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!

Reading Comprehension Today – What’s Changed?

reading comprehension today

In recent years, the science of reading has significantly transformed teaching practices, bringing about a more evidence-based and nuanced approach to literacy instruction. This knowledge has influenced teaching methodologies, emphasising the importance of systematic and explicit phonics instruction, decoding skills, and phonemic awareness.  We’ve got a great decoding freebie here!

Yet, while the primary focus of the science of reading is on foundational skills such as phonics, decoding, and fluency, it also encompasses comprehension. The science of reading recognises that successful reading involves a combination of skills, including the ability to understand and make meaning from the text.

Moving away from teaching skills in isolation

Today, the move is away from teaching skills in isolation (eg: ‘this week we’re focusing on inferring’) but rather developing the cognitive strategies students need to comprehend texts (summarising regularly, asking questions, metacognition), as well as understanding of the written language and embedding comprehension within content instruction, integrating reading comprehension into all curriculum areas.

Reading Comprehension is an OUTCOME

“You can’t teach reading comprehension – it’s an OUTCOME” – Dr Sharon Vaughn .

If you haven’t listened to the Science of Reading Podcast featuring Dr Sharon Vaughn, listen HERE. This episode is fantastic for helping you to make the shift from what reading comprehension is, and what it isn’t.

Furthermore, here are two schools of thought around how readers comprehend texts:

  1. Cognitive strategies that help students to comprehend texts: summarising regularly, asking questions about what is read, and paying attention to if the reader is understanding.
  2. Written language – word and sentence level understanding, text structure, morphology, cohesion of texts and authors organisational strategies.

Both work in conjunction with the other and can be synthesised into the following nine reading comprehension lesson ideas:

  1. word level study
  2. sentence level study
  3. text structure study
  4. vocabulary
  5. morphology
  6. Tier 2 words that help students to access a range of texts
  7. cohesion of texts
  8. summarising frequently
  9. self questioning – what am I reading and do I understand what I am reading?

In addition, teaching students these strategies, as well as giving students the opportunity to practise these within their own writing is more efficient and effective (Prof Timothy Shanahan). There’s a great clip on this, hosted on the Reading Science in Schools YouTube channel, as well as some general tips to improve student learning, HERE.

Finally, we LOVE this fabulous paper by Debbie Draper, ‘Five Ways to Improve Instruction – Comprehension’, which you can read HERE. It gives you the ‘how-to’ and highlights which practises to focus on within your reading comprehension instruction.

If you’re looking for some starting points for resources to support your reading comprehension lessons, we’ve curated a ‘playlist’ of sorts for you, from the Teachie Tings catalogue.

Reading Comprehension ‘playlist’

Improve Student Writing with these Quick Wins

quick wins to improve student writing

It can be really disheartening to read student writing and feel like your teaching hasn’t been as effective as you wished.

While there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to student achievement, many factors which you aren’t responsible for, the fact is that your effectiveness as a teacher DOES matter.

So, when it seems that something is amiss, how can you quickly improve student writing and get your students back on track? Try this.

Choose 3 of these strategies to improve student writing to cover this week – one per day is ok, and set a check-in task on Friday.

Task 1: Model good writing

Teachers can demonstrate good writing techniques and conventions by providing examples of well-written pieces and sharing their own writing process with the class.

  1. Get a copy of an aspirational worked example. We’ve got Bump It Up Texts for different year levels and text types here or you can find examples from familiar books – just photocopy a page for students to annotate, or take a photo and annotate on your whiteboard.

2. Read through it with your class highlighting text structure, language features, and grammar and punctuation.

3. Model writing a good descriptive sentence, an introductory paragraph, brainstorming different resolutions – whatever your students need, model what it looks like to succeed.

Task 2: Provide regular opportunities for writing

Regular writing practice helps students develop their skills and gain confidence in their abilities. Daily writing prompts are a great way to get students writing purposefully.

  1. Choose an appropriate writing prompt for students to complete a short writing task. If you’re working on narratives, your prompt should also be a narrative prompt. Try our Writing Slides Bundle for different prompts for different text types.
  2. Focus on an element of writing – for example writing a good opinion, concluding paragraph, or a detailed character description.
  3. Include clear success criteria, for instance ‘I can write a satisfying conclusion’.
  4. Make it short – 15 mins max. This is a short sprint to focus on improving one element of a students’ writing – not a marathon.

Task 3: Facilitate Self and Peer feedback

Helping students access specific, constructive feedback on their writing helps them identify areas for improvement and track their progress. You can use rubrics or checklists to provide clear and consistent feedback.

  1. Have writing/success criteria checklists for all writing tasks and make copies of them easily accessible to students (eg takeaways on your learning wall)
  2. Teach students how to annotate texts for success criteria (this is not as complicated as it sounds. For example, highlight noun groups in blue.)
  3. Teach students to give peer feedback.
  4. Ensure that students are given feedback before their check-in task.

End of week Check-in Task and Teacher Feedback

As a teacher, you need to know where your students are at, and what they need to get them to the next level. The best way to do this is reviewing a piece of their writing.

  1. Read through your students short writing prompt task from earlier in the week – take just 1 minute per student.
  2. Use a success criteria checklist if you have one – just tick and flick!
  3. Write 1 thing the student did well
  4. Write 1 thing your student can do to improve – make it actionable and relevant to the success criteria (e.g use varied text connectives)
  5. Finally, and very important – make your teacher feedback available to students to refer back to when they are next writing. They will know what they need to do to improve and integrate it into their writing. You can also take common themes and use this to inform your focus for next week.

Used weekly, this feedback cycle helps to inform your teaching and help students to focus on what really matters in their learning. Try it and let me know the impact it has in your classroom!

Resources to improve student writing