Decoding – The neglected skills set every MFL teacher should teach

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur

1. What are decoding skills? Why are they important?

Decoding refers to the process of converting the written symbols (graphemes) of a language into sound (phonemes). Decoding skills are very important in language acquisition for a number of reasons.

The most important reason is the fact that when we acquire new vocabulary, we need to be able to pronounce it correctly if we plan to use it effectively through the oral medium. In this sense, the ability to convert the spelling of a word into its phonological form is a major component of autonomous language learning competence. This is particularly true for those learners who acquire a lot of their vocabulary through reading and not through oral interaction or exposure to aural input.

Another important reason refers to the ability to match the language the students have already learnt aurally, in their spoken form to their graphemic form. Take the very common scenario where a student who learns a French word in its phonological form only subsequently comes across the same word in its written form; if he lacks decoding skills the student is likely to fail to match the written form with its phonological representation with interpretive failure as a result. In this sense, lack of decoding skills can seriously impede reading comprehension of aurally acquired vocabulary thereby slowing down acquisition.

Thirdly, a recent study by Macaro and Erler (2008) has yielded a very interesting finding, i.e.:  a strong correlation between decoding ability and motivation to learn French. The researchers found that KS3 students who report high levels of self-efficacy and possess higher levels of proficiency in decoding skills are more likely to continue to study French at KS4.

  1. Decoding – the neglected skill set

As a number of studies have reported, decoding is not taught explicitly in most UK schools. Erler (2003) studied 359 year 7 students of French using a written rhyme judgment task. The subjects exhibited very poor decoding skills (poor mastery of the pronunciation of main vowels sounds and their combinations and of silent consonants at the end of words).

Woore (2006) carried out a cross-sectional study investigating 94 Year 7 and 94 year 9 learners of French taught by the same teachers in the same school. His results echoed Erler’s (2003) and indicated that the progress in terms of decoding skills from Year 7 to Year 9, whilst statistically significant, were very slight.

Macaro and Erler’s (2008) studied 1735 students of French in Year 7, 8 and 9. They found that they failed nearly half of the correct rhyme judgment tasks they gave their subjects. A further indication that decoding skills are not effectively learnt at KS3.

Finally, Woore (2009) carried out a longitudinal study investigating the decoding skills of 85 KS3  learners of French. Woore asked his subjects to read aloud 53 unusual French words that the students were highly unlikely to have encountered before at two different points in time, i.e.  at the end of Year 7 and at the end of Year 8. Woore found that in both occasions the students decoding ability was very poor, suggesting that little had been learnt in two years of systematic French language instruction.

  1. Conclusions and implications for MFL teachers

Many teachers do raise their learners’ awareness of the way graphemes are sounded in the target language. The teaching of decoding skills, however, is more than often neither explicit nor systematic. An occasional five minutes digression en passant on the pronunciation of a specific grapheme every now and then is not conducive to developing a ‘solid’ repertoire of decoding skills. For decoding skills to be acquired they have to be practised explicitly and systematically. This calls for conscious planning of decoding skills teaching in the MFL curriculum which addresses the very early stages of instruction.

Decoding skills instruction may include a synergy of the following:

Decoding skills are often kept by teachers in their peripheral awareness due to a failure to consider how important they are in mediating vocabulary acquisition and memory activation . In this day and age, when MFL teachers have, more than ever, the ethical imperative of forging autonomous learners who can independently take advantage of the huge TL learning opportunities offered by the Internet, we must equip our students with sound decoding skills; without them, they will not be able to acquire the most important level of the communicative power of TL words.

The literature concisely reviewed above exposes a tragic reality: entire cohorts of students who, after two years of instruction exhibit a dispiriting low mastery of the basic decoding skills. And when the researchers investigated the root causes of the phenomenon, it came down to one and only one issue: erratic teacher commitment to this very important area of TL learning; decoding skills were taught explicitly only when the textbook made reference to them.

One of my teaching and learning resolutions this year is to focus as much as possible on decoding skills with my primary and Year 7 classes. I will test some of my students in the first term and at the end of year using the RAT (read aloud test) that Woore (2009) employed in his study to see if there will have been any improvements. Here are the very unusual words Woore (2009) selected for their read aloud test.

Woore’s (2009) Words included in the RAT

Cinglant  jouxter thonier maçonne dédain gueulez soudain haubert guingois poitrine museau duraille chacun ferreux obtient ralingue piochais veilleur lancée sainfoin loquet poignard traçant trémie peigner embruns peinait Hongrie giclée caleçon acanthe marteaux goinfrez lugeur houblon moineau vaurien maquille thibaude jaugez noceur liégeois quignon enfuie jonchée bêcheuse ougrien huilage


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