Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language



Please permit me to be abrupt ... at the start, at least. Isn't literacy merely the encoding, decoding and understanding of language? Simplistic though it may sound, print is the younger cousin of the much older member of the family. 

The above schematic addresses this rough relationship between language and literacy. If one is developing the components of language - e.g. phonological, lexical, morphological, grammatical, textual and pragmatic skills - then the learning of “the code” serves to facilitate the transference of the learner’s speech into print, which itself can serve as a platform upon which further literate language can be built. In this case, the code is the interface between language and literacy, and this code requires that learners develop additional skills in order to coordinate and manipulate language-in-print. 

From an early age, a child is learning language, but this child will only slowly develop an awareness of print. By age 6, a child will know thousands of words in oral language, but only know a few - if any - when read (Chall, 1996). This rich oral language provides ample stimulus for learners to begin exploring known (oral) words in print. In the coming years, the child’s oral language will continue to be stronger than what he/she can express on the written page. It is only at 13 years of age that your skilled readers are as competent in oral language as they are in literacy. By 15 to 17 years of age, print (finally) overtakes oral language. At this stage, a learner is apt to be better equipped to explore complex ideas on the page than verbally, particularly if the learner has a strong corpus of academic language. Across this prolonged developmental period, learners become increasingly more adepts and fluid in navigating and representing ideas in literate language.

The remainder of this entry will sketch some thoughts that may come to impact how we approach the encoding, decoding and understanding of literate language. I enter into the discussion with a profound appreciation of print’s older cousin, even though we will not discuss the specific uses of language here.

Part One: Encoding


Isn't it logical to analyse known words, and harness a learner's phonemic awareness to become adept at anticipating how to spell such-and-such a word which is already familiar to the learner? And - then - provide scaffolded opportunities for learners to monitor their own speech to use this skill in their emerging writing? Can't we leverage oral language and visual prompts as vehicles through which the learners become curious about words, the sounds in words and how these sounds and words are represented in print?

These are my queries in relation to the following possible lesson sequence, which could be considered an analytical approach to language-in-print:

  • A known word is uttered orally;
  • That word is segmented into syllables and phonemes (evidenced by phonemic awareness);
  • The learner identifies the matching phoneme cards (pictured below);
  • The learner has a go at spelling the word based on emerging sound-to-letter knowledge (invented spelling);
  • That spelling is tested against the word's conventional spelling, which opens up a platform for discussion of common patterns;
  • We return to the meaning of the word, and of using the word in context.

If a child can recognise all the letters of the alphabet (26 items), what's stopping him or her from memorising all possible English phonemes (45 items, give or take one or two)? And then using this knowledge to "phonemically spell" words that are part of the learner's oral language vocabulary? Sounds logical to me.

We ask kids to memorise the alphabet. Why don't we ask children to remember and apply all possible phonemes in English?

This is effective up to a point. The learner becomes adept at monitoring external and internal speech, and the learner develops a process to more rapidly represent this speech in print. Over time, the learner will process this information more rapidly as he/she recognises certain words and word patterns as whole units. For the time being, the learner is discovering the language-to-print connection, which is a step toward the writing-to-reading connection.

Part Two: Decoding

Eventually, the tables are turned, though. It is no longer enough to be able spell words by relying upon the stimulation of internal and external speech. The learner will need to decode words that are presented first in print. The learner will need to derive oral language from print, which will require that he or she recognises regular patterns, such as phonics patterns, syllable constructions, sight words, word families, morphological regularities and more.

By 6 - 7 years of age, a child is experiencing direct instruction in letter-sound relations (phonics) as well as practice in their use. He or she is reading simple stories using words with these phonic elements as well as high frequency words. By ages 7 - 8, direct instruction extends to include advanced decoding skills along with wide reading of familiar, interesting materials that help promote fluency. Meanwhile, the child is being read to at levels above their own independent reading level to develop language, vocabulary and concepts (Chall, 1996). The child should be motivated to extend themselves in relation to both expressiveness and comprehension.


The sequence when reading words in isolation as well as those in connected text is:

  • Do I see the word(s) and attend to the word(s)?
  • Do I recognise it/them as one(s) I know?  Do I recognise it/them immediately or do I need to decode it/them? Can I begin to guess it/them based on context and other cues? Do I simply recognise it/them or can I also sound it/them out?
  • Can I "chunk it/them"? (e.g. identify syllables, onset-rime and graphemes)
  • Can I allocate sound(s) to individual letters or letter combinations (e.g. graphemes)?
  • Can I refine how the word  or words are read in syllables and use my knowledge of patterns to read more proficiently and meaningfully?
  • Can I recognise the word or words along with words around it/them (if applicable)?
  • Can I re-read the word or words and the sentence (if applicable) with expression and confidence?
  • Do I consider the meaning of the word, the current utterance and other potential utterances?
  • Can the learner begin to develop a more systematic understanding of how English words work?

As learners firmly grasp the concepts of words, phonemes, graphemes and morphemes, then it becomes more feasible to systematically study graphemes in what would be called a synthetic manner. This would extend to involve further exercises which refine the learner's knowledge of spelling rules, stress patterns and more. For the moment, consider the following order of phonics to be taught in a synthetic manner (source: Bear, et al., 2015):

Letter Name-Alphabetic (Semi-Phonetic) Stage [typically between 4 - 7 yrs old]: CVC word patterns with the following sequence of graphemes and blends: short a, m, t, s, short i, f, d, r, short o, g, l, h, short u, c, b, n, k, v, short e, w, j, p, y, x, q, z, sh, ch, th, wh, st-, pl-, bl-, gl-, sl-, sp-, cr, cl, fl, fr, sk, qu, nk, ng, mp, ck

