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Literacy Matters

3 Ways to Integrate Encoding Practice

May 10, 2024

by: Leah Mermelstein, M.Ed.

7 mins


“I feel secure in teaching decoding but encoding well…. this is a mystery to me!” The teacher who confided this to me named the elephant in the room in the primary grades: teachers are systematically teaching foundational skills and seeing big reading payoffs, but they are not seeing the same payoff in students’ writing. Why is it that foundational skills are transferring to students' reading abilities, but not transferring nearly as much to their writing abilities? What underlies this mysterious gap and can we do anything to close it?  

Spoiler: The answer is yes. We absolutely can accelerate encoding progress with a few deliberate tweaks to our instruction.  

Decoding and Encoding Require Automaticity 

Let’s first define what it means to decode and to encode. Decoding is the ability to recognize letters, retrieve those sounds, and blend them together as words. Encoding is the ability to segment sounds, reproduce the associated letters, and form those letters into written words and sentences. People often use the words encoding and spelling interchangeably. Encoding is certainly part of spelling, but to be a strong speller, students also need instruction in morphology (meaningful word parts) and etymology (word origins). Students need to first learn to accurately decode and encode and ultimately automatically decode and encode, meaning they can do it without thinking. Think: Preparing your coffee in the morning. You do it every day. but most days it’s so automatic that you may not even remember doing it. Without automatic decoding and encoding skills, students struggle with higher-order reading and writing tasks.  

Why Writing Progress Stalls 

While it’s fantastic news that many teachers are seeing progress in their students’ decoding abilities, it’s important to consider why many of those same students are not progressing as much in their encoding abilities. Here are a few things to consider about why this might be.  

  • Encoding needs a brighter spotlight. The professional discourse has long favored reading, casting writing into the shadows. While decoding certainly belongs in the science of reading conversation, deeply understanding encoding needs an equal emphasis if we are to attain literacy growth. I’d go so far as to say encoding deserves even greater attention than decoding. It needs its day in the sun.  
  • Encoding is more complex than many realize. Encoding is no simple feat; it demands a repertoire of skills beyond decoding. Writing extends beyond recognizing print—it involves the intricate act of reproducing it. This process introduces unique skills. It’s time we give it the instructional minutes it deserves.  
  • Students are given insufficient practice. Due to these distinctive demands, some students lack ample practice in encoding, particularly in honing the subskills essential to the process. The result? A disparity in precision and proficiency. 

Getting Sophisticated Thinking Down on Paper 

Consider this scene from a Read Aloud session when I observed a first-grade teacher reading aloud the book, When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry by Molly Bangs. During the session, a six-year-old named Doubly shared profound insights with her classmates. Her keen observation—recognizing the shift in the main character's emotions as she settles into a quieter setting—left the class in awe of her insights. However, when tasked with translating this brilliance onto paper, Doubly faced a myriad of challenges. Crafting her insightful idea into coherent sentences demanded not only mental dexterity but also the meticulous application of phonics, letter formation, punctuation, and spacing. It's a cognitive symphony; if one or more of these skills isn’t sufficiently developed, a learner’s writing may fall far short of her verbal communication of thought.  

Doubly, like many students, needed more. But what? Her teacher and I debriefed after the lesson, and we realized that Doubly would benefit from short precise practice in leveraging her phonics knowledge to not just decode print but to also encode it. We knew we had to plan this instruction carefully so that Doubly was not overtaxed. We also knew that our end goal was automaticity in encoding so that she could focus on getting her beautiful thoughts onto the page easily and automatically.   

Planning That Clears the Path 

Our planning session reminded me of a quote I recently heard on the podcast, The Literacy View. Maureen Ruby, the guest on this particular day quoted Lola May, an esteemed mathematic educator and consultant, who said, "Teachers need to know their stuff, know who they’re stuffing, and stuff elegantly." During our planning session, I saw that Doubly’s teacher certainly knew her stuff. She also knew her students’ strengths and needs. Our next step was to design elegant instruction that was based on the Science of Reading and was also responsive to Doubly’s needs.  

