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Decoding and Encoding: How to Work on Spelling Skills

By Naomi O'Brien


Decoding and encoding should go hand in hand! Practicing both can strengthen your students’ reading and spelling skills.

Decoding is the ability to apply our knowledge of letter-sound relationships, including knowledge of letter patterns, to read written words

Encoding is the opposite! When we encode, we use individual sounds to spell and write words.

Simply assigning a few random spelling words each week isn’t going to create strong spellers. Some students may become strong spellers despite ineffective teaching methods, but educators can create strong spellers on purpose.

What Do Strong Spellers Have in Common?

I have noticed that strong spellers are also strong readers. They pay attention to letter-sound relationships in order to excel in both areas. Reading and actually seeing words spelled correctly repeatedly is one way that spellers can grow.

Strong spellers and readers also use blends, word families, rhymes, digraphs, diphthongs, and phonics rules (especially irregular spelling patterns) in order to be successful when reading and spelling.

When I assigned spelling words to my students, it was always to teach a word family or some kind of phonics rule. And this was explicitly taught to the kids. I didn’t want my kindergarten and first grade students to only memorize the 5 or 10 words assigned for the week, I wanted them to learn the letter-sound relationship I was introducing and carry it with them moving forward. I taught them to apply what they learned as reading and spelling strategies.

I made sure my students knew this and encouraged them to use what we learned when our old spelling words came in texts we were reading or new words they were trying to spell.

Teaching students that good readers can spell and good spellers can read, really helped them learn to work on both skills simultaneously!

What Is Invented Spelling?

Once students acquire the letter/letter sound knowledge needed to begin sounding words out, they can do the best they can to spell a word. I don’t correct these amazing efforts. This allows students to become confident writers who aren’t fearful of making a spelling mistake and getting everything right.

Once I notice certain trends forming in the way my students spell their words, I can use phonemic awareness to help them learn how to hear what they are missing when they attempt to spell independently.

Rhyming: If a student knows the word land, they can probably spell the word hand by using rhyming skills to help.

Syllables: Students that can break words into syllables can separate words they are spelling into parts and write the sounds heard in each part of the word. So instead of attempting to spell hamster all at once, they can spell ham and then ster.

Initial, Middle, & Final Sounds: Students that pay attention to the position of sounds in words and can hear them can use these same skills to spell them. Instead of spellings pen like pn. They may realize they are forgetting the middle sound.

Segmenting & Blending: A student’s ability to segment and blend words will get them far! If a student is attempting to spell the word step, understanding there is a blend AND being able to segment that blend into /s/ and /t/ will aid them tremendously! Blending the sounds together and listening to the word they made allows students to spell check themselves.

Phoneme Manipulation & Onset and Rime: These skills work similarly, in my opinion. Much like rhyming, students can use their knowledge of how to spell one word in order to spell a similar sounding word correctly. Now, of course, some words sound the same but use different spelling patterns. This is why explicitly teaching phonics rules matters so much. Students will be able to try multiple ways to spell a word.

What Happens When More Than One Spelling Pattern Can Apply?

No less than a thousand times, during the school year, a student will come to me and say something like, “I know that igh and i with a silent e can make a long i sound, so which one do I use to spell bike?”

This is where reading comes in handy! Chances are my students have seen the word bike multiple times. I praise my student for knowing multiple ways to make a long i sound, then I encourage my students to write word and see what looks right. Does bighk or bike look like a word you’ve seen before?

I hope this was helpful!

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Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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