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: