Expert Strategies for Teaching Encoding and Decoding Skills


Unlocking the mysteries of reading and writing begins with encoding and decoding. In Orton Gillingham, encoding and decoding are the backbone of the approach. Let’s shine a light on encoding and decoding by looking at the difference between these concepts, and check out some activities that you can do with students.

Teaching Encoding/Decoding

The Orton-Gillingham approach is structured, sequential, and cumulative. This means that concepts are taught using a scope and sequence, one lesson building upon the next. A student should have mastery of at least 95% of one concept before moving on to the next.

Decoding and encoding are taught simultaneously – they are complementary skills.

Teaching both skills together reinforces the connection between sounds and their corresponding letters or letter combinations. For example, when a student learns a new phoneme (sound), they also learn it in written words (decoding) and how to write it (encoding).

The emphasis on encoding versus decoding might shift depending on the student’s needs. Some students might need more focus on decoding to improve reading fluency, while others might require more practice with encoding to enhance spelling and writing skills.

Orton-Gillingham is meant to be flexible and adaptive, allowing tutors and teachers (and parents!) to tailor lessons to the needs of each student.

Example of Encoding/Decoding in Beginning Lessons

In a starting lesson with a student, you would use phonogram cards. The student looks at the card and says the name of the letter, the letter sound, and a keyword associated with the letter.

As an example, we show a phonogram card with the letter ‘B’ and ask the student to say the letter name, the sound, and the keyword out loud. They say, out loud, B (letter name), /b/ (letter sound), “bat” (keyword). We might also have the student trace the letter while saying the letter sound and keyword out loud.

These beginning lessons are more on the encoding side of learning, as the student is actively engaging with how to express the written letter in spoken terms, both as an isolated sound and within the context of a keyword, but it also lays foundational skills that are beneficial for decoding. By reinforcing the sound-letter relationship, students are prepared to recognize and process these letters and sounds in written text, which is a part of the decoding process.

Let’s Explore Encoding.

Encoding is the process of converting spoken words into written form by using knowledge of sound-letter relationships. It involves hearing a sound or a word, and then writing down the corresponding letters or letter combinations that represent those sounds. You can think of encoding as “spelling” or “writing” words.

Simplification of Encoding – Let’s Put This in Layman’s Terms

Encoding as Building Blocks

Imagine you have a set of building blocks, where each block represents a different sound. Encoding is like using these blocks to build a structure, which in this case is a word. Just as you need to select the right blocks and put them in the right order to create your structure, you need to choose the right letters (sounds) and arrange them properly to spell a word correctly. Each letter block you add brings you closer to completing the word.

Encoding as Painting a Picture

Think of encoding as painting a picture with words. Each sound you hear in a word is like a color on your palette. As you spell the word, you’re choosing the right colors (sounds) and using them to paint your picture (the written word) on the canvas (the page). The better you are at selecting and applying the right colors, the clearer and more accurate your picture will be.

Encoding as a Secret Code

Think of encoding like creating a secret code. Imagine you have a secret message to write, but instead of writing it in plain English, you use a special code where different symbols or signs represent different letters or sounds.

Encoding in literacy is similar: you listen to the sounds in a word and then use letters as your “secret symbols” to write those sounds down. Each sound has its own symbol (the letter or letters that represent it), and when you put all those symbols together in the right order, you spell the word correctly. It’s like crafting a message that others can read if they know the code!

Activities to Teach Encoding

Auditory Exercises using phoneme awareness. Auditory exercises should be a part of every lesson and there are many ways to incorporate them into your lesson plans. One way is phonemic awareness. Here is a chart of exercises to do with students.

Dictation: Say a word out loud and have students write it down, focusing on matching the sounds they hear to the correct letters.

Elkonin Boxes: Use boxes to represent each sound in a word. Students push a token into a box for each sound they hear in the word, then write the corresponding letter(s) in the boxes.

Interactive Writing: Collaborate with students to write sentences, focusing on the spelling of each word. Discuss the choices for spelling each sound.

Spelling Patterns Practice: Introduce common spelling patterns and have students practice writing words that adhere to those patterns, reinforcing the connection between sounds and letter combinations.

Air Writing: As students learn to spell words, have them “write” the letters in the air using large arm movements. This engages their kinesthetic and visual senses, as they watch the shape of the letters form while also feeling the motion.

Sand or Shaving Cream Writing or Sandpaper Letters: Use a tray with sand, shaving cream, or another tactile substance. Students write words in the material, saying each letter aloud as they write. This method engages the senses of touch (tactile), sight (visual), and hearing (auditory), using our OG, multi-sensory, 3-prong approach.

These sandpaper letters are less messy and are great for a tactile experience.

