Using a Decoding Toolkit to Develop a Common Language

Septemner 8th, 2021

by Natalia Harrison

I have always looked forward to September; I find the start of a new school year serves as the perfect opportunity to establish routines and develop good habits. As reading teachers, one way we can do this is by committing to using a common language to provide consistent cues and vocabulary, both amongst ourselves and with our students. For instance, when prompted to “call the dog” a student should know you are prompting for accent placement in a word, not asking them to call Fido in from the backyard. The decoding tool kit aims to do just that: to avoid confusion and create carryover from year to year and teacher to teacher. As such, the language remains consistent, even as the skill instruction progresses. 

Establishing a Common Language

A successful skill progression will begin with phonemic practice and syllabication principles and move toward learning orthographic expectancies (common letter patterns) and vocabulary with the goal of developing sight words and automaticity. However, before engaging in any skill instruction, it is important for students and teachers to ensure that they are on the same page. Throughout my years of researching and teaching basic literacy, the following terms and strategies are the ones I have found to be the most helpful in giving students the strongest base to engage in productive word attack skill work: 

  • At the most basic level, students should understand that a syllable is a chunk of a word with a single vowel sound. These vowels are what give our syllables volume. To demonstrate this, you might ask the student to yell the word “cat” without any vowels.
  • Once a student has an understanding of a syllable, it is important that they are able to identify the six syllable types. At Landmark, we like to use the often cited Oroton Gillingham acronym  “CLOVER”(Closed, Constant-le, Open, Vowel Team, Silent E, R Controlled) (Orton-Gillingham, 2019 pg. 65) as a helpful visual tool for remembering the syllable types. Regardless of the mnemonic device used, what is important is that the labels are consistent. 
  • Additionally, students need to be familiar with prefixes and suffixes as identifying each is an important step in the process of syllabicating a single word. 
  • Once the student has broken down the word into syllables, they should be instructed in how to accent syllables. Calling the dog is a personal favorite: have the student imagine that the word is the name of their dog and they need to call it in from the backyard to arrive at accent placement. Also, they should learn to flex vowel sounds to try both long and short sounds in order to arrive at a correct pronunciation. 

Instructional Sequence:

Once a common language has been established, an instructional sequence can be determined. For many students, we suggest introducing a pattern or rule at the start of the week through a discovery method. This approach allows students to use their understanding of the above cues and vocabulary to approach unfamiliar words rather than rely on memory, which is often an area of relative weakness for students with language-based learning disabilities. Instruction throughout the week should consist of decoding practice of both real and fake words that follow the established pattern, as well as encoding practice. To reinforce common letter patterns, pair encoding and decoding skill work together. Errors made throughout this practice should be analyzed by the instructor to inform the next day’s instruction. Additionally, through prompting with the common language outlined above, the instructor will be able to easily promote self-correction, which can also be a productive, concrete way to encourage metacognition and problem-solving. At the conclusion of the week, an informal assessment should be performed to determine the student’s level of mastery. Throughout the year, it is important to spiral back to reinforce previously learned skills, as well as continually assess for progress and retention of these skills. 

The goal of this approach is to increase time spent on direct instruction and practice through the use of common language thereby leaving more time to work towards automaticity and skill development.  A fluent reader is not bogged down by decoding individual words; however, a student with LBLD requires direct instruction in order to reach this place. 


Orton Gillingham. (2019). Teacher Manual. Indianapolis, IN: M.A. Rooney Foundation.

Six Syllable Types. (2013, April 24). Reading Rockets.

Natalia is an academic advisor at Landmark High School.  In her 12 years at Landmark, Natalia has taught in the Language Arts, Study Skills, and Expressive Language departments.  She also teaches graduate level courses in Dyslexia Studies through Southern New Hampshire University’s online program.  Natalia graduated from The University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in English, and she earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons College.

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