessible on any device.

Font Design

In order to achieve the Minimal Change objective, a specific font was developed in which various marks are included in a way that does not distract from the overall “picture” of the word. 

In addition, the font is designed to be more readable in several ways:

  • Digraph Connections: Connections between letter sets like SH, TH, and CH are made visible in the font via an underline
  • Ease of Writing: The font leverages easy to write versions of several letters, in particular adopting the elementary school single-story design for the letter a and simplified g and q. 
  • Confusion Protection: Maximum attention was paid to the ilj and bdpq letter sets, to ensure uniqueness and readability. 
  • Size and Spacing: The ratio of lower-case to upper-case heights, overall letter kerning, letter-pair kerning, word spacing, and line spacing were designed to improve legibility.

TPS Dictionary

The TPS dictionary includes over 125,000 English words transcribed into the TPS Orthography. This transcription allows for these words to be pronounced exactly as they are written, while reading from left to right, without exception.

Systematic Introduction

TPS is intended to be introduced systematically to young readers, in a tiered system that incorporates 10 Levels. Each level includes a set of Building Blocks for the student to learn. Structuring TPS into Levels allows for Level-appropriate content to be created, which relies on a set of known Building Blocks for the child. This systematic approach is designed so that a child will only be exposed to words that are “True Phonics” based on the Blocks that the child has already mastered. 

The first level of the TPS has a simple mnemonic device created to enable parents to apply the system at home: IMPACT. When teaching your children to read, start here, with these six letters, pronounced exactly as they are in the word. MIT, MAT, CAT, PAT, PIT, ACT, TIP, TAP, TIM. Tap Tim. Tap Pat. Pat a Cat. Act. Act now.


The biggest ideas challenge assumptions so foundational we didn’t even know they were there. We want to see the alphabet change. We want it to follow rules, to be more fair, to be easier for our kids. We want reading to open doors. We believe that the True Phonics System does exactly that. Help us prove it.

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