Back to Basics: Encoding

Welcome to our Back to Basics series! In this series we explore some of the foundational methods, practices and terminology for teaching reading and writing. This series is for those new to the field of literacy, beginning tutors or those who would just like a refresher. This week we discuss teaching encoding, or spelling.

Encoding, or spelling, is the opposite side of the same coin as decoding. In order to successfully read and write, we need to decode (sound out) words to read, as well as encode them (pull sounds apart and match letters to sounds) to spell. Both skills involve phonemic awareness. Spelling specifically involves a process called phoneme segmentation. This is breaking words into their sounds, or phonemes. Putting decoding and encoding together, we can successfully sound out and spell words. Learning how to put letters together to make words improves both reading and writing.

“Spelling is integral to reading and writing. The skills required for good spelling reflect those required for successful reading and writing. Teach spelling well, and reading and writing also improves.” – Teaching and assessing spelling [Literacy leadership brief]

Teaching Spelling

Reading programs should include a spelling component. Research has shown that learners who received explicit encoding instruction and guided practice performed better than those who did not. Timothy Shanahan offers five points of instructional guidance for teaching spelling:

  1. Always link spelling with either phonics or vocabulary meaning rather than as a stand-alone concern. If you are teaching older students who have largely mastered their decoding skills, then focus the spelling work on word interpretation. Have them write the words based on their knowledge of spelling and not just reading them.
  2. Never spend more than 15 minutes on spelling each day.
  3. Formal spelling instruction does not have to take place everyday; 2-3 times per week is probably sufficient.
  4. Don’t hesitate to include spelling work as part of homework (spelling assignments can be easily constructed—more easily than can be done with more complex work).
  5. Memorization is important in spelling, and drill-and-practice can play a small but valuable role. But don’t have the students writing the spelling words 10 times each as practice. That doesn’t help with memorization. Instead, have students try to write a word from memory (take a picture of the word with your eyes, and then with the word removed try to write it–practice until you can).

For more ideas and information about teaching encoding, check out the resources below.


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