What is Encoding versus Decoding?

The Essentials of Encoding and Decoding

Communication is the essence of interaction for the majority of living things – animals, but especially humans, rely on the ability to communicate through various forms. The process of communication requires a sender and a receiver of a message or signal, and it cannot be better emulated than through the human invention of reading and writing.

Encoding and decoding, perhaps better represented as writing and reading respectively, are the fundamental abilities that together allow for the mastery of linguistic communication. Learning to spell, read, and write can be challenging for people, but is especially true for language learners with disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.

So, what are these skills that many people take for granted? How can we overcome difficulties in acquiring them? And what resources are available to start succeeding in linguistic communication?

What is Encoding?

Encoding is a process in which a message is created or formulated for communication purposes by a sender or an encoder. While encoding can be considered as verbal (through words, signs, photos) or non-verbal (body language, facial expressions), our focus is on encoding in reading/ writing. In the case of reading and writing, encoding is the translation of a spoken word or sound into a written symbol- essentially what we refer to as spelling.

When starting the learning process of encoding, students must first know the English alphabet and the corresponding sound that each of the distinct letters make. Students will then learn to write the alphabet which leads to spelling actual words. In order to spell (encode) a word that they can say, the student must be able to break down the word into the sounds they hear and ascribe a symbol to those respective sounds – this skill usually forms at the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade.

The message is created by the encoder, then passed on to the receiver, who then decodes it.

What is Decoding?

Keeping with the focus of reading and writing, the other side of the coin to the encoder is the receiver of the message or the decoder. Decoding is the translation of the symbolic representation of a written word or letter into an understood sound or sound pattern and thus the resulting interpretation of the message.

In order for someone to decode, they must have strong phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992). Identifying and in turn gaining a sense of meaning from these unique sounds by looking at, or rather, reading a written word is the key to decoding.

What Skills are Needed to Encode and Decode?

A basic set of skills are required for English language learners to begin encoding and decoding. On the surface level, a learner will need knowledge of the sound-symbol relationship (phonics), knowledge of the 44 phonemes (basic units of sound), knowledge of the English alphabet, and phonemic awareness.

The process of encoding and decoding requires both auditory and visual skills to connect between the two, and the fundamentals of the English language begin to be grasped as students gain the knowledge of phonology, orthography, and morphology. For example, knowing why the ‘-ed’ ending makes each of its three sounds, /d/, /t/, and /id/, is uncovered when a student can identify the final sound in the root word. Overtime as they become proficient in these concepts to identify and spell words, it will ultimately lead to automatic word recognition and achieving fluency.

What is Word Attack?

Word-attack and word-attack strategies help students decode, pronounce, and understand unfamiliar words they may come across when reading. By empowering students with a flexible set of tools to break down a word into smaller pieces they will be less likely to feel lost and give up while giving them confidence and a better chance of success when facing the unknown.

A useful word-attack strategy is to break a word down into more manageable parts and sound out each portion independently of the others. For example, if you have a long, one syllable word such as ‘stouts’, it may be helpful to break it up as ‘st/ou/ts’ – each portion is only two letters which is much easier for a beginning reader than trying to tackle it all at once. The same tool applies when faced with an unknown, multisyllable word such as ‘disregarded’. Try breaking it down into ‘dis/re/gard/ed’, which will be less overwhelming, easier to pronounce, and more likely to land understanding for the reader.

Help When Needed

Learning to read, write, and spell can be a challenging undertaking for a developing language student. There are many resources available including books and videos to help during the process; and if you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in encoding and decoding, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Dyslexia?

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects a person’s phonological processing, making reading and writing challenging for the individual. People with dyslexia experience difficulty in identifying speech sounds and/or learning how they relate to letters and words.  While not every person with dyslexia experiences the same symptoms and difficulties with reading, dyslexia is a deficit in phonological processing.

For example, people who are dyslexic may also struggle with reading comprehension, writing, spelling, and even math. Young dyslexics also tend to struggle with other things unrelated to reading, like attention span, sequencing (remembering things in order), motor control, and left and right confusion leading to wider issues affecting social interaction, memory, and dealing with stress. Dyslexics can end up struggling with everyday activities that most people take for granted because of the far-reaching issues stemming from dyslexia.

In order to understand how dyslexia affects our students and young readers, we need to take a look at phonological processing. Phonological processing is using all of the sounds of a language in order to process both spoken and written language. Phonological processing is a broad category that includes phonological awareness, working memory, and information retrieval. People who are diagnosed with dyslexia may struggle with one or all of these pieces of phonological processing.


Brain in the center of the image with descriptors of dyslexia surrounding the central image. Some of the descriptors of dyslexia include; difficulties with telling the time, losing place in a text, handwriting difficulties, times tables or the alphabet, sequencing, problems with note taking, organizational problems, and difficulty getting ideas on paper.


