Encoding (spelling) is the act of putting sounds together in a specific sequence to create words. We represent these sounds in the form of letters. Encoding, in fact, is spelling, and spelling is the reciprocal process of reading. Children’s spelling skills usually emerge right alongside of their reading skills. As they learn letter-sound relationships, they begin to experiment with the process of encoding. Encoding skills sometimes emerge slightly before decoding (reading) skills do in young children. This is because encoding is the expressive form of written language, while decoding is the receptive form. Experience demonstrates that young children tend to work from the expressive avenue first in the area of written language.
Early attempts at encoding may be very rudimentary, with one or maybe two letters written on a page, seemingly representing an entire word or even a phrase or a sentence. Early encoding attempts demonstrate the child’s understanding of phonics and phonemic awareness (the awareness of sounds in words), and provide adults with a window into the child’s level of literacy understanding. Children’s early spelling skills are sometimes referred to as ‘invented spelling’. With invented spelling, children spell words using their limited knowledge of phonics. The adult reader may notice the child’s understanding of initial consonant sounds, and may also observe that the young speller has included obvious sounds heard in the spoken word, but some of the more subtle sounds may be omitted. Often, young spellers may rely on the names of the letters to represent the sounds that they hear (ex: the name of the letter y sounds like /w/). The use of invented spelling allows children to practice their phonics skills, and they may actually benefit greatly from this type of practice. As children gain phonics skills, their invented spelling expands and becomes more like that of conventional spelling. Conventional spelling instruction usually begins in first grade.
Both invented and conventional spelling rely heavily on the child’s understanding and mastery of phonemic awareness. As phonemic awareness develops, they learn about the sequence of sounds in words, how the alphabet letters map to speech sounds, and how words can be divided into syllables. These skills lend themselves to the creative use of invented spelling, and eventually, to conventional spelling. As children’s literacy develops, they become ready for instruction in conventional spelling. At this time, it is necessary for them to learn that the 26 alphabet letters actually represent 44 or more phoneme sounds. This can be tricky! Some letters can make more than one sound (c and g), while other letters combine to create a sound (oa = /o/). Further , some letters change their sound when combined with other letters (er).
Finally, one sound can be created in many different ways (long /e/ = e, ea, ie, ey)! At this developmental stage, children also begin to learn, either subconcisouly or through direct instruction, that there are six basic syllable types in the English language. The understanding of spelling patterns begin to emerge. Since each of the six syllable types has an exception, apporximately 75% of English language words can thus be classified into twelve basic syllable patterns. Children must also learn how to add suffixes and prefixes to base words, and they additionally must be taught the doubling and changing rules for specific spellings.
The process of encoding is a developmental one, with progressive stages occuring throughout a child’s schooling career. A strong foundation of phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence knowledge, and syllable construction will serve and support the student’s developing encoding skills.