Eight New Resources Available on The Literacy Bug

In this entry, we are proud to present a range of resources that have been in development for quite some time.

These include:

Please note that the “Elements” Checklist includes information on each of the above (phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, etc), as well as additional notes on reading multisyllabic words and vocabulary development.

All together, the resources are designed to provide reference materials that help one better understand the elements that contribute to word and sentence construction in English. They do NOT describe the activities that a learner can engage in to master these elements, though. As a result, these resources are not particularly helpful on their own, but they can be helpful when planning and reflecting upon the linguistic features that leaners need to master over time.

So ... please explore and enjoy! And remember, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if a learner is making progress with mastering the structural aspects of literacy - such as learning to decode words, spell words and write grammatical sentences - there is still a lot of work involved in making meaning from and with the printed word.

Words Sorts

It is with great pleasure that we share another Activity Presentation. This time we explore Word Sorts.

Word Sorts is a simple way to encourage learners to develop an understanding of the predictable patterns when reading and spelling English words. In short, each word sort activity requires learners to examine a set of words, and to sort (or categorise) these words into common patterns whilst identifying exceptions to the rule. This brief activity is designed to be done daily (or regularly) as learners "study" different sets of pronunciation and spelling patterns. In doing so, learners explore how to blend and segment various consonant and vowel sounds in simple to more complex words.

By guiding learners from simple to complex structures, teachers can help learners make logical sense of word reading and writing in English. The Word Sorts (or Word Studies) can easily be organised in such a way that the resulting program is consistent with an evidence-based phonics sequence. Over time, students come to master the patterns of English phonology,  orthography, and morphology, so they are equipped with the skills to rapidly and accurately read both known and unfamiliar words.

Rather than prolong the introduction, it is best to allow the video to speak for itself. The following video presentation provides a demonstration of this activity along with some essential points and resources. Grab your popcorn, because it is a bit of a long one. (NB: The video can also be found on YouTube at https://youtu.be/HCvYgHk6ODc.)

Ultimately, we want children to decode with confidence and notice the patterns within printed words. As Mark Seidenberg observes, “for a beginning reader, every word is a unique pattern. Major statistical patterns emerge as the child encounters a larger sample of words, and later, finer-grained dependencies.” (Seidenberg, 2017, 92)  “Readers become orthographic experts by absorbing lots of data  … The path to orthographic expertise begins with practice practice practice but leads to more more more.” (Seidenberg, 2017, 108).

After you watch the video, we encourage you to download resources that are mentioned in the presentation:

You can also access the Word Sort - Activity Cards, which have been organised into key developmental stages.

We encourage you to check out the book Words Their Way by Donald Bear and colleagues. It's a highly regarded educational resource with a thorough discussion of activities, developmental expectation and assessment tools.

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

Also, please visit our Mastering the Code presentation, including the presentation slides. This presentation and its associated slides provide background research that will help you better understand the purpose of the activity.

We hope the activity is a valuable addition to your practice. We welcome your feedback and ideas, so please stay in touch.

Thank you for your time. Please explore and enjoy!



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

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Analysing Spoken Words - A New Activity

It is with great pleasure that we add a new type of resource to The Literacy Bug: Activities.

And the first cab off the rank is Analysing Spoken Words. The following video presentation provides a demonstration of this first activity along with some essential points. (NB: The video can also be found on YouTub e at https://youtu.be/8DVPbK0HSyY.)

Ultimately, we want children to notice the patterns within their oral language (e.g. in their words), so they are equipped with the fundamental skills upon which they can build more formal literacy (e.g. sound-letter correspondences).

As Mark Seidenberg attests, “spoken words [need] to be treated as consisting of component parts, [which is a skill that] we now consider [as] an ordinary, teachable aspect of learning to read: phonological awareness. (Seidenberg, 2017, p. 63)

After you watch the video, we encourage you to download the following resources, which are mentioned in the presentation:

If you would like further background, please visit our Mastering the Code presentation, including the presentation slides. This presentation and its associated slides provide background research that will help you better understand the purpose of the activity.

To wrap up our thoughts, over time children need to develop the ability to:

  • Learn rich language;
  • Hear/isolate words within sentences (or the speech stream);
  • Focus attention on words;
  • Detect/isolate syllables within words;
  • Detect/isolate sounds within syllables/words;
  • Begin to recognise the possible sounds within their language(s);
  • Correlate their developing understanding of sounds with their emerging knowledge of sound-letter combinations;
  • Focus on the meaning of words; and
  • Focus on the use of words in rich, meaningful sentences.

