When students can’t decode but can encode and vice versa.

when students can't decode

It’s a common complaint among teachers: “My students can read but their writing is terrible!” or “My students can’t decode but they can encode! I’m so frustrated!” If only we had a dollar for every time we heard this! The truth is, there’s a crucial balance missing in many classrooms – the balance between decoding and encoding.

Encoding and decoding are like two sides of the same coin when it comes to literacy instruction. They should be taught together, hand in hand, to ensure comprehensive literacy development in students.

Quite often, teachers who are following a phonics program, omit an activity due to time constraints or feeling that students have already ‘got it’. However, the encoding side of phonics is often the activity that is omitted, leading to an imbalance in the way students receive their phonics instruction. It’s important that teachers deliver a program with fidelity – including print to speech and speech to print practise.

Not only will combining encoding and decoding within our lessons help our students, but it will increase our efficacy as a teacher, making our job easier – win-win!

So, if we are seeing an imbalance in our students’ skills, what can we do to help our students improve both their encoding and decoding skills?

When students can’t encode or decode, assess Phonemic Awareness and Phonics:

Before diving into decoding and encoding instruction, it’s essential to assess students’ phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Tools like the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Assessment can provide valuable insights into students’ abilities in this area. Finding the gaps in student phonological awareness and phonics skills is crucial to addressing their needs.

When students can’t encode, try these encoding strategies:

  • Oral Segmenting and Blending: Encourage students to break words down into individual sounds orally before writing them. Similarly, practice blending sounds together orally to form words.
  • Use of Elkonin Boxes: Elkonin boxes provide a visual scaffold for segmenting words into phonemes. Students can move manipulatives or write letters in each box to represent the sounds they hear. My preference is for students to write with a pencil or on a whiteboard, especially when encoding is a weakness.
  • Dictation of Decodable Texts: Choose decodable texts that align with the phonics skills students are learning and dictate sentences or passages for them to write. This allows for immediate application of encoding skills within the context of reading. You can dictate phoneme/grapheme correspondences, words and sentences.
  • Formation of Letters/Handwriting: Don’t overlook the importance of handwriting practice! Encourage students to focus on proper letter formation and legibility, which supports encoding skills.

When students can’t decode, try these decoding strategies:

  • Assess Phonological Awareness: Many decoding struggles stem from weaknesses in phonological awareness. Assess students’ abilities to manipulate sounds within words to identify areas of need.
  • Teach Continuous Blending: Instead of relying solely on sounding out each individual letter, teach students to blend sounds together smoothly to read words fluently.
  • Phoneme Substituting: Use word chains, preferably printed, to practice substituting one phoneme for another within a word. This reinforces decoding skills and encourages students to think flexibly about sounds.

Linking Encoding and Decoding:
To reinforce the connection between encoding and decoding, integrate activities that bridge the gap between the two skills. For example, after decoding a word, have students encode it by writing it down. This solidifies their understanding of the relationship between spoken and written language. It’s important that encoding and decoding are linked together in your planning and are not taught in isolation (although they must both be explicitly taught!).

Achieving a balance between decoding and encoding is key to unlocking literacy success in students. By assessing phonemic awareness, explicitly teaching both encoding and decoding strategies, and linking the two skills together, educators can help their students become proficient readers and writers.

Are you looking for resources to help your students with encoding and decoding? Try these:

How to Teach Encoding and Decoding

Encoding and decoding

Today, we’re diving into the fascinating world of encoding and decoding —two skills that hold the key to unlocking the magic of language. I recently heard encoding and decoding compared to breathing. Encoding is the in breath and decoding is the out breath. Undoubtedly, encoding skills are as important to reading as decoding skills.

“Encoding is not simply a first step to writing; it is a vital but under-appreciated route to reading.” 

Herron and Gillis, 2020.

So, how does encoding help students to read (decode?)

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Encoding helps students develop phonemic awareness, which is the ability to recognise and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. When students encode words, they learn to segment spoken words into their constituent phonemes, helping them understand the sound-letter correspondence.
  2. Letter-Sound Correspondence: Through encoding, students learn the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds they represent (phonemes). This understanding of letter-sound correspondence is essential for decoding, as it allows students to recognise written words by sounding them out.
  3. Segmenting and Blending: Encoding requires students to segment words into individual phonemes and then blend those phonemes together to form words. This process of segmenting and blending helps students develop phonemic blending skills, which are vital for reading fluency.
  4. Spelling Skills: Encoding involves spelling words phonetically, which helps students develop spelling proficiency. By encoding words, students learn to apply spelling rules and conventions, such as vowel patterns and syllable structures, which contribute to their overall literacy skills.
  5. Vocabulary Development: Through encoding, students expand their vocabulary as they encounter new words and learn to spell them phonetically. This active engagement with language helps students internalise new vocabulary words, improving their reading comprehension and overall language proficiency.
  6. Metacognitive Awareness: Encoding requires students to think critically about the sounds and structures of words, fostering metacognitive awareness of language. By reflecting on their encoding processes, students develop a deeper understanding of word formation and language patterns, which enhances their reading and writing abilities.
  7. Reading Fluency: As students become proficient at encoding, they transfer their skills to decoding, which contributes to improved reading fluency. By recognising letter-sound relationships and quickly decoding words, students can read more smoothly and efficiently, leading to enhanced comprehension and enjoyment of reading.


