Explanation of “Encoding”: What It Is and Why It Is So Important to Reading

Decoding is the process of translating words from print to speech by matching letters and their combinations to the sounds they make. If you ask an early childhood educator about the meaning of the term “science-based reading instruction,” which has recently gained popularity, the response is likely to include something about decoding.

Decoding is unquestionably a hallmark of early literacy, so this makes sense. The opposite of decoding is encoding, in which spoken words are broken down into their individual sounds during spelling and writing.

Despite evidence that writing practice is a powerful aid and complement to reading instruction from the earliest grades on, encoding does not receive nearly as much attention as decoding. Students suffer as a result, according to some literacy experts.

“Decoding and encoding are inseparable; Crystal Whitman, an instructional coach at Rosman Elementary School in Transylvania County, North Carolina, described them as “like two sides of a coin.” We have some poor spellers and writers because our focus has been on decoding.

Even in programs that claim to be rooted in evidence-based practices, experts in literacy strongly contend that encoding is frequently underrepresented in early literacy instruction.

Education Week talked to literacy experts, researchers, and teachers to find out why students miss out on encoding and what they miss out on. Additionally, we gathered methods for incorporating encoding into daily classroom instruction from advocates of structured literacy.

Why did encoding go unnoticed?

Over the course of more than four decades, literacy consultant Steve Graham has investigated the “hows” of writing: how it grows, how to teach it well, and how writing can help kids learn to read and write. He points out that the lack of emphasis on teaching writing is not new.

Before the revolution, it was possible to teach someone to read. However, they did not necessarily learn how to write without additional instruction,” Graham, a teacher’s college professor at Arizona State University, stated.

The pendulum remains firmly swayed in favor of teaching reading over writing in many of today’s early literacy programs. The recent proliferation of evidence-based literacy programs based on the congressional National Reading Panel’s findings from 2000 may be partially to blame for this oversight.

The panel recommends combining the following methods for teaching children to read, which have received a lot of national attention: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, guided oral reading, teaching vocabulary words, and a strategy for reading comprehension are all included.

Since students are learning how to manipulate sounds and letters, the report does make reference to writing, particularly in the context of phonemic awareness and phonics. However, neither encoding nor other specific aspects of writing are specifically mentioned. In addition, there is significantly less research that has been published on the components of effective writing instruction.

Graham stated, “I’ve done a number of national surveys.” Reading takes precedence over writing and coding in the curriculum.

Similar experiences are shared by other literacy experts. The majority of phonics instruction focuses primarily on decoding. They want children to become proficient readers. Margie Gillis, a nationally renowned literacy expert and the president of Connecticut-based Literacy How, Inc., a company that develops professional-development curricula for pre-K through middle school, stated, “They might do some encoding, but it’s often an afterthought.”

Amy Murdoch, a reading professor, claims that schools have “plopped in” phonological awareness programs that are unrelated to other crucial aspects of early literacy, such as spelling and writing.

Why encoding is important and how it works in the classroom, according to assistant dean and associate professor Murdoch of Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati: “You can’t separate the different strategies of language.”

This is especially true when it comes to encoding and decoding. Gillis stated, “We really emphasize that [decoding and encoding] are reciprocal, and they bootstrap each other.”

The fundamental building blocks of encoding are the brush strokes that, ideally, children begin practicing even before entering kindergarten: letters, which then become words and sentences. Literacy experts assert that teaching proper letter formation through repetition fosters automaticity, which is essential for the writing process.

I don’t like how letters are arranged. Casey Harrison, a literacy expert, stated, “If our children are not forming letters correctly to automaticity, that impedes them in spelling and writing because they are having to then think of how to form those letters.”

According to Harrison, a licensed dyslexia therapist based in Austin, Texas, and the founder of The Dyslexia Classroom, which provides resources for dyslexic learners as well as online courses for educators, parents, and therapists, students can shift their focus to whatever it is that they are writing.

The advantages of focusing on early letter formation among the kindergartners in Carrie Norris’s North Carolina district, which serves Transylvania County schools, have been seen firsthand. “They learn how to do strokes first—students doing horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and circle strokes,” stated Norris, who added that she has observed a significant improvement in the ability of students to correctly form letters when provided with consistent and step-by-step practice opportunities in kindergarten.

The experts, however, explain that even the earliest stages of encoding shouldn’t take place in a vacuum. According to Gillis, “We are tying muscle movement and tactile kinetic letter formation with hearing the sound and associating it with its name.”

Spelling assignments frequently fall short of expectations. Very young students who are just beginning to connect their understanding of phonetic awareness to writing letters and words may have difficulty completing these tasks with the fine motor skills required. Making it enjoyable can help. Gillis suggests that students write on a shaving cream-covered plate. Another favorite is colored sand, and grooved surfaces that feel good on students’ fingertips are another. She said, “It doesn’t have to be drill and kill.”

Some traditional assignments continue to fall short, despite ample evidence of the reciprocal and necessary relationship between decoding and encoding. Take, for instance, spelling lists.

Harrison stated, “I still see spelling instruction in which lists of [spelling] words are sent home that may or may not contain some spelling patterns.” It makes me realize that I do not fully comprehend the profound connection between sound-spelling for writing and reading.

She suggests changing how the outdated spelling list is used rather than eliminating it. Harrison stated, “Spelling instruction ought to be incorporated into daily literacy lessons.” However, we want students to apply their understanding of sound symbols to reading instruction.

Harrison explains the spelling test she used. She uses a video of the spelling concept of the week—for example, spelling with the final /k/ sound or the vowel-consonant-e pattern—every week in class as the students focus on decoding and encoding words that contain the rule. She was a classroom teacher before becoming a licensed dyslexia therapist. Students will take their spelling test on Friday. Harrison selects 10 to 20 words that contain the rule and asks the students to write them using the idea they learned that week.

Harrison is aware that students have not simply memorized a list of words that they are likely to forget later when they correctly spell the words. Instead, they have mastered a phonetic rule of the English language that they can use to spell or read other words.

“I inform them: I am unable to teach you every English word. But I can give you the tools to use when reading and spelling unfamiliar words,” Harrison stated.

Advocates for students with language impairments have been largely in charge of the science of reading movement. As with decoding, teaching encoding in a systematic and explicit manner is especially important for children with processing disorders, but it is beneficial to all children.

Harrison referred to dyslexic students as “these are our students who are struggling in accessing the phonological code.” They absolutely require it to be broken down into a very methodical approach in which everything is explicitly taught.

According to Harrison, students who are unable to spell words experience cascading effects like lower assignment scores and a disconnect between oral and written language. These effects can also cause students to have low self-esteem and a negative outlook on their schoolwork. The opposite may occur when students become proficient readers and spellers.

Harrison said, “I want to empower students.” We accomplish this by connecting spelling and reading.”

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