We hope the activity is a valuable addition to your practice. We welcome your feedback and ideas, so please stay in touch.

… And please note ... the activity can be done partially or in full, depending on the age and ability of the learners. … And it can be incorporated into many aspects of daily practices, whether this is around book reading, in the sand pit or with general word play. These and other bits of advice are discussed in the above video and associated resources.

Thank you for your time. Please explore and enjoy!



Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.

Mastering the Alphabetic Code

Today, we share "Mastering the Alphabetic Code" which is available below as well as on YouTube at https://youtu.be/dA4nt3rxTYM

This video is a presentation that outlines the key elements involved in learning to “master the alphabetic code”, such as phonemic awareness, phonemic knowledge, letter-sound correspondence, orthographic patterns, morphological patterns and automatic word recognition and construction skills.

It emphasises the need for teachers to develop scaffolded activities that provide learners with the skills to succeed.

The presentation slides can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/Mastering-the-Code. We highly recommend that you download the slides, since they contain many resources mentioned in the video. Please be patient during download. It's a large file, at least in PDF terms (20MB).

Please explore and enjoy! And send us a message if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

An Overview of Literacy Development Now on YouTube

Today, a new string is added to the bow of The Literacy Bug ... we are now on YouTube. We've added our first video presentation to the public domain, which you can find below and at the following link: https://youtu.be/yMGU7UIJ4RU.

The presentation is entitled An Overview of Literacy Development, and it clocks in at one hour long. So grab your popcorn, sit back, watch/listen and enjoy. The presentation slides are available for download here.

In the presentation, there is discussion of the many components of literacy development, the stages of literacy development, and the dual-demands of "code-based" and "meaning-based" practices. To be exact, the presentation sets out to meet the following objectives:

  • To explore the components of literacy development (e.g. oral language development, phonemic awareness, etc);
  • To explore the stages of literacy development (i.e. the gradual, cumulative nature of literacy development);
  • To understand the difference between code-based skills and meaning-based skills;
  • To understand the four levels of processing texts / reading text; and
  • To appreciate how learners are active participants as the makers of meaning, the constructors of knowledge and members of communities.

Let us know what you think. It's an experiment, and we plan for more presentations in the future.

Below is the audio from the presentation. Whilst it includes references to the visuals, the audio may well make sense on its own. If you would prefer to listen, feel free to play online or download for offline use.

Welcome to this new step in the journey. We hope the presentation is useful and thought-provoking. Please explore and enjoy!

Podcast #5: A Response to "Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language"

Welcome to another episode of The Literacy Bug Podcast! This week I respond to the recent blog entry called “Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language”. In the mentioned blog entry, I casually glossed over the importance of oral language comprehension in the role of literacy development. In glossing over oral comprehension, I did not neglect or undermine its significance. In fact, I acknowledge the complexity and significance of language comprehension in propelling the need to encode and decode anything in the first place. In this podcast, I explore that which was left unexplored: the intricate relationship between print processing, language development and cognitive processing. Please listen, explore and enjoy! We aim to bring many more episodes in the coming weeks. (theliteracybug.com)

In the Spirit of Wittgenstein: Seeking a Clear View of Literacy

Following on the heels of the most recent blog entries (here and here), we have another unpublished entry to share from the archives … Unpublished no more, though. Whilst there are some rough edges to it, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation



Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

Following in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I am compelled to grasp a clear view (or perspicuous representation) of literacy. It is a view that is not encumbered by the various forms and instances of literacy. In the spirit of Hans Sluga (2011), the search represents a compulsion to articulate a surveyable representation of an unsurveyable whole. The unsurveyable whole - in this case - is the history of the written word and its current manifestations in print and digital form. 

While this might seem an esoteric preamble to an otherwise basic blog entry, I was not comfortable proceeding without a nod to the context to these words.

Literacy Facts

Here are the elements of a clear view of literacy in English.

1. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.

  • 21 are consonants;
  • 5 are vowels (or 6 if you treat “y” as a sometimes vowel)

2. We use these letters and letter combinations to represent 44 phonemes or English sounds (give or take one or two).

  • 25 consonant sounds
  • 19 vowel sounds

The clever reader will notice a curious fact about consonant and vowel sounds; there is a greater letter-sound correlation in relation to consonant sounds than there is for vowel sounds. It isn’t as easy to explicitly state the various letter and letter combinations which represent the 44 phonemes in English. These are learned over time, and are analysed from the learner’s growing (print) vocabulary. For more information, please refer to to the charts below.