Use of Mnemonics: Create visual mnemonics or memory aids for tricky words or spelling rules, combining visual and verbal strategies. For example, for the spelling of “because” use the mnemonic “Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants.” This visual and auditory link can help students remember the spelling.

Rhythmic Writing: Incorporate rhythm or music into the spelling process. For example, students can clap out the syllables or beats as they spell each word, or you might create a short tune to accompany the spelling of particularly difficult words. This method taps into auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learning simultaneously.

Remember, the goal is to engage as many senses as possible to reinforce learning, making the process more engaging and effective for diverse learners.

Let’s Explore Decoding.

Decoding is the process of translating printed words into spoken words by using knowledge of letter-sound relationships. It involves recognizing the letters, knowing the sounds they represent, and blending these sounds to form words. You can think of decoding as “sounding out” or “reading” words.

Simplification of Decoding – Let’s Put This in Layman’s Terms

Decoding as Solving a Puzzle

Decoding is like solving a puzzle where each letter or group of letters is a clue to how the word sounds. When students decode, they are putting these sound clues together to figure out the word.

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece represents a letter or group of letters (like ‘ch,’ ‘sh,’ or ‘th’). The task is to put these pieces together to form a picture, which in this case is a word.

You might have a piece with the shape of the sound /b/ and another with the shape of /at/. When these pieces are connected, they form the picture (word) “bat.”

Just like with a puzzle, sometimes you might try to fit a piece in the wrong place. For example, putting the /k/ sound in front of /at/, making “kat.” But then you realize, based on the rules of the puzzle (spelling and phonics rules), that the correct piece to complete the picture is the c, not k, both making the /k/ sound, forming “cat.”

Decoding involves using knowledge of how letters and sounds fit together to build words. It’s about recognizing patterns, much like you recognize patterns in puzzle pieces, and applying these patterns to form complete words.

Decoding as Cooking

Think of decoding as following a recipe to bake a cake. Each letter in a word is like an ingredient in the recipe. Just as you need to combine ingredients in a certain way to make a cake, you need to combine the sounds of letters in a certain order to “cook up” the word. If you mix the ingredients (sounds) correctly, you’ll end up with a delicious cake (a word you can read and understand).

Decoding as Treasure Hunting

Think of each word as a locked treasure chest sitting on a mysterious island. Decoding is like using the map (the letters) to find the treasure (the word’s meaning).

The letters in words are like a map that shows you how to unlock the treasure. Just like a map has symbols that guide you to the treasure, each letter in the word is a clue that tells you what sounds to make. When you follow these clues and make the sounds in the right order, you unlock the chest and discover the treasure inside.

Activities to Teach Decoding

Mark the Vowel: Have students mark vowels with a breve or a macron indicating long or short vowels.

Phoneme Segmentation: Break down words into individual sounds. For example, segment ‘cat’ into /c/ /a/ /t/.

Syllable Types: Orton Gillingham divides syllables into six types in the REVLOC system of labeling.

Syllable Division: Orton Gillingham takes the syllable types and applies that to a way to break down words depending on word patterns called syllable division.

Word Sorts: Have students sort words into categories based on a common phonetic feature. This is a key component of Orton Gillingham as a whole. Groups of words are constantly taught together. Examples could be, blends and digraphs, “Kind, Old, Wild Words,” words with double consonants (VCCV patterns) – especially “Candy” words all ending in a y that makes the long e sound. OG teaches patterns in almost all lessons throughout the scope and sequence.

Matching Games: Use cards with pictures and words. Students match the picture to the correct word by sounding out the word.

Phoneme Touch Points: Assign a touch point on the body phonemes, for example, top of the head for the sound /t/, lips for the sound /p/). As students decode a word, they touch the corresponding point on their body for each sound, integrating kinesthetic learning with auditory and visual cues.

Visual Activity: Use color-coded letters or graphemes to highlight different sounds or phonics rules. For example, vowels could be red and consonants blue.

Auditory Activity: Have students sound out each phoneme as they read a word. Use rhymes, songs, and auditory cues to reinforce the sounds associated with letters.

Kinesthetic Activity: Encourage students to trace letters or words in the air or on a textured surface (like sandpaper) as they pronounce each sound. This physical movement helps solidify the connection between the sound and the letter.

Tactile Activity: Use manipulatives such as letter tiles or magnetic letters. Students can physically move these items to form words, reinforcing the sound-letter connection. Be sure they are reading the words they are forming.

Song/Rhyme for reading/decoding

A Final Word

The key to all learning is practice and repetition, ensuring students have ample opportunities to apply these skills in a variety of contexts. Orton Gillingham is a great approach to starting small with phonemes and building on rules and patterns to end up with a broad view of the English language.

All of the OGforAll workbooks and packets reinforce both encoding and decoding.

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