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Decoding


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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:28 by NZTecAdmin

An essential and central skill for reading is decoding: “The act of translating written words into vocal or subvocal speech” (Henry 2003). Decoding is not enough in itself to enable comprehension, but research shows that good readers are good decoders.32

In order to become good decoders, learners need to have some basic understandings about print and how it relates to spoken English. While many expert readers may not be able to articulate exactly what it is they are doing as they read, research has shown that readers use specific understanding
about print and its relation to the sounds of spoken English. These include:

  • The alphabetic principle. Learners need to know that letters in print represent sounds in speech. An understanding of this overarching principle means knowing that speech can be turned into print, that print can be turned into speech and that letters are used to represent sounds in the language. It includes knowledge of the names and shapes of the letters of the alphabet.
  • Phonological awareness is the awareness of the different levels of the speech sound system. In order to learn to decode (or read words) learners need to be aware that the words they hear in spoken English are made up of small segments of sound and that these sounds can be represented in print. Phonological awareness is the awareness that words can be separated in three ways and at three levels, by syllables, onset and rimes, and phonemes. Syllable awareness is an awareness that words can be divided into syllables. A learner who has phonological awareness at the syllable level will know that the word mat has one syllable, that rabbit has two syllables and hospital has three syllables. Onset-rime awareness is phonological awareness at the intra-syllable level. At this level the learner knows that in the word mat the m is the onset (the initial consonant/s of a syllable) and at is the rime33 unit of the syllable (the vowel and any consonants that follow it). The third level of separating words is by phonemes – or phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is knowing that mat has three phonemes (/m/ /a/ /t/). According to Ziegler and Goswami (2005), as children develop, they display first an awareness of syllables as speech segments, followed by onset and rime and finally by phonemes.
  • Phonemic awareness is the most advanced level of phonological awareness. It is the awareness of sounds or phonemes in spoken words and the ability to manipulate the sounds. Phonemes are a minimal sound unit that can change the meaning of a word. For example the difference between hit/sit, hit/hot or hit/hid is one phoneme. In the English language there are 42–46 phonemes. These phonemes are represented by 26 letters. The 42–46 phonemes produce over 500,000 words. Knowing that the word mat has three phonemes /m/ /a/ /t/ or that the difference between mat and pat is one phoneme /p/ are examples of learners having phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is very important for learning to read. English is an alphabetic language and in alphabetic languages letters or graphemes represent sounds or phonemes. Readers must develop an awareness that words are made up of phonemes. This awareness does not, however, necessarily come easily because phonemes are abstract. Phonemes are heard, not seen. Learners who lack phonemic awareness experience great difficulty understanding letter-sound (or grapheme-phoneme) relationships as well as learning to spell. These learners also have difficulty learning to read and write.
  • Concepts about print. Learners need to understand how print works in written text. Concepts34 include the left-to-right movement of print, the return sweep from one line to the next and the spacings between words, sentences, lines of print and paragraphs.
  • Grapheme–phoneme knowledge. When learners understand that the words in speech are composed of small segments of sound (phonemes) and that letters in print can represent these sounds, they are then able to understand the ways in which letters (graphemes) represent specific sounds. This is not an easy understanding for all learners, because phonemes is an abstract concept and the match between phonemes and graphemes is not always regular. However, this knowledge of the relationship between sounds and their print representations is essential for decoding written text.
  • Word analysis. Learners use their increasing knowledge of the ways in which many words are built up from base or root words, prefixes and suffixes to help them work out (decode) new words. For example, by recognising the way kind changes when the prefix un- is added. There are many ways in which this process can be supported and some of these are outlined in the learning progressions (in writing, this word analysis is associated with spelling).
  • Developing the ability to decode or spell automatically. Good decoders and spellers quickly develop a store or bank of words that they recognise or can write automatically.35These words are variously known as high-frequency (words that appear very frequently in written texts), everyday (words that a person may encounter in their everyday life), or familiar (words that a person knows well, often because they have particular relevance for the person).36 Such categories overlap, but knowing many of these kinds of words is essential for reading and writing. By accessing this bank of words, readers are able to speed up their processing of print, pausing to decode only those words they do not yet recognise automatically. Similarly, writers are able to speed up their writing, pausing for words they are not yet able to write automatically. At the early stages of reading and writing, the words most likely to be used automatically are short, everyday words (typically of Anglo-Saxon origin), for example, he, hand, bread and dog. Many readers have difficulty progressing past this stage to automatic recognition of multi-syllabic words (typically of Greek or Latin origin), because they need to apply more complex strategies to decode these words. The strategies they need to learn are described in the decoding progressions. Related strategies are needed for writing words and these are described in the spelling progression.

32 National Reading Panel, 2000; Pressley, 2000; Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998.

33 Note that rime is not the same word as rhyme: see glossary in Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy.

34 Clay, 1991.

35 Ehri, 1998.

36 Many websites provide lists of such words: see for example, www.english-zone.com/reading/dolch.html or http://literacyconnections.com/Dolch.php

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