3. There are also 131 possible graphemes which represent those 44 or so phonemes. There are 74 possible consonant graphemes to represent the 25 consonant sounds, and 57 vowel graphemes to represent the 19 vowel sounds. A grapheme can be an individual letter (like the letter "k") or it can be a group of letters (like the grouping "igh", "ph" or "ea"). And a grapheme can make more than one sounds. For example, the letter "a" can make four different sounds, as in cat, baby, father, alone. The letter "a" makes two sounds in the common word "banana". Can you identify the sounds? The following diagram shows a mapping of the 44 phonemes and all the grapheme which can represent those sounds.

Learners do not recognise all graphemes from the get go. In terms of learning, the following is a recommended order in which children explore the various graphemes in the first three to four years of school.

  • Letter Name-Alphabetic (Semi-Phonetic) Stage [typically between 4 - 7 yrs old]: CVC word patterns with the following sequence of graphemes and blends: a, m, t, s, i, f, d, r, o, g, l, h, 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

4. These sounds/graphemes are joined to form syllables. There are six common syllable types in English.

  • Closed (e.g. mat or pic/nic)
  • Open (e.g. he or ve/to)
  • Silent “e” or vowel-consonant-e [vce] (e.g. cape or stripe)
  • Vowel team or vowel pair (e.g. pain, head or toy)
  • R-controlled (e.g. far or fer/ment)
  • Consonant+le (e.g. a/pple or li/ttle)

In an analytic phonics approach, learners analyse known words to gain a firm grasp of letter-sound correspondences and word patterns. In a synthetic phonics approach, learners progressively move through letter-sound patterns of increasing complexity. Both approaches should be systematic, developmental and integrated. In practice, both approaches should be used, though one approach may be more or less dominant or effective.

5. Over time, we notice how …

  • The larger a learner’s vocabulary, the more lexical items the learner has to draw on to comparatively see how words work;
  • Phonological and phonemic awareness places an individuals in a position to problem solve the aural structure of words, and hold this in working memory for encoding and decoding;
  • Morphological knowledge helps a learner refine options by seeing meaningful, regular patterns in words;
  • Emerging spelling rules are understood through further practice;
  • Eventually, knowledge is built up over countless encounters with words. Some words we just remember. Other words we decode, encode and recognise in context. 

5. Word level fluency is not enough to engender reading/writing fluency, though. Learners must also become adept at rapidly interpreting, scanning and generating the grammatical elements in our sentences.

  • We must identifying the components of syntax, and understanding how the logic of this syntax allows one to express states of affairs and to understand states of affairs expressed in utterances.
  • This includes the ability to track pronouns - for instance.
  • The structure of a sentence explains how elements are related to one another (e.g. The cow jumped over the moon). This includes an awareness of the various types of words (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc).
  • We need to know the words to extract sense from the sentence. And we often need to grasp the intention/conversation of the sentence to grasp its meaning.

To consolidate: Structural features are mastered whilst an individual is in the early stages of learning language and literacy. Whilst the learner is learning, teachers are directing the learner’s attention to the way in which language is represented in print.

Proceed With Caution

It is here that we need to proceed with caution.

The above (meta-linguistic) knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for full literacy development. It represents the form of our utterances but not their content. Actual utterances have content (i.e. refer to things and are parts of conversations).

Actual statements are also more complex than the formulaic syntax learned in formal grammatical study. Actual utterances include nuances of idiomatic language, fragmented constructions, rhetorical devices and more. 

The sequence of statements in a texts are also shaped by a dialogic agreement between “speaker” and “audience” … rather than a formulaic one which is determined by the structure of the utterance on its own. For instance, when Michael Mohammed Ahmed writes in his novel The Tribe (2014):

“Most of my Tayta’s children still live with her in a house that belonged to my grandfather. His name was Bani Adam. Everyday my father reminds me that it was my grandfather's house, he says, ‘We are Baat Adam,’ which means, ‘We are the House of Adam’. The house is in Alexandria. People sometimes think because we’re Arabs, that I mean the city in Egypt, but the Alexandria we’re from is actually a suburb in Sydney's inner-west.” (p. 3-4)

The sequence of the text responds to the imagined needs of an imagined interlocutor rather than a logic inherent in the grammatical form of the text. The text abides by the conventions of autobiography whilst anticipating questions/assumptions that an audience would be making. (Note: Even a recipe is shaped by the conventions/expectations imposed by tradition/context.)