Within Word (Transitional) Stage [typically between 7 - 9 yrs old]: CVCe word patterns leading into more complex CVVC vowel patterns and common multisyllabic words: a-e, ai, ay, ei, ey, ee, ea, ie, e-e, i-e, igh, y, o-e, oa, ow, u-e, oo, ew, vowel+r, oi, oy, ou, au, ow, kn, wr, gn, shr, thr, squ, spl, tch, dge, ge, homophones

Syllables & Affixes (Independent) Stage [typically between 9 - 11 yrs old]: multisyllabic words, adding inflectional endings, homographs & homophones

Derivation (Advanced) Stage [typically between 11 - 14 yrs old]: focusing on advanced prefixes, suffixes, roots as well as word families (e.g. exclaim, exclamation, exclamatory) 

In this model, learners become familiar with letter-sounds after they are supported to navigate sounds-to-letters. Furthermore, one is exploring language well before this or - at least - alongside this study. Upon recognising words from a string of letters and/or sounds, and pictures/intentions from a string of words, then there is hope that learners can process that which has been portrayed within the coded text as well as in the spoken stream. There is hope that one is informing and being informed; is entertaining and being entertained; is greeting and being greeted; etc.

Grapheme / Phoneme Charts

Part Three: Understanding

At this point, it is no longer enough to merely encode, decode and understand basic texts. One needs to encode, decode and understand diverse texts rapidly and accurately in order to read with enough fluency so as to make way for deep comprehension. This requires the learner to coordinate a range of skills, including attention, perception, language knowledge, background/contextual knowledge, phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, word/morphological pattern recognition, sight word memory, grammatical knowledge, knowledge of text types and the ability to anticipate/select language based on this prior experience.

In this case, there is a text (perhaps spoken, maybe written). I recognise language/words in it (at least most of them). I know the context and the purpose of the text. I know what to look for. There are words that I may need to define in context or have explained to me. I can follow the logic/context, though. I can piece it together to make some logical whole. There are certain occasions where I may get stuck. For instance, I might need to clarify unfamiliar language. I might get stumped by a turn of phrase or two. I might lack some background knowledge or experience. I may just miss the point altogether. I may need the meanings of things explained to me. (What should I be thinking when I read this? What is meant/intended here?) Or I might need help sounding out more complex or unfamiliar terms. What I need most is daily practice which can lead to discoveries about the world, about language and about literacy.

When we process literate language, we process surface features for recognition AND we process deeper features to extract meaning. This is portrayed in the above Iceberg Metaphor.

A significant amount of experience is required to read and write in this meaningful manner. Without this, reading is like looking through a muddy window; you need to strain too hard to see clearly; you can only see things in bits, if at all. However, even if the window is clear (e.g. decodable) you still need to know what you are looking at and what you are looking for.

This reminds me of two parallel experiences of "learning to read". This first involved my stuttering attempts to read in a foreign language, albeit Spanish which shares many common features to English. My lack of vocabulary and insufficient grammatical knowledge meant that I regularly lost my train of thought when reading even the most basic of paragraphs, which - if presented in English - would have been easily comprehended, leaving much space to interpret and apply the information. However, in Spanish, I could not confidently interpret what I was reading, because I lacked confidence and clarity in exactly what I was decoding. I lacked adequate language knowledge. 

A much different experience involved the poetry of e.e. cummings, a poet I adore but who I needed to learn to read ... or - rather - make sense of. In the case of e.e. cummings, I could easily recognise the language, yet it took time to make sense of cummings' innovations with linguistic and poetic forms. It took time to realise the intent behind his innovations, and to come to appreciate how he wanted me - his audience - to feel, think and envision. In order to better understand this latter experience, please explore the essay "To understand, you need to part of the conversation". In practice, reading requires limited background knowledge in the earlier years and substantial background knowledge and concepts as one progress through adolescence into adulthood.


What's the story, then? Our expectations change across time. That much is obvious.

"Word reading is the best predictor of reading comprehension level in the early years (Juel, Griffith & Gough, 1986); but others skills (e.g. background knowledge, inferring, summarising, etc) become more important predictors of comprehension level as word reading ability develops through experience (Curtis, 1980; Saarnio, et al., 1990). Thus, the relative importance of different skills may change during the course of development." (Cain, Oakhill & Bryant, 2004, p. 32) 

There is a time when we are happy that a learner is exploring new words, is using language, is curious about letters and print, and is aware of sounds within words. There comes a time when we expect more, though. We expect learners to spell and read and write and talk more confidently and proficiently. Nothing more, nothing less. And - then - even this is no longer adequate. There comes a time when learners need to process information, organise  and communicate thoughts, discuss with peers and synthesise one’s knowledge. We expect more because ...

“... literacy isn’t a single skill that simply gets better with age ... Being literate is very different for the skilled first grader, fourth grader, high school student, and adult, and the effects of school experiences can be quite different at different points in a child’s development.” (Catherine Snow, et al, 1991, pg 9) 

Diligence, scaffolding, practice and challenging experiences are required. Nothing more, nothing less.


Bear, S., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2014). Words their way: word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (5th edition). Essex: Pearson.

Cain, K. E., Bryant, P. E., & Oakhill, J. (2004). Children’s reading comprehension ability: Concurrent prediction by working memory, verbal ability, and component skills. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.96.1.31

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic College Publishers.

Curtis, M. E. (1980). Development of components of reading skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 656–669

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243–255

Saarnio, D. A., Oka, E. R.,& Paris, S. G. (1990). Developmental predictors of children’s reading comprehension. In T. H. Carr & B. A. Levy (Eds.), Reading and its development: Component skills approaches (pp. 57–79). New York: Academic Press.

Snow, C. E., Barnes, W. S., Chandler, J., Goodman, I. F., & Hemphill, L. (1991). Unfulfilled expectations: home and school influences on literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.