Recent Research

While science is constantly evolving and creating new insight into dyslexia and its effects, researchers have not yet determined what exactly causes dyslexia. What they do know, however, is that dyslexia is genetic; in other words, a child is more likely to develop dyslexia if one of their parents is dyslexic. Furthermore, if that child has any siblings, there is a 40% chance that the sibling could also have problems reading.

Researchers are getting closer to understanding exactly which parts of the brain are affected. When a person is reading, both hemispheres of the human brain are active, but the left hemisphere does most of the work. Pathways are created during the reading process, and each has a specific function. For instance, there is a pathway that facilitates ‘sight recognition’ (recognizing a word just by looking at it rather than breaking it down by individual sounds), which leads to another developed pathway that allows the reader to remember the meaning of that recognized word. This results in a series of connections leading to speech, articulation, and pronunciation. All of these processes happen simultaneously throughout the brain for a fluent reader.

For someone with dyslexia, these internal pathways and connections form differently. There is little understanding as to why these differences occur, but researchers have found that the left hemisphere of the brain in a dyslexic person lacks the necessary connection to facilitate the pathways which allow a reader to become fluent. Instead, the right hemisphere begins to overcompensate and work harder to create those connections that are needed to read and comprehend. Below is a graphic that shows the activity in a brain of a non-dyslexic reader versus that of a dyslexic reader.


Side by side comparison of brain scans. Normal reader brain scans show strong activity pattern in the left hemisphere and then dyslexic brain scan shows a weak activity pattern in the left hemisphere.



If you struggle with dyslexia, know that you are not alone! Dyslexia is much more common than one might initially believe. Research has found that nearly 18% of the population is dyslexic. That is almost 1 out of every 5 people! Our resources at the Colorado Reading Center can help relieve some of the struggle and stress that may be caused by dyslexia. We provide resources to help readers, young and old, develop the essential skills for reading success.

People of all ages can suffer from dyslexia. However early interventions with young students, typically between Kindergarten and fifth grade, have been shown to be most effective. There are plenty of resources including books and videos to help understand the possibilities of overcoming Dyslexia, and there are numerous organizations such as the Colorado Reading Center that offer professional services for dyslexia remediation.


The Schwa – or the lightly pronounced unaccented vowel sound

What is the Schwa?

Now that students have learned about multiple syllable words and syllable division with a variety of endings, they will be introduced to the ‘schwa’. The schwa is a lightly pronounced unaccented vowel sound that sounds like /u/ rather than the vowel saying its name or sound, and the ‘schwa’ is represented by an upside down ‘e’ (ə). The ‘schwa’ is a concept of our language that can be overlooked despite its prevalence in the English language.

Take for instance the word, ‘banana’; there are three of the same vowel in this word, but only one is actually pronounced with its sound – the other two are unaccented syllables, allowing the ‘schwa’ to occur (accented syllables will never be said with a schwa in English). Occasionally, the schwa can also be on a vowel digraph. An example of this would be in the word ‘captain’; if we said this word phonetically, the ‘ai’ in it would make a long /a/ sound, but we actually read it with an /ə/ sound.

History of the Schwa

Where does the ‘schwa’ come from? The actual concept wasn’t coined as a ‘schwa’ until the late 1800’s by German phonologists and was borrowed from the Hebrew words “shva”, but the unstressed vowel sound goes back even further to Old English as well as languages of different families such as Albanian, Caucasian and Uralic languages, Hindi, Korean, Romance languages, Slavic languages, and many more all throughout the world!

There is always one stressed vowel within a multi-syllable word, so the unstressed vowel (or syllable) began to take on a consistent, unaccented sound /u/. English is a stress-timed language (opposite of a syllable-timed language, like Spanish), which means the rhythmic impression is based on the regular timing of stress peaks, not syllables. This style of English goes all the way back to the 9th century and is the same style that we use today.

The schwa is incredibly important for world languages in general by helping to emphasize the accented syllable. It might be hard to believe, but this sound is actually the most used sound in the entire English language.

How We Learn the Schwa

To help students understand the schwa and how to identify it within words, we draw the student’s attention to it with an example word, like ‘banana’ as it is easy to identify the schwa in this word. A clinician will write out the word and have the student divide it into syllables. Then, they ask them to identify the accent, which will play fair (in other words, it will say its expected sound).

Next, the clinician will draw the student’s attention to the unaccented syllables and identify the sound they are making as the schwa sound. It can be fun to have the student try the word without a schwa on the first and last syllable (e.g. bānanā). Next, the student will decode several words with the schwa sound repeating this process.