This observation is most pronounced in the otherwise mimetic text - a poem by William Carlos William


“so much depends



”a red wheel



“glazed with rain



“beside the white



Whilst simple on its surface, the poem demands its audience to see beyond the merely descriptive poem. The author would like the audience to appreciate its meditative quality if the text is to communicate as intended. One must recognise how the poem may or may not fit within the tradition of the haiku. (Note: See this as an example of Wittgenstein’s ‘language game’ concept illustrated in the video at the end of this section.)

We get close to a mimetic portrait in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”, but even “Big Two-Hearted River” requires its audience to be familiar with the general context, the language/vocabulary, and the overtones of Romanticism.

“Nick looks down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as we went into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.” (p. 143-144)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher obsessed with the difficulties of language, who wanted to help us find a way out of some of the muddles we get into with words.


Whilst the surface code can be teased out as an object of analysis, the content of utterances elicits background knowledge which is so pervasive that any analysis must acknowledge that

“nothing merely physical, such as acoustic blasts or ink marks, or even words and gestures - ‘signs’ of one kind or another - can possibly communicate thought. For such tokens taken by themselves are ‘dead’, and can only be animated, have life breathed into them, by something inner, such as an act of understanding.” (Stern, 2004, pg 136)

Schneider (2014) also notes this implicit and confounding dilemma. Any formulaic, analytic theory of meaning makes only so much progress through a focus on structure alone. Eventually, one must include the imagination/experience/context/shared language of the speaker and the audience as part of the equation.

Formal theories of meaning seek to explain how propositions express a sense, hopefully clearly and unambiguously, through an understanding of the proposition’s logical structure. In such a case, one must have access to the phonetic, orthographic, syntactic and lexical knowledge to be able to decode the sentence and to decipher the picture expressed within the sentence. This process is quite a static exchange. Wittgenstein himself was inspired by Gottlob Frege to contribute to the formalist, analytical project in the Tractates Logico-Philosophicus, but would soon find this pursuit inadequate to explain how meaning is expressed beyond a very limited frame. 

Wittgenstein found that meaning - in context - is less static and more elusive. The meaning of an utterance requires an understanding of the utterance’s context, a familiarity with the way the utterance is being exchanged, the intentions of the participants, and the position of the utterance within a “language game” or “conversation”. For instance, the meaning of the phrase “he is a Red” could meaning “He is a communist”, “He is a supporter of the Liverpool Football Club”, “He is a Native American”, or some other derivative. Its meaning is dependent on factors outside of the logical structure of the utterance itself. For another example, let's say someone said, "I really loved Madagascar." The individual could be referring to the place, the film or Madagascar vanilla (as opposed to another type of vanilla). There might be an audience who wouldn't find the phrase ambiguous (they only know one meaning for Madagascar) or it might not be meaningful at all (they have no concept of Madagascar whatsoever), even though they understand the grammar of the sentence and can accurately pronounce each element.

Therefore, actual elements of context, content, purpose, practice, deliberation and cognitive/information processing must be dealt with to leap into meaning. This does not negate the importance of direct, explicit instruction in the structural elements of language and literacy; however, we must acknowledge that formal skills only facilitate communication. They are not the germ of communication.

In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein 


A. TLP 3.13: A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what is projected. Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is. A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it. (‘The content of a proposition’ means the content of a proposition that has sense.) A proposition contains the form, but not the content, of its sense.


B. Z 74: A sentence is given me in code together with the key. Then of course in one way everything required for understanding the sentence has been given me. And yet I should answer the question “Do you understand this sentence?” : No, not yet; I must first decode it. And only when e..g. I had translated it into English would I say “Now I understand it.”


C. PI 496: Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.


D. Z 91: Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: “Read attentively”? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he be able to give an account of it. — Again, it could, I think, be said that if you read a sentence with attention, you will often be able to give an account of what has gone on in your mind, (e.g. the occurrence of images). But that does not mean that these things are what we call “attention”.


