Decoding means translating written words into the sounds and meanings of spoken words (often silently). Encoding, or spelling, is the reverse process. The skills used in encoding are usually developed alongside decoding skills and reflect similar learning.
In order to become good decoders and spellers, learners need to first develop some basic understandings about print and how it relates to spoken English. In particular, learners must have developed phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.
This is an awareness of the different levels in the sound system of speech. In order to learn to read or spell words, learners need to be aware that the words they hear in spoken language 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, by onsets and rimes, and by 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 that hospital has three syllables. Onset-rime awareness is phonological awareness within the 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 the at is the rime 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/).
This is the most advanced level of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness means awareness of the sounds or phonemes in spoken words and the ability to manipulate the sounds. Phonemes are the smallest sound units that can change the meaning of a word. For example, the difference between hit/sit, hit/hot or hit/hid is a difference of only one phoneme (a sound) in each case. The English language includes 42 to 46 phonemes and these phonemes are represented by 26 letters. The 42 to 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 and write English texts. In alphabetic languages such as English, letters or letter clusters represent sounds or phonemes. Readers and writers must develop an awareness that words are made up of phonemes. This awareness does not necessarily come easily, because phonemes are an abstract concept; they are heard, not seen. Learners who lack phonemic awareness find it very hard to understand letter-sound correspondences and this means they have great difficulty in learning to read and write.
Further prerequisites for learning to decode and spell
Learners also need to know the names of the letters of the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent, and they need to understand the key concepts about print. Without this knowledge, readers will not learn to decode and writers will not learn to spell.
- The alphabetic principle. Learners need to know that letters in print represent sounds in speech. This 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. This knowledge is necessary so that learners can recognise letters by shape as they read and shape letters correctly as they write.
Concepts about print. Learners need to understand how print works in written text.
Such concepts include:
– that text is written and read from left to right with a return sweep to the left of each new line
– that print on the left-hand page or column is read before print on the right
– that written sentences start with capital letters and end with full stops
– that the spacings between words, sentences, lines of print and paragraphs follow a meaningful pattern.
- Knowledge of letter-sound correspondence. When learners understand that the words in speech are composed of small segments of sound and that letters in print can represent these sounds, they can learn the ways in which certain letters represent specific sounds. This is not an easy understanding for all learners, partly because the match between sounds and letters or letter clusters is not always regular. However, this knowledge of the relationship between spoken sounds and the corresponding letters is essential for decoding and writing text.
- Word analysis. Learners use their increasing knowledge of the ways in which many words are built up from root words, prefixes and suffixes to help them work out how to read new words, for example, by recognising the way the word kind changes when the prefix un- is added. In writing (encoding), this word analysis is used when spelling.
- Developing the ability to decode or spell automatically. Good decoders and spellers quickly develop a store or bank of words they recognise or can write automatically. These 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).9Such 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.
Read with Understanding: Decoding progression
Decoding is an essential skill for reading. Decoding is not enough in itself to enable comprehension, but to be a good reader it is necessary to be a good decoder. To easily read the texts in their everyday lives, adults need to be able to decode unfamiliar words without having to think about it (that is, they need to develop the ability to decode automatically).
Write to Communicate: Spelling progression
As well as the prerequisites listed above, writers learn and apply strategies for spelling. These include:
- recalling words from memory
- working out words by using sound-letter relationships
- spelling rules and conventions
- using knowledge of root words and affixes
- writing the word then checking to see if it looks right
- making analogies to known words or parts of words.
Expert spellers draw on these strategies automatically, using them flexibly to solve particular spelling problems. Learners need to develop expertise in the use of dictionaries and other tools to check their spelling, including knowing how to select the correct spelling when there are choices. As they develop their expertise, adult learners need access to suitably-levelled dictionaries and spelling aids, including electronic tools.