Step 1: Syllable Division

ba | na | na

Step 2: Identify Accent

ba | nà | na

Step 3: Draw Attention to Unaccented Syllables with Schwa Sound

bə | nà | nə

It may also be helpful to look up a few words in the dictionary to demonstrate how the schwa is represented so they can sound out unknown words. For example: captain (ˈkap tən), banana (bəˈna nə), abandon (əˈban dən). It will not be hard to find as it is in the majority of English words!


‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

An inflectional ending is a group of letters added to the end of a word to change its meaning. They have spelling and pronunciation rules that are very helpful for a developing reader to learn. The fourth and final inflectional ending we teach is the ‘er/est’ ending. These endings are added to adjectives to show comparison.


Purpose of ‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ suffixes fall into the the English categories of comparatives and superlatives respectively. We use ‘er’ to compare two things to each other (fast/faster). The ‘est’ ending is used when comparing three or more things (fast/fastest). There are some words that change completely when used in comparison (good/better/best), but for the purpose of gaining reading and spelling skills, these irregulars are not the focus.

History of ‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

English speakers have been using ‘-er’ and ‘-est’ suffixes in order to make comparisons since the inception of English and holds tradition even as far back as Indo-European spoken in 4,500 BC. The Old English derivatives were spelled differently than they are today being ‘-ra’ and ‘-est/-ost’ as in the word for hard: hard (heard), harder (heardra), and hardest (heardost).

It wasn’t until the 1200’s when English speakers began to use the words ‘more’ and ‘most’ to slowly replace the ‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ endings.

How We Teach the ‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

The spelling rules for the ‘er/est’ ending are very similar to the other three inflectional ending rules we teach and the same spelling patterns are used for ‘er’ and ‘est.’

For base words that end with consonant+‘y,’ change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add the ending (busy/busier/busiest). The base word does not change if it ends in vowel+’y’ (happy/happier/happiest).

We use the consonant doubling rule if the base word has a vowel saying its sound—or a short vowel—followed by one consonant (flat/flatter/flattest).

Finally, in a base word that ends in ‘e,’ do not double ‘e,’ just add the ending ‘r’ or ‘st’ (brave/braver/bravest).  A summary of these rules can be found below.

Examples of the ‘-ER’ and ‘-EST’ Endings

In general, just add ‘er’ or ‘est’

tall to taller, tallest

If the base word ends in ‘e,’ remove the ‘e’ and add ‘er’ or ‘est’

nice to nicer, nicest

If the vowel says its sound and there is a single consonant after, double the consonant

thin to thinner, thinnest

If the word ends in vowel+’y,’ simply add ‘er’ or ‘est’

gray to grayer, grayest

If the word ends in consonant+’y,’ change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘er’ or ‘est’

silly to sillier, silliest

‘-S/ES’ Ending

‘-S/ES’ Endings

The English language has a number of inflectional endings, which are groups of letters added to the end of a word to change its meaning. They have spelling and pronunciation rules that are helpful for a developing reader to know. The third ending we teach is the ‘s/es’ ending, which is used to make words plural. There are some words with irregular plurals such as “mouse/mice” or “sheep/sheep.” For the purposes of reading and spelling remediation, we do not spend time teaching these. It is more important for our students to know about common pluralization.

History of the ‘-S/ES’ Ending

English has lost many of its inflectional endings over its long history, but the common plural ending for nouns has survived since Old English. The ‘-S/ES’ ending derives from the masculine ending ‘-as’, as in cyningas “kings”.

We can be thankful for this adoption from Old English, otherwise we would have many more irregular plurals from the ancient Germanic language. If you think ‘mice’ is weird, imagine if more than one goat was a bunch of ‘gat’, or more than one oak tree was a field of ‘ack’. In order to properly discuss a plural form of any of these nouns, you would have needed to know the exact word for it rather than just adding on the handy ‘-S/ES’ ending.


Rules of the ‘-S/ES’ Ending

The ‘s’ ending is quite different from the other endings covered so far because it does not contain a vowel. This makes adding the ending less complicated. For the vast majority of words, simply add the letter ‘s’ to change from singular to plural. There are just two situations that require something different.

First, if the base word ends in consonant+‘y,’ change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’ (copy/copies). The other part of this spelling rule relates to the ‘s’ sound. If the base word ends in the letters ‘s,’ ‘z,’ ‘x,’ ‘sh,’ or ‘ch,’ the ending ‘es’ must be used (fuss/fusses, bench/benches). To make the plural sound distinct from the singular base word, this adds another syllable which sounds like /iz/.


Examples of ‘-S/ES’ Endings

In general, simply add ‘s’

walk to walks

If the base word ends in ‘e,’ add ‘s’

save to saves

If the vowel says its sound and there is a single consonant after, add ‘s’

hop to hops

If the base word ends in vowel+’y,’ add ‘s’

play to plays

If the base word ends in consonant+’y,’ change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’

cry to cries

If the base word ends in S, Z, X, SH, or CH, add ‘es.’ This adds a syllable and is pronounced /iz/.

misses, fizzes, foxes, brushes, lunches.