E. TLP 3.141: A proposition is not a blend of words. — (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate.


F. CV: Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself.


G. PI 291: What we call “descriptions” are instruments for particular uses. Think of a machine drawing, a cross-section, an elevation with measurements, which an engineer had before him. Thinking of a description as a word-picture of the facts has something misleading about it: one tends to think only of such pictures as hang on our walls: which seem simply to portray how a thing looks, what it is like. (These pictures are as it were idle.)


H. PI 533: How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey the unambiguously.  


I. “I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. There are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language … If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought.” (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)


J. “When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages … Here the term ‘language game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life …” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)


K. “The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, specifying the location of pain, and so on), then is there some question left as to whether the pupil has to find warning, informing, amusing, promising, counting, beseeching, chastising, and so on themselves worth doing? If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking at all.” (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)



Literary References

Ahmad, M. M. (2014). The Tribe. Western Sydney (NSW): Giramondo.

Hemingway, E. (1995). The Collected Stories (Everyman's Library Classics). New York: Everyman's Library.

Williams, W. C. “The Red Wheelbarrow” n.d. Web at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/red-wheelbarrow.


Wittgenstein References

Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Zettel (Z). (G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, Eds.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1974). Philosophical Grammar (PG). (R. Rhees, Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Culture and value (C&V). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (PI) (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus (TLP). London: Routledge.


Academic References

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Phillips, D. (1977). Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Schneider, H. J. (2014). Wittgenstein’s later theory of meaning: imagination and calculation. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Machinery of Language and Literacy

In light of the most recent blog entry - Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language - I've gone back to the archives to revisit an unpublished piece from the past. Whilst there are some rough edges, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation.



The layout of the diagram to the lower right might seem odd when it starts with “the world” as the notion at the top and "form of life" at the bottom, but this is to suggests that language and literacy are learned in a particular context. And the context determines the language(s) one speaks and it determines what one is likely to speak about.

In the words of Wittgenstein and Tomasello we find:

“When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #472)
“‘Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting ‘More juice’ or commenting ‘Doggie gone’ … From an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these utterances at all.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 1)

Let’s say English is a language that is spoken in this environment. And - let’s say - that the word “Madagascar” exists in this world, and I hear the word “Madagascar” uttered in this place of the world. It also refers to a film (that I haven’t seen, but am aware of) and it is a type of vanilla (Madagascar vanilla), which I don’t know much about, either. There is a history to the word, and this history is its meaning. One points to a map to show me where the country is. One offers to watch a film with me. And one shows me a picture of Madagascar vanilla, and - perhaps - I have a chance to taste it. As long as I know that places, films and plants have names, then it is possible that I can know what is being referred to.


Phonological Awareness & Phonemic Awareness

I ask someone to say the word slowly, so I can have a go at writing the word, because if one is going to recognise the printed word, one must first be phonologically and phonemically aware of the word.

When I listen closely, I notice that Madagascar has four syllables:


Ma / da / ga / scar


One must also distinguish each of the sounds within the word:


[/m/+/short a/] + [/d/+/schwa/] + [/g/+/short a/] + [/s/+/k/+/ar/]


Alphabetic Principle, Phonics & Spelling

Then I attempt to spell the word based on my knowledge of English graphemes


M = /m/

a = /short a/

d = /d/

a = /schwa/

g = /g/

a = /short a/

s = /s/

c = /k/

ar = /controlled vowel - ar/


I’m pretty confident the opening letter is M to represent the /m/ sound, since I intuitively know that the letter “m” represents the /m/ sound most of the time (94% of the time to be accurate, if you see the chart to the right/above). Similarly, I know the /short a/ sound when I hear it. Whilst the letter “a” represents the /short a/ 96% of the time, I only appreciate this from experience. To make a long story short, I know the word “scar” and intuit that the word ends with the same spelling. I could be wrong, but this is when one’s word knowledge helps one problem-solve new words. That said, I might have spelled it incorrectly, and I might need to consult someone or something (e.g. a dictionary) to see if I am on the right track.

In the end, I heard a word, and I used my phonemic awareness skills to isolate the sounds. I used my knowledge of sounds-letters and my knowledge of words to spell it. If I didn’t have any of these attributes then I could be overwhelmed by the length of the word, etc. But I wasn't. Phew!



For the time being, let’s say I recognise the word and I know that there is nothing quite morphological about the proper noun Madagascar. There are no meaningful prefixes, roots or suffixes which would assist me.