Designing Elegant Encoding Instruction 

For me, the key to elegant writing instruction lies in understanding both Linnea Ehri’s Orthographic Mapping Process and Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. Once I really hunkered down a few years ago and applied these concepts to my teaching, I began to see the writing payoff.  

Ehri’s Orthographic Mapping is a scientific process that helps students automatize both decoding and encoding. In orthographic mapping, students must first grasp the relationship between letters and sounds, segment and blend sounds to read and write words, and finally understand the meaning of the word they read and wrote. Some students develop automaticity with decoding and encoding quickly, while most need a lot of practice before this happens. Therefore, eloquent encoding instruction should include lots of opportunities for students to go through the orthographic process both as readers and writers.  

Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory explains that when our brain is overtaxed very little is remembered or retained (the exact opposite of what we want to happen). Therefore, we want to design reading and writing instruction that challenges but doesn’t overwhelm or overtax students.  

3 Ways to Integrate Encoding Practice 

Here are three simple ways to integrate encoding practice into your daily lessons that prioritize orthographic mapping and cognitive load theory.  

1. Small-Group Literacy Instruction: Orthographic Mapping in Action 

  • Warm Up: Students first build a word with magnetic letters, then read a word, and finally write a word with a target sound/sounds. 
  • Integration: Students then read a short decodable passage and write a short message with the same targeted sounds. 
  • Result: Strengthened decoding and encoding simultaneously. 

2. Interactive Writing: Avoiding Overloaded Minds 

  • Task: Collaboratively writing a sentence, word by word, with a focus on specific sounds. 
  • Integration: Aligning the writing task with current phonics instruction. 
  • Benefit: Additional encoding practice, reinforcing foundational skills while managing the difficulty of the task by aligning it to phonics instruction. 

3. Writing Time: Nurturing Nimble Writers 

  • Task: Encouraging risk-taking, oral rehearsal, and drawing during independent writing time or Writing Workshop. 
  • Insight: Helps students understand why they are practicing encoding in other parts of the day, assesses students' encoding knowledge and identifies areas for future encoding instruction.    

** Corrective feedback is given throughout all of these lessons. You might say things such as: 

  • If this word was nut this (pointing to the incorrect letter) wouldn’t be there.  
  • Does your p look like my p? Can you make your p look like my p? 
  • You are right. These letters (points to letters ea in the word rain misspelled as rean for example) sometimes spell that /ae/ sound, but in this word, it is a different spelling. Can you try a different spelling for the sound /ae/?  

As you can see, in all of this feedback the teacher precisely points out the confusion and scaffolds the child so they can solve it on their own.  

By embracing these simple techniques, your classroom can become a space where decoding and encoding harmonize, empowering students to read with zeal and write with confidence. Join me on this transformative journey of elegant writing instruction. Discover ways to tuck encoding practice into your already existing structures and watch your students soar.  


Linnea C. Ehri (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356 

Heubeck, Elizabeth. ‘Encoding’ Explained: What It Is and Why It’s Essential to Literacy. Education Week, January 17th, 2023 

Joseph, Nate. Science of Writing Roundtable Podcast: An Interview With Dr. Steve Graham, Dr. Amy Rouse Gillespie, Joan Sedita and Lyn Stone. Pedagogy-Non Grata.  

Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988). 

The Literacy View Strengthening the Implementation of SOR. Feb. 27th, 2024  

About the Author

Leah Mermelstein is a literacy thought leader, published author, and writing, reading, and language development authority. For the past 25 years, she has provided professional development for teachers, nationally and internationally, translating literacy research and data into successful and impactful classroom applications. She has authored five instructional literacy books focused on deconstructing the reading and writing process and how to leverage reading to support writing and writing to support reading. Leah Mermelstein


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