Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.

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