In a Sentence

Do we ever really encounter words only in isolation, though? As noted by Wittgenstein,

“If I know an object (word) I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs. (Every one of these possibilities must be part of the nature of the object/word.)” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, #2.0123)


In this case, I read the following state of affairs:


Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean.


I am lucky. I know English grammar, and I am familiar with all the words - when spoken - but I struggle with the written form of the printed word “island”. I am familiar with the spoken word, which is pronounced


[/long i/] + [/l/+/short a/+/n/+/d/]


But I don’t know about this


[/short i/+/s/+/l/] + [/short a/+/n/+/d/]


But a helpful person informs me that the letter “s” is indeed silent, and the opening letter “i” is a /long i/ syllable. In fact, the printed word “island” is familiar in the end. What a relief?


Sentences in Context

I know the sentence is a descriptive sentence, and I know that it is meant to convey information. I use my background knowledge to place the sentence in context. This sentence comes next:

The population of Madagascar is over 22 million people, and it spreads over 500,000 square kilometres.

I recognise that the emerging paragraph is a geography paragraph and I anticipate that I’ll find out about the capital city of Madagascar, primary industries, natural sites and cultural practices. I know this because I am familiar with this genre of discourse, and I expect and value this knowledge. I intuitively am comparing this with a similar text I read/heard/wrote earlier. The earlier one was about the island of Taiwan, and I am interested to know the differences between the two island contexts. If I didn’t have this previous experience or background knowledge, then I might not be able to read/hear/write the new text as deeply or critically.


Another Attempt

Let us look at another set of words. Let’s imagine that a friend shows me a photo of a red wheelbarrow sitting in the rain and provides with the following poem:


“so much depends



”a red wheel



“glazed with rain



“beside the white



“It’s beautiful,” she says. “It’s by a fellow named William Carlos William.”


I’m not really fussed by the poem, to be honest. And I don’t know why it starts with the phrase “so much depends / upon”. But my friend insists that the poem is meaningful. Even though I know all the words, and I can understand/imagine the scene, I am missing something. So my friend asks me to bring in a photo of something that is significant to me. When we meet again, we both come armed with a photo. My photo is of my late grandmother, and her photo is of a pier jutting out into a river at dusk. She reads out her poem.


“so much depends

upon ...


"the smell of

the river


"of bait, of fish

and blueberries


"on hot summer



And she helps me write mine:


“so much depends



"my grandmother's



"on the mantle



"watching over



We do it again next week, and the week after, and I start to get the point. I find it peaceful just stating something meaningful. My friend and I might talk about the “meaningfulness” of the object in the photo, but these "meanings” or even descriptions are left unsaid in our poems. At some stage, she introduces me to haikus, and I find that I have a new way to relax. Every so often I stop and write or think or say “so much depends upon …” I didn’t understand the point at the start but I do now, and I have started to branch out into other forms/purposes of poetry. I’m really quite surprised. In fact, it takes on a form of meditation or secular prayer. Whilst I still need to draft reports and memos at work, I have another written outlet that extends what I achieve in print. I have learned a new "language game" - so to speak.



Let’s return to the opening diagram, and we find the following:

  • We live in a world;
  • And in that world there are “things”, “concepts”, “phrases”, “relationships”, etc;
  • These “things” have words, whether they are physical, like “a rock”, or conceptual, like "kindness”;
  • Some of these words are functional and appear in phrases or as single words, like “How are you?” and “therefore”;
  • The words are strung together in sentences to express some sense/meaning, and those sentences are strung together as part of a discourse of some kind;
  • And we communicate about something in some way to others.

To end, let me present the following scenarios:

  • an experienced electrician is wiring up a new electrical system. The electrician knows what everything is called and what everything does, but quivers when someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to the manual. “I know what I’m doing.” Is it the technical nature of the manual that catches him off guard?
  • a philosopher is asked to wire up a new electrical system. The philosopher has no clue about electronics and quivers at the sight of the wires. Someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. After much effort, the philosopher eventually says, “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to both the manual and the box of wires.
  • an average person who is familiar with electronics, but is in no way an expert or practiced, is asked to wire up a new electrical system. She has a strong grasp of literacy and she is able to process information accurately. She knows what NOT to do in relation to voltage and amperage. She is eventually able to get the job done with the help of the manual, a few YouTube videos, and a couple calculated phone calls.

How would you go about explaining what is occurring in each of these scenarios? You may use the following diagram to help.



Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractates Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

_____________. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

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.