‘-ING’ Endings

‘-ING’ Endings

The English language has a number of inflectional endings, which are groups of letters added to the end of a word to change its meaning. They have spelling and pronunciation rules that are helpful for a developing reader to know. The second ending we teach is the ‘ing’ ending, which is used to make most verbs present tense.

History of ‘-ING’ Endings

The modern usage of ‘-ing’ endings derive from two different suffixes historically. It can be used both as a present participle (adjectival) and a gerund (noun). In the context of a present participle, ‘-ing’ comes from Middle English ‘-inde/-ende’ and even further back from Old English, and yet further from Proto-Indo-European as early as 4,500 BC.

In the context of a gerund, ‘-ing’ derives from Proto-Germanic ‘-inga/-unga’ and is a cognate to the suffix found in Dutch, West Frisian, and North Germanic languages.

Purpose of ‘-ING’ Endings

The suffix ‘-ing’ has the purpose of making one of the inflected form of verbs in English. This form of the verb is utilized as a present participle, a gerund, and sometimes as a noun or adjective – it can also be found in some words like morning and ceiling.

‘-ING’ used as a present participle (to produce adjectival/ adverbial phrases)

He saw her eating a sandwich.

o   The verb phrase ‘eating a sandwich’ serves as an adjective, describing ‘her’

‘-ING’ used as a gerund (to produce noun phrases)

She enjoys eating sandwiches.

o   The verb phrase ‘eating sandwiches’ serves as a noun, being the object of ‘enjoys’

How We Teach the ‘-ING’ Ending

As we teach the inflectional endings, students should notice similarities and differences between the spelling rules for each one. The rules for ‘ed’ and ‘ing’ are quite different because they each start with a different vowel. One major difference is that ‘ing’ can be added to a base word which ends in ‘y’ without making any changes to the base word. This is true regardless of what letter comes before the ‘y.’ (fry/frying, employ/employing) Also, if the base word ends in ‘e,’ the ‘e’ must be removed before adding the ending (bakeing vs baking). Both ‘ed’ and ‘ing’ endings require the consonant after a short vowel be doubled.

Examples of the ‘-ING’ Ending

In general, just add ‘ing’

walk to walking

If the base word ends in ‘e,’ remove ‘e’ and add ‘ing’

save to saving

If the vowel says its sound and there is a single consonant after, double the consonant

hop to hopping (compare to hoping)

If the base word ends in vowel+’y,’ simply add ‘ing’

play to playing

If the base word ends in consonant+’y,’ simply add ‘ing’

cry to crying


The ‘-ED’ Endings

‘-ED’ Endings

The English language has a number of inflectional endings- these endings are groups of letters added to the end of a word to change its meaning, or more specifically, assign it a particular grammatical property. They have spelling and pronunciation rules that are helpful for a developing reader to know. The first ending we teach is the ‘ed’ ending, which is used to make most verbs past tense.

The Nuances of ‘-ED’ Endings

Reading and Speaking

It is important for reading students to know that this syllable does not often sound the way it looks. Rather than saying /ed/, the ‘ed’ ending makes the sound /t/ as in “walked,” /d/ as in “saved,” or /id/ as in “lifted.” Our language also has several irregular verbs, which do not change to past tense by merely adding an ending; they change to a different word altogether. For example, the word “run” doesn’t become “runned.” It changes to “ran.” Most native English speakers will make these changes automatically when speaking.


Our students learn that in order to correctly spell past-tense verbs with this ending, they need to pay close attention to the spelling of the base word. There are two challenging parts of the ‘-ED’ ending to remember: when to double a consonant and what to do if a base word ends in ‘y.’

The final consonant of a word is doubled if the vowel in the base word says its sound (short vowel sound) and is followed by a single consonant (rub/rubbed). The doubling does not occur, for example, when the vowel in the base word is saying its name (long vowel sound) and is followed by a single consonant (need/needed or save/saved).

How do you make a verb ending in ‘y’ past tense? If the base word ends in ‘y,’ look at the letter before ‘y.’ A base word ending with a vowel before the ‘y’ is changed to past tense simply by adding ‘ed’ (employ/employed). A base word that ends with a consonant before the ‘y’ needs to change ‘y’ to ‘i’ before adding ‘ed’ (fry/fried).


Examples of Spelling Different ‘-ED’ Endings

In general, just add ‘ed,’

walk to walked

If the base word ends in ‘e,’ add only ‘d’

save to saved

If the vowel says its sound and there is a single consonant after, double the consonant

hop to hopped (compare to hoped)

If the base word ends in vowel+’y,’ add ‘ed’

play to played

If the base word ends in consonant+’y,’ change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘ed’

cry to cried