The ELL Decoding Tool Box

In last week’s post, I shared a story about a student at my school who had been in ELL classes for several years but couldn’t read because she was never taught to decode. Her story sparked a great conversation on Twitter from many teachers who had experienced similar decoding gaps in their students. Many teachers offered suggestions about decoding strategies and interventions that I want to share on this post.

Dangers of Drinking the Kool-Aid

Before jumping into decoding strategies that are helpful in the classroom, I want to share one word of caution that came out of a recent conversation that I had with @MsSalvac on her Boosting Achievement podcast. Carol had some excellent questions and suggestions about how to deliver literacy intervention in a ways that aren’t detrimental to students. Pulling students out of a low beginner classes for short periods to do literacy intervention may be necessary but beware of long decoding sessions. Decoding is extremely demanding work and long exposures to it has the potential to demotivate students and do more harm than good.

One amazing part about teaching Grade One is watching students learn to read for the first time. Reading development has many stages and phases. One of these phases illustrates brilliantly how hard first-time decoding is. Just after learning to decode, there is a phase where most children will finish decoding all the words in a short, leveled reader and have no idea what the book was about. That moment of cluelessness is not caused by lack of understanding. It is due to the significant cognitive load of decoding. Decoding requires such heavy lifting for the brain that it can’t spare additional power to comprehend the text.

I mention this because I don’t want anyone to think that buying a phonetics program and racing through it with a small group, for long periods every day, will be the best solution to closing a decoding gap. There are no quick fixes to developing decoding skills.

Literacy intervention needs to be targeted, long-term and consistent.

I would recommend targeting unknown sounds using a Words Their Way assessment tool or a WADE assessment (from Wilson Reading) and spending 15 to 20 minutes per day on specific vowel teams, digraphs and diphthongs or welded sounds where they need support. Small, consistent chunks of decoding is far more effective than long sessions.

The Power of Five Minutes Per Day

My youngest daughter, who just turned five, is learning to decode right now. She can’t name all the letters in the alphabet and she doesn’t know all of the sounds they make–but she does know some. For the last several months, we have tried to “sound out” three or four words on the outside of our dish washer using little magnetic letter. I usually put three letters together, ask her the name of the letters. Ask her the name of the sounds and support her as she sounds it out.

A few days ago, my wife and daughter were driving around together and pulled up beside a four-by-four pick up truck with the words “Off Road” written in big letters on the side of it. In the few seconds before the light turned green, my wife heard my daughter say, “ooofff…off.” Suddenly, an enormous smile of triumph crossed her face. She had started reading. To our amazement, the five minutes of decoding practice per day had started to pay off. The words around her were coming alive! This little story serves as a special reminder to me that you don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid from a special reading program to fill a decoding gap. You just need targeted, consistent and long-term.

In my examples, I’ve been talking about small group interventions but in fact, there are several ways that you can work decoding into your classroom routines. Here are a few of the suggestions.


Word and Spelling List Intervention

The strength of using a word list each week in your classroom is allowing students to see letter patterns explicitly. Common chunks of words, or word families pop out at students when you put them in a list. Consider the ight family: bright, flight, sight night, might, right etc. Pulling a word out of a mentor text and working on it is also an awesome strategy but lists help students generalize certain spelling patterns and letter combinations

If you use word lists with your students, it is important to teach pronunciation of those words at the same time and keep coming back to them during the week. Put a large list on chart paper and keep it in front of them the whole week. Do practice dictations with them and encourage them to “sound out” the words or remember the letter pattern. Put them in a bingo card with similar sounding words and make students listen carefully to the sounds while they are watching the letters.

Helping students identify words that break the rules or letter patterns is also important. I call them “Jail Words.” For example, students might expect light to be spelled lite. You might have already taught them that a “Magic e” on the end of a word makes the vowel say its owe name. But in the case of “light” you have a silent gh and the vowel says its own name (it’s a long vowel). In this sense, light is a rule-breaker who could be put in the jail–along with the rest of the whole family.

