Decoding and encoding are two essential skills in early literacy instruction. Both are necessary for children to learn to read and write successfully, but what exactly is the difference? Let's explore the difference between decoding vs encoding, why they are essential, and practical strategies to teach these skills from a synthetic phonics perspective.
Especially with the dramatic shifts toward the Science of Reading and synthetic phonics, it's more important than ever to understand decoding, encoding, and how they fit into the reading process.
Fortunately, these concepts are easy to understand and implement in a systematic way to help each child become a successful reader.
Decoding vs Encoding: What's the Difference?
These fundamental skills are the key to helping your students learn to read successfully. They focus on how students store words and use that stored information from their long-term memory.
In the past few years, we've learned a lot about how we actually read, and it all hinges on neuronal networks.
First, remember that all language starts with the spoken word. As social creatures, our brains are hardwired to retain information about the specific pronunciation and meanings of spoken words.
Our brains naturally grow or strengthen our neuronal networks as we learn new words in new contexts.
By the time our students reach us at school, they have an intuitive sense of the structures of the English language. Students carry this fund of knowledge with them, and it should be treated as an asset!
As educators, we can tap into this memory bank to help our students learn to understand language more deeply, eventually learning how to sound out and write new words with ease.
Decoding and encoding are two ways of using or adding to our students' existing network of prior experience.
It's all about using our students' prior knowledge to stretch and extend their understanding.
What is decoding?
Decoding is the process of converting written text into spoken language. When children decode, they use their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and prior linguistic experience to translate a print word into a spoken word.
The process of decoding is reading: converting written letters into sounds and then stringing them together into a word.
If a child sees the word "cat," they would use their knowledge of the sounds associated with the letters c, a, and t to pronounce the word. After blending those sounds, they recognise this sequence of sounds as the word "cat," which they know from their prior experience.
We often call this "sounding out," as students typically sound out the individual letter sounds in the whole word before blending them together.
To prepare students for this skill, you've got to go back to spoken language. Focus on developing their phonological awareness skills, including rhyming, identifying syllable types, and practicing phonemic awareness, which will help them understand and manipulate phonemes easily.
The more we understand the science of reading, the more we realise how essential this process is.
Our students need consistent, meaningful experiences with phonemic awareness throughout grade school to develop the oral language skills necessary to become good readers.
Becoming a good reader starts with becoming a capable speaker!
What is encoding?
On the other hand, encoding is converting spoken language into written text. When children encode, they use their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and oral language to spell words.
This is the opposite process of decoding; encoding is writing or spelling.
If a child hears the word "cat," they can use their knowledge of the sounds associated with the letters c, a, and t to write the word.
We support our students' encoding skills when we teach them phonics, especially the knowledge of letter patterns. These spelling patterns and phonics skills help them turn any spoken word into its written form.
In the classroom, we often focus on teaching sight words to help our students learn to write quickly, which we normally teach through memorisation and flashcards.
We now know that our visual memory is nowhere near as effective as relying on the existing neuronal network for language. In fact, it can take some students up to 500 repetitions to fully memorise a word!
Since students already know so much about language, it's much easier to tap into their existing knowledge and refine it by teaching them phonics patterns and spelling skills. This is much more effective way to teach our students how to write, especially when we use evidence-based practices like orthographic mapping.
Encoding vs Decoding: Which is Most Important?
From a synthetic phonics perspective, we know we must use both of these systems and teach them in developmentally-appropriate ways, starting with a strong base of phonological awareness before moving on to phonics.
In phonemic awareness, we focus on helping our students recognise the different sounds in spoken words. They need to be able to separate the distinct sounds in words and then manipulate them and turn them into different words.
When students are competent with these skills, they have a much easier time recognising the nuances and variations in words.
This is much more efficient and effective than relying on visual memory, and it's essential for all students, especially those with reading disorders. This explicit instruction isn't optional; it's a crucial part of learning how to read and should be your first priority.
This is teaching smarter, not harder!
How to Teach Encoding
To teach encoding using synthetic phonics, teachers should begin by teaching children how to segment words into individual sounds.
For example, if a child is asked to spell "sat," they would say the word and segment it into its sounds (/s/-/a/-/t/).
Once they have segmented the word, they can use their knowledge of the sounds associated with each letter to spell it.
Even for unusual words that don't fit the traditional pronunciation, like tricky words, you can still use orthographic mapping and sound boxes to move these terms to long-term memory.
Here's an example of orthographic mapping using The Hive's word builder tool.
And yes, this process is still more efficient than relying on visual memory and flashcards! (If you want to use flashcards, use them like this.)
How to Teach Decoding
To help your students with their decoding process, focus on building their phonics knowledge. Your students should learn to identify consonants and vowels, sound out simple CVC words, study consonant digraphs, and more.
As you teach your students the structure of how written language works, the more equipped they will be to interpret the unfamiliar words in front of them.
Get the free ebook Phonics and Bee-yond
Ready to take your reading instruction to the next level? Get my free 250-page guide to synthetic phonics called Phonics and Beeyond! This book spells out exactly how to teach this way and has tons of information to get you started quickly!
There are many ways to teach phonics, but for many students, it's best to offer direct instruction. It's really important to teach phonics in a specific order based on what your students already know.
It's not developmentally appropriate to jump ahead to consonant digraphs or multi-syllable words when your students are just starting to sound out simple CVC words.
Should children be taught encoding or decoding first?
Decoding and encoding are two essential skills in early literacy instruction. Both are necessary for children to learn to read and write successfully.
After developing phonological and phonemic awareness, start with various activities to practice the encoding process.
These look like segmenting and blending sounds orally, then using sound boxes and orthographic mapping to show which letters represent the individual sounds they hear in words.
Once students understand phonemes, they can move on to phoneme-grapheme correspondences and then decoding simple words.
In my previous posts, I've recommended starting with CVC words, as these are the most predictable words and can easily be decoded phonetically. Once students can read simple words, the next step is to add activities to support reading fluency and comprehension.
By focusing on both encoding and decoding, you're well on your way to helping all your students to become skilled readers and writers! These two skills go hand-in-hand, and by teaching them using the science of reading, you'll be amazed to see how much your students progress this year!
Ready to take your reading instruction to the next level?
Join The Hive! My husband and I created this tool to help you build evidence-based routines into your daily schedule while also helping you simplify your daily workload.
As part of The Hive, you'll have access to interactive templates and digital tools to teach encoding, decoding, and so much more every day!
It's the perfect way to take your teaching practice to the next level so you can be more organised, calmer, and more effective than ever!