How do we help students to decode?

  • Tell students to ‘sound out’ in their heads and then say the whole word out loud.
  • Remind students to keep their eyes on the print as they decode and as they blend the word.
  • Teach continuous blending (NOT segmenting or tapping before blending – read the research here)
  • Practice fluency reading daily.

How do we help students to encode?

  • A good basis in phonemic awareness such Heggerty’s
  • Use Elokin boxes to tap/segment the sounds
  • Begin with VC words. Once students are fluent in VC words,  then begin CVC words, swapping initial sounds where possible
  • ‘Singing’ the sounds can help!
  • Teach using a synthetic phonics sound sequence, where sounds build on previously taught sounds.

Bringing it all together:

  • Pair decoding and encoding activities together, such as in these Encoding and Decoding Color By Code Activities.
  • Boggle type games where students blend sounds to make words
  • Blending consonants and vowels to create words using letter cards or magnetic letters. You can set up two baskets of consonants and one basket of vowels. Students draw one letter from each basket and create a word. They then write if the word is a real word or a nonsense word.
  • Using familiar decodable readers for dictation. Students write the story as they hear it.
  • Word ladders – exchanging one letter at a time to create new words – decoding the words that are made.

One of my favourite tools to aid in encoding are my Word Mats! I’ve got different mats for different seasons and they are all FREE (create a free Teachie Tings account to download)! Check them out here below!

Unlocking Learning Potential: How to use Word Work Mats

how to use word work mats

A valuable tool that has gained popularity in recent years is the Printable Word Work Mat. This approach can significantly enhance a child’s language development. In this blog post, we will explore what Word Work Mats are and how to use word work mats to support literacy skills in children.

What Is a Printable Word Work Mat?

Before diving into the practical applications of Word Work Mats, let’s start with a brief overview of what they are. A Printable Word Work Mat is a visually engaging and interactive tool designed to help children build and reinforce their reading and spelling skills. Instead of working with magnetic letters or letter tiles (which have their place, but can be messy and time-consuming), our word mats are printable and include different letter sounds and sound boxes for encoding words.

spring word work mat

Getting Started with Word Work Mats

  1. Select Your Word Family: The first step in using a Word Work Mat is to choose a word family or specific words you want the child to focus on. Word families are groups of words that share a common base, such as “cat,” “bat,” and “hat.”
  2. Print the Word Work Mat: After selecting your word family or words, print out a Word Work Mat that fits your requirements. You can find a variety of pre-designed Word Work Mats in our free subscription.
  3. Gather Materials: Gather the materials you’ll need, such as dry erase markers.

Using the Word Work Mat

Now that you have everything ready, let’s delve into how to use the Word Work Mat effectively:

  1. Introduce the Word Family: Begin by introducing the selected word family or words to the child. Encourage them to say each word aloud to familiarize themselves with the sounds.
  2. Place the Mat. Place the Word Work Mat in front of the child, ensuring they have a clear view of it.
  3. Identify and Write Letters. Ask the child to identify the letters on the mat to form the words, writing each sound in the boxes above.
  4. Spelling Practice. For more advanced learners, encourage them to practice spelling words from the selected word family independently. They can use the mat as a reference and self-check their spelling.
  5. Use in Sentences. Extend the learning by encouraging the child to use the words they’ve built on the mat in sentences. This step reinforces comprehension and application of the newly acquired words.

Tips for Success

  • Keep sessions short and engaging to maintain the child’s interest and focus.
  • Adapt the difficulty level to match the child’s proficiency. Start with simple word families and gradually progress to more complex ones.
  • Celebrate achievements to boost the child’s confidence and motivation.
  • Encourage regular practice to reinforce learning and build fluency.

Printable Word Work Mats are a valuable resource for parents and educators alike in fostering literacy skills in young learners. They can make the learning process enjoyable and effective. Incorporate them into your teaching or home-learning routine to unlock the full potential of your child’s language development journey.