If you are looking for word list to use with your students, I would suggest that you use a decoding progression list. Alternatively, you could target a particular vowel sound, digraph (ck /k/), trigraph (dge /j/), vowel team (oy /oi/) or welded sound (ink /ink/) that your class needs help with. To target a pattern, use a Word Family list that highlights this particular pattern. Spelling City is one source for these word family lists. Teachers have made hundreds of them in a free data bank that is available to anyone with an account. For example, if I wanted to target the consonant digraph ch, you might choose a list like chose, chair, ouch, much, church, check, chin, chat.

I should also mention that Spelling City has a wealth of information about phonetics and the website can also be set up by a teacher to host your students. If you set up your classroom inside the site, there are a number of activities that students can do with the words in your weekly word list.

If you are new to phonetics and are unsure about range of sounds that your students might need help with the WADE assessment is helpful. On the third page, it gives a list of inventory of sounds that might help you.

*Shared with permission from Wilson Reading

You can also use this same strategy to target spelling rules. For example, if you want to teach your students about, what I like to call, the Magic “e.” Group together simple words that illustrate the rule. Words like: same, made, cake, dine. It also helps to diagram the word so students can see what is happening. In the picture below, I’m trying to help students understand that the silent (or magic) e changes the sound of the o from a short to long sound.

Magic E Diagram

Illustrated Word Wall

It surprising how effective a little cue can be if it’s constantly in front of the students. This is one of the reasons Word Walls are so effective. If you diagram a word like the one above, put it on a Word Wall, so the students can constantly see it. Also, if the teacher names the rule “Magic E,” they only need to do is cue the student by saying, “Magic e,” waiting for self-correction. The same is true for prefixes and suffixes, diphthongs and digraphs. For example, if I decide to name the vowel team “ee” the “Squeaky Es” because they make a long e sound together. I could have one anchor word like “wheel” on the a Word Wall so that if someone mispronounces that vowel team, I could just say “Squeaky E” and wait for the self-correction. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making diagrammed word cards, the spelling teacher cards have some nifty illustrations that may be big enough to use on a word wall. Below is an example of a Word Wall that has about three anchor words per sound.

Sounds that Stick

Another approach to help students remember phonetic code is by connecting them to every day experiences and emotions. Stories are central to the way that humans communicate and using stories embed letter and sound combinations in the brain makes sense on so many levels. During our Twitter conversation, @jmcthomas03 shared about how The Secret Stories by Katie Garner does this. Katie also sent me a brief note explaining her approach

Unlike random or arbitrary letter sound stories (like Magic E/Sparkly E) that kids have to learn and remember, the Secret Stories are rooted in what kids already know—universal frameworks of social-emotional experience and understanding: how it feels to have a crush and feel embarrassed, like au/aw; playing too rough and getting hurt, like ou/ow; sticking your tongue out at someone when you’re mad, like th; being quiet in the library, like sh; playing ball, like al; slamming on the brakes in a car, like er/ir/ur; how to behave when you’re the line leader vs. when you’re at the end can’t be seen, like Sneaky Y®; having to do what your mom or babysitter says when they’re nearby, but not when they’re too far away to reach you, like Mommy E® and Babysitter Vowels, etc. Kids don’t have to remember these stories because they “live” them every day. By aligning letter behavior to kids’ own behavior, we shorten the learning curve for inexperienced ELL learners, allowing them to make logical deductions about the most and next most likely sounds of letters in words.

Katie Garner

The image below show’s how The Secret Stories pairs the experience of falling in love to au and aw.

If you are interested in learning more about Katie’s approach, check out the video below.

Phonetic Think Alouds with Co-Created Texts

The obvious disadvantage of a weekly word list or spelling list is that is not a high-interest text that students have created themselves. Therefore, the ownership and engagement may be lacking. If you are familiar with co-created texts (No? Check out the video below) and do Think Alouds with your class while you are composing it, like @MsSalvac and @Larryferlazzo, it’s easy to add a phonics component to your Think Aloud. During the co-creation of a text with your class you can highlight phonetic structures.


This happened to me by accident the other day when we replaced “messy” in our co-created text with “haphazard.” After we swapped the words, I stopped and asked the whole class to repeat the word. As it turned out, many students struggled to pronounce it. Finally, one student asked, “Doesn’t “ph” usually have the /f/ sound?” It was an excellent question that I hadn’t even thought about. I used the opportunity to talk about compound words and suggested that he think about the pronunciation of “haphazard” as compound word, as in “hap” and “hazard.”

