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5 Encoding Ideas to Practice Phonics and Build Spelling Skills

For some students, depending on their phase of reading development, and each student’s unique characteristics, it can take a long time before a word is orthographically mapped and stored in their long-term memory. To support orthographic mapping, students need many exposures and repetitions with words to build the needed connections for automatic word reading and writing. I firmly believe in building students’ long term word identification skills with a focus on encoding, or writing the words. The multisensory nature of spelling the words helps build the connections with phoneme-grapheme relationships. I find that changing the format of how we practice keeps students engaged in our work. Most of these encoding activities are done within our small group instruction where we focus on practicing our current phonics skills. With that said,  these encoding ideas can also be done during our whole group teaching – it takes more time to get materials ready so I keep our whole group instruction to minimal items needed.

Lined Paper

I like to use old school grade level lined paper to practice our phonics skills. We fold the paper into 4 columns and focus on handwriting and letter formation as we write. You’d be surprised by how much even older students, like my 3rd graders, benefit from having the defined letter formation lines. The focus is on the phonics skills we are practicing and spelling the words correctly. However, I also focus on proper letter formation. I find that the more we practice writing letters, the easier it is for students, especially struggling students, to build their muscle memory with each letter.

Desks or Tables

One of the most exciting ways to practice writing ANYTHING at all is being able to write on student desks or classroom tables. My small group table takes a dry erase marker well, erasing with a small residue that comes up with any spray or wipe. I love to use the tables for writing word chains so students can make a long list of words – almost like making a word ladder. Like some of the other encoding ideas I’ve shared here, this is not anything new or groundbreaking. But, there’s a certain novelty to getting to do something that feels forbidden that makes this extra exciting for students. Students being engaged in our work helps them build much needed connections much more quickly compared to disinterested practice.

I will add a small disclaimer – I once wrote on student desks with a dry erase marker, but the desks were old, and it definitely remained on the surface forever. So, be sure to test the surface in a small spot first. If you have any tips for removing the old marker, let me know in the comments as everything I’ve tried so far hasn’t worked. 🙂

Letter Tiles and Magnetic Letters

Letter tiles are a great way to change up your encoding practice by having students build words rather than writing them. I love to use tiles when I’m doing word chaining activities. I find the tiles, or magnetic letters, being swapped out for the new letter, really helps connect the phoneme manipulation for students. They can visually see the change from one word to the next while they are hearing that change. With that said, I find it super meaningful for students to connect sound-to-symbol relationships through writing the letters themselves. For that reason, I don’t use letter tiles frequently for my practice. Rather, they are a great way to change up the routine.

Pop Socket Dry Erase Boards

This idea is not my own; I saw it come across a social media feed quite a few years ago. Because I didn’t save it at the time, I’m not sure who to credit it with. But, I thought it was genius and last year I took the time to make them. I bought both these dry erase boards and the generic pops from Dollar Tree. I put 6 pops per board as I wanted to ensure I could use these boards with any single syllable words I wanted to practice. These Pop Socket Dry Erase Boards are perfect for building phoneme-grapheme correspondences as students map the phonemes and graphemes. Students tap out each sound in the word using the popper, then they spell the word putting the corresponding letter(s) into each box.

a dry erase board divided into 6 sections with pop sockets or phone grips in each spot. The word "black" is written sound by sound into the boxes.

Dry Erase Index Cards

These dry erase index cards are perfect for writing multi-syllable words: each card represents each syllable. For students needing additional support, I like to have them draw lines representing each sound in the syllable before they begin writing the words. Visually seeing the different cards for each syllable gives students a scaffold as they learn to work with spelling multi-syllable words.

dry erase index cards displayed next to a dry erase marker and eraser with the the multisyllable word "upset" broken up across the cards by syllable

I’ve been very impressed with the quality of these dry erase index cards {Amazon affiliate link}. They erase pretty cleanly with just a quick wipe. I reuse the same handful of cards within my groups, only needing to change them out after quite a few uses. They do come in a variety of sizes so you do not have to get traditional index card size, though that is what I use. They have slightly smaller cards which would also work well. Or, you could get the larger cards, such as 8″ x 10″, and use them for displaying at the front of the class.

Most of these encoding ideas are pretty simple and straightforward, but, I can get stuck in a rut and love seeing ways others practice. I hope this gave you a couple ideas for things you can try out! You might also be interested in reading my post on 5 Decoding Activities for practicing phonics.

A picture of the word "upset" broken up by syllable on dry erase index cards laying on a table near a dry erase marker and eraser above the text "5 small group encoding activities"


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