“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).
Therefore, the explicit instruction of encoding and decoding strategies support progress toward mastery, which is the ability to read, write, and spell as one body.
Is explicit reading & writing instruction necessary?
While oral language is a more natural human development process, written language (including reading and writing) must be taught.
Learning to read, write, and spell may be challenging for students, and seeking opportunities for incremental success through explicit, sequential, multisensory instruction proves incredibly motivating. This is especially true for English language learners and individuals with diagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.
When learning something is difficult, it’s easier to dismiss it entirely. “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.”
So why is it important to continue the literacy journey? How will learning this [new phonetic concepts or strategies] help me in the long run? Why should I read? There are many reasons why reading, writing, and spelling are important.
Spelling is critically important 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 [study of sounds], orthography [study of writing systems and sound-letter correspondences], morphology [study of word parts which shape word meaning], and etymology [study of the history of words].
According to Peter Bowers (2009), “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).
Knowledge of spelling patterns and rules knit together the layers of the English language as students use phonology, orthography, and morphology to identify how to spell words. For example, understanding why suffix -ed makes each of its three sounds, /id/, /d/, or /t/, hinges on identifying 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 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 extremely important.
Students will segment to spell the phonemes in monosyllabic and polysyllabic words with increasing automaticity. Thus, a fluent writer is born.
Decoding (de / co / ding)
In Reading Reasons, Gallagher notes many ways reading is valuable, including building a mature vocabulary, making you a better writer, making you smarter, providing financial rewards, and helping develop your moral compass while arming you against oppression (Gallagher, 2003).
Long words can be intimidating for readers, but there is hope! When following cumulative, sequential, and explicit instruction in English language patterns, students can decode, or “break the code,” to tackle increasingly complex patterns.
This also allows students to broaden their vocabulary, which is a critical component to better writing and deeper comprehension. With the knowledge of syllable patterns (how to cut phonetic words into decodable syllables) and syllable types (how to pronounce the vowel sounds in each syllable), students increase their 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 identification of vowels and consonants. Next, they discover the syllable division pattern(s) which indicates how to cut the word into syllables.
There are four syllable division patterns in English listed by frequency: (1) VC/CV as in rabbit, (2) V/CV as in raven, (3) VC/V as in camel, and (4) CV/VC as in lion. Then, students look at each syllable and determine the syllable type which indicates how to pronounce the vowel sounds.
There are seven syllable types in English: closed syllables (bed), open syllables (be), magic-e syllables (make), vowel team syllables (treat), bossy r syllables (verb), diphthong syllables (growl), and consonant-le syllables (noble).
Finally, these strategies are applied to phonetic multisyllabic words systematically in a multi-sensory manner to read the whole 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.
Alternatively, in irregular words, spellings are not as clearly linked to the sounds used to pronounce the words. Therefore, students must memorize the letter strings to spell and read the words. While irregular words vary student to student based on the phonetic concepts learned, a small percentage of English as a whole are always irregular.
Once memorized and orthographically mapped in the brain, these words become recognizable on sight. Students see the string of 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 are 80% wholly decodable by readers leaving only 20% of words as irregular or recognizable on sight. Controlled, decodable readers follow a sequence of instruction, and, therefore, provide students the opportunity to apply decoding strategies independently with increasing accuracy. More broadly, decodable texts walk alongside developing readers and provide motivation and encouragement.
When partnered with fluency instruction, such as repeated or choral reading, and comprehension strategies, these texts encourage students to layer strategies to become strong readers. Even when one can read, they choose not to. Why do some students not find reading rewarding?
When reading books or passages at a frustration level, students spend too much time and cognitive effort on decoding at the word level leaving little room for fluency and comprehension. Decodable texts provide opportunities for the application of learned skills. This is empowering to students – and empowered readers become intrinsically motivated.
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. The development of decoding skills must be partnered with vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension strategies.
Empowered Readers & Writers
Irregular words as well as phonetic words may become sight words, which is the goal of explicit instruction – students’ brains function so proficiently allowing cognitive functions to focus on fluency and comprehension. Ultimately, explicit, systematic, cumulative, multi-sensory instruction of encoding and decoding phonetic and irregular words results in motivated and empowered readers and writers.
About The Author
Ginny Simank is a Level 4 IMSE OG Master Instructor living in Dallas, Texas. She has a master’s degree (M.Ed.) with a Reading Specialist certificate and holds certifications in special education, English as a Second Language, and generalists for Early Childhood through 6th grade & ELA 4th-8th grades. She is an IDA-certified Structured Literacy Teacher and full-time instructor for the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE), whose mission is to train others across the country (teachers, administrators, tutors, education professionals & parents) in the Orton Gillingham methodology of multi-sensory language instruction. Ms. Simank previously served on the national board of directors for the Learning Disabilities Association and was a member of the LDA’s Education & Nominating Committees.
- Bowers, Peter (2009). Teaching How the Written Word Works. www.wordworkskingston.com.
- Ehri, L. “Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning,” Scientific Studies of Reading 18 (2014): 5–21; and Kilpatrick, Essentials of Assessing.
- Ehri, L., et al., “Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis,” Review of Educational Research 71 (2001): 393–447.
- Gallagher, K. (2003). Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle School and High School. Portland, ME: Steinhouse Publishers.
- Henry, Marcia (2004). Unlocking Literacy, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Second Printing.
- Liuzzo, Jeanne (2020). Intermediate Training Manual, Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, p53-56.
- Moats, Louisa C. (2020). Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science (2020): What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.
- Olson, Carol Booth. 2003. The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
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The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.
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