In this example, it was awesome that my student asked a question to highlight the unique pronunciation of this “haphazard.” Teachers can also prompt students to ask questions about phonetics in during a co-created text by asking students questions. For example, you might ask, “Why does the “th” in “feather” sound different from the “th” in “thing?” This kind of question highlights the fact that “th” can be voiced or voiceless.

Apps That Help Close Phonetics Gaps

There are endless apps out there that teach phonics but few that do it well. Two of my personal favourites are the Endless Alphabet and Endless Reader. Both apps have similar features, but the Endless Alphabet focuses on teaching letter sounds, names and vocabulary. The Endless Reader goes a step further by also providing a sentence that includes the focus word and a few others. It also provides a small story to give students context clues connected to the meaning of the word.

Creating Bilingual Stories to Share

One huge source of motivation for students is an audience. Having a project with a published product at the end of it motivates students to do their best work. During our Twitter discussion, @MrsGill_ suggested have students create stories for younger kids using their L1 and English. Creating a bilingual text to engage and teach other students seems like a great project to incorporate phonetics instruction. I’m sure it would lead to some rich exchanges between authors and readers. I’m looking forward to trying it in the future. I’ll give you more detail on it when I find out more from Michelle.

If you interested in creating a bilingual e-book, check out the Cult of Pedagogy post on creating Student E-books for some great ideas.

Splatting Consonant Blends

Gwendolyn Quadi reference another excellent source and strategy for teaching phonetics. She shared a photo illustrating how “splatting” consonant blends works and referenced Learning A-Z. I believe that “splatting” is a kind of Word Sort activity that I explain later in this post. The different colours stand for different constant blends. Purple might stand for “br” and yellow might be a “spl” blend. In Gwendolyn’s activity, I think she used one of the printable books from Learning A-Z. The student may have gone through the story and identified words with the certain blends and color-coded them.

Reading A-Z has tonnes of printable resources for teaching phonetics. I currently have a subscription to Raz-kids Leveled Readers for the purpose of creating reading routines in my ELL class. Each of the books can be read and listened to and there is also a short comprehension quiz at the end of each book. Vocabulary sections at the start and end of the books set ELL learners up for success. Not all of the books are appropriate for Secondary learners but most of the non-fiction books are. There are certainly limitations to leveled readers but their strength lies in giving low beginner ELLs early success as readers. They effectively do this by exercising strict control of the vocabulary to limit the reader’s frustration.

Word Games

There are many word games that can be helpful to get down to the phonic level.

Consonant Blend Bingo is one example. In the game, bingo words are replaced by blends like: sh, ch, br, st, tw and qu. Instead of teacher calling out bingo words, the teacher calls out the blends. Bingo Baker has a massive collection of pre-made bingo games like this. Below I’ve attached a sample.

Word Sorts are another word-level intervention game that is effective. A word ending, like: ing, tion, or ous or prefixes like: sub, dis or un could be used to create categories for a list of vocabulary to be sorted into. To see an example check out Let’s Talk Word Sorts by Janiel Wagstaff. Another great resource for Word Sorts is Reading A-Z.  

Concentration is a traditional matching game that is played with two copies of every word. Again, you could use your current word list for this game. The game starts with all of the word cards facing down and every time a student turns a card over to check it, they must say the word. The object of the game is to remember where the words are and collect as many pairs as possible. In high school, students can make their own words for this game as long as they are given cue cards.

Concentration Game

Word Scrambles or Mix and Fix are also great ways to draw your students attention to the phonemic level. Once you have introduced a set of words you want to work on, simply scramble the words with a tool like John’s ESL Word Scrambler. Have students work in pairs to reorder them.

Daily Phonics Review. If this post is overwhelming to you and just need a place to start. You might try incorporating a short phonics review activity at a warm-up to your lesson. Evan-Moor has a Daily Phonics exercises that give student little doses of phonics. The short exercises can also be diagnostically to target certain sounds that students need help on.

Add to the Collection?

Thanks to everyone who shared their phonetics strategies with me over the last few days. I’ll update this post as the suggestions keep coming in. If you have a really effective word-level activity that you use, please comment below or tag me on Twitter. I hope you have found something useful here that you can use to phonetic awareness in your classroom.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

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