Encoding vs. Decoding

“Reading and writing have been thought of as opposites – with reading regarded as receptive and writing regarded as productive. Researchers have found that reading and writing are ‘essentially the same process of meaning construction’ and that readers and writers share a surprising number of characteristics” (Carol Booth Olson, 2003). 

The Orton-Gillingham methodology supports progress toward mastery of reading, writing, and spelling as one body through the explicit instruction of encoding and decoding strategies.


Is Explicit Reading & Writing Instruction Necessary?

Speaking, otherwise referred to as an oral language, is a more natural process in human development, whereas reading and writing, referred to as written language, must be taught. 

Seeking opportunities for incremental success through Orton-Gillingham instruction proves incredibly motivating for students who find learning to read, write, and spell challenging. This is especially true for EL students and individuals with learning disabilities. 

It’s easy to dismiss something when it is challenging to learn. “Is this really necessary?” or “I can make it without knowing bigger words because I already know a basic word which means the same thing.”

We should always push students to continue their literacy journey towards being proficient readers, writers, and spellers.



Spelling is essential when completing job applications, establishing credibility as a writer, using a literal or online dictionary, or recognizing the best choice when using spell check (Liuzzo, 2020).

According to Marcia Henry (Unlocking Literacy, 2004), to be an accurate reader and speller, one must have knowledge of:

  • Phonology: the study of sounds
  • Orthography: the study of writing systems and sound-letter correspondences
  • Morphology: the study of word parts that shape word meaning
  • Etymology: the study of the history of words

Peter Bowers (2009) states, “Explicit instruction about the role of phonology and etymology is not optional if we accept the challenge of offering students accurate, comprehensive instruction.”

“The development of automatic word recognition depends on intact, proficient phoneme awareness, knowledge of sound-symbol (phoneme-grapheme) correspondences, recognition of print patterns such as recurring letter sequences and syllable spellings, and recognition of meaningful parts of words (morphemes)” (Moats, 2020) and (Ehri, 2014).

As students use phonology, orthography, and morphology to identify how to spell words, the knowledge of spelling patterns and rules knit together the layers of the English language. For example, understanding why suffix -ed makes each of its three sounds, /id/, /d/, or /t/, hinges on determining the final sound of the base word. Students must first hear the past tense verb and isolate the base word.

In the past tense verb asked, the base word is ask, which ends in the unvoiced sound /k/. Therefore, in the past tense verb asked, the suffix -ed will make its unvoiced sound /t/. As the student encodes the word, they must apply their knowledge, as, “I hear /t/, but I write -ed.” Ensuring mastery of phonological awareness skills as a foundation upon which students build phonetic knowledge is critical.

A fluent writer is born when the students’ segments to spell the phonemes in monosyllabic and polysyllabic words with increasing automaticity.


Decoding (de / co / ding)

In Reading Reasons, Gallagher notes many ways reading is valuable, including building a mature vocabulary, making you a better writer, more intelligent, providing financial rewards, and helping develop your moral compass while arming you against oppression.

Beginning readers can become intimidated by long words. However, Orton-Gillingham instruction teaches these readers that they can decode or “break the code” to tackle the increasingly complex patterns. 

Decoding these words causes the students to broaden their vocabulary, a critical piece to better writing and deeper comprehension. The knowledge of syllable patterns and syllable types increases students’ ability to sound out unfamiliar phonetic words.

“If reading skill is developing successfully, word recognition gradually becomes so fast that it seems as if we are reading “by sight.” The path to that end, however, requires knowing how print represents sounds, syllables, and meaningful word parts; for most students, developing that body of knowledge requires explicit instruction and practice over several grades” (Moats, 2020) and (Ehri et al., 2001).

To apply decoding strategies, students employ knowledge of individual phoneme/grapheme relationships, including identifying vowels and consonants. Next, they discover the syllable division pattern(s), which indicates how to cut the word into syllables. Then, students look at each syllable and determine the syllable type, which indicates how to pronounce the vowel sounds.

There are four-syllable division patterns in English listed by frequency: 

  1. VC/CV (harbor)
  2. V/CV (heaven)
  3. VC/V (cabin)
  4. CV/VC (labor)

There are seven syllable types in English: 

  1. Closed syllables (hat)
  2. Open syllables (to)
  3. Magic-e syllables (bake)
  4. Vowel team syllables (heat)
  5. Bossy r syllables (curb)
  6. Diphthong syllables (howl)
  7. Consonant-le syllables (bubble)

Eventually, these techniques are systematically applied to phonetic multisyllabic words in a multi-sensory method to read the entire word. Over time, the brain develops automaticity (fast, accurate, and effortless word identification at the word level) and fluency (automatic word recognition plus the use of appropriate prosodic features of rhythm, intonation, and phrasing at the phrase, sentence, and text levels) to decode and comprehend efficiently. 


Irregular Words

A small percentage of English is always irregular. However, irregular words will vary from student to student based on the phonetic concepts learned. Sounds used to pronounce these irregular words are not as clearly linked to their spelling. Therefore, students must memorize the letter strings to spell and read the words.

The words become recognizable on sight once they are memorized and orthographically mapped in the brain. Students observe the order of the letters and state the word. Understanding the impacts of morphology and etymology helps students bridge the gap between the expected and unexpected letters in irregular words. 


What Should We Read?

Decodable books contain roughly 80% decodable text, leaving only 20% of words irregular or recognizable on sight. Controlled, decodable readers follow a sequence of instructions, allowing students to apply decoding strategies independently. Decodable texts provide motivation and encouragement for developing readers. 

These texts encourage students to layer strategies to become strong readers when they are partnered with fluency instruction. Even when one has the capability to read, they choose not to. Why is it that some students not find reading rewarding?

When reading books or passages at a frustration level, students spend too much time and mental effort on decoding at the word level, leaving little room for fluency and understanding. Decodable texts provide opportunities for the application of learned skills. This is empowering to students – and empowered readers become naturally motivated. 

The development of decoding skills must be accompanied by fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies. Decodable poems are naturally phrase-cued texts which encourage students to group words into meaningful phrases. When purposeful illustrations accompany texts, it supports the development of visual imagery linked to deeper meaning. Similarly, decodable passages and books with illustrations serve as stepping stones toward chapter books. 


Inspire Readers & Writers

Irregular words and phonetic words have the opportunity to become sight words, which is the goal of explicit instruction like Orton-Gillingham – students’ brains function so proficiently, allowing cognitive functions to focus on fluency and comprehension. Ultimately, explicit, systematic, cumulative, multi-sensory instruction in encoding and decoding phonetic and irregular words inspires and encourages readers and writers.