Practice Makes Perfect: Diacritical Coding in the Dyslexia Setting


Breve… macron… combinations… digraphs. What are these strange words? They sound vaguely familiar. Your student identified with dyslexia seems to utter them when it’s time to read. He calls it coding. What is it? Well, you should view this as the beginning of a successful transition into translating written symbols or reading.


Many dyslexia curricula have deep roots in the Orton-Gillingham foundation. Orton-Gillingham (or OG), foundational instruction for reading and writing, was developed by Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham in the 1930s. The OG instructional foundation is an important component of multisensory education for students identified with dyslexia. OG instruction introduced instructors to the concept of using diacritical markings for decoding words to support automaticity and fluency in word reading. According to Foundations for Literacy; Structures and Techniques for Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Written English Language Skills by Aylett Royal Cox, diacritical markings, or code marks, are “distinguishing marks which indicate pronunciation or combination of letters within the context of a word. The pronunciation is represented without respelling to focus student’s attention on the dependable aspects of the English orthography when the symbol’s situation is taken into account.” The code marks indicate to the student the letter/grapheme pronunciation. In turn, the student is able to translate the written symbols into speech to create mutual meaning for both the student and the audience in order to achieve automaticity and ultimately, reading comprehension. Decoding is the ability to recognize the words on a printed page. 

According to the work of Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990, (Simple View of Reading) reading comprehension is the product of decoding and language comprehension. These areas work together in an interdependent nature. A lack of efficiency in one area, such as decoding, could lead to reading failure. Through repetition and practice, the brain begins to recognize words on the page, which can be supported by the application of diacritical coding. Basically, the brain learns through practice. Decoding engages the reader, by linking the printed word to the spoken word. “New brain imaging technology shows the powerful positive effect of practice in creating neural circuits related to the development of what scientists call expertise of skill” (Taken from The A to Z of Teaching Beginning Reading – Yale Dyslexia ).

Practice Makes Perfect:

Through consistent and repeated practice, students identified with dyslexia are able to apply diacritical code marks to help decode words, leading to greater word automaticity, reading fluency, and gain reading comprehension skills.

Now that you understand the “whys” of applying diacritical coding, let’s get to the hows: how you can support your student.

Syllable Knowledge

According to Suzanne Carraker, decoding requires knowledge of the phonemic, graphophonemic, syllabic, and morphemic structure of language. Using diacritical markings for vowels and other code marks provide students with additional visual and kinesthetic information to reinforce the letter sounds. Knowing the different syllable types that occur in the English language can help support this understanding.

The Six Syllable Types

There are six syllable types. Within each of the six syllable types, there are diacritical code marks used. A diacritical code mark is a mark added to a letter/grapheme to indicate the pronunciation. Below are the six syllable types, along with basic verbiage that may be used to support the student identified with dyslexia while in the decoding process. 

  • The vowel in a closed syllable is short, code with a breve. A breve is a code mark to indicate a short vowel sound. Examples: 
  • The vowel in an open, accented syllable is long and coded with a macron. A macron is a code mark to indicate a long vowel sound. Examples:
  • In a vowel consonant e syllable, the e is silent, the vowel is long, and code the vowel with a macron and cross out the silent letter e. Examples:
  • Two adjacent vowels could be a digraph (two letters that make one sound) or a diphthong (two vowel sounds that blend smoothly together). Underline the digraphs and arc the diphthongs. Examples for digraphs:

Examples for diphthongs:

  • A vowel-controlled r situation is a combination (two adjacent letters in the same syllable that make an unexpected pronunciation). Arc the combination. Examples:
  • Bracket the final stable syllable and cross out the silent letter e. A final stable syllable is a syllable that occurs in the final position and is consistent in the pronunciation and spelling of English base words. Examples:

In addition to the six syllable types, additional diacritical code marks could be applied to other reading situations. However, providing awareness and understanding of coding allows the student to learn the six syllable types, and eventually develop syllable awareness. 

Combining explicit decoding instruction with known morphemes (word parts that contain meaning) such as affixes (prefixes and suffixes), syllable division instruction, irregular words, and Latin and Greek roots equips students with great support for the complicated process that we call reading.

Closing Thoughts

  • Instructing students with dyslexia in decoding strategies enables students to connect that spoken words consist of sounds and printed words consist of letters. 
  • Decoding and applying diacritical markings enables the student to connect sounds to letters and eventually can lead the student to automatic word recognition. 
  • Understanding the syllable types helps to reinforce word recognition. 
  • Scaffolding decoding skills that vary in length and complexity also help to support the student through practice in single-word decoding, then eventually within the context of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. 
  • Continually spiraling in the practice of decoding, syllable, and morphological components leads to fluent reading, which is beneficial to the end goal of comprehension.

Explicit instruction in decoding skills relies on an understanding of syllable types. Through consistent and repeated practice, students identified with dyslexia are able to apply diacritical code marks to help decode words, leading to greater word automaticity, reading fluency, and gain reading comprehension skills.

Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth is the Subject Matter Expert on Dyslexia for Amplio. She has 30 years of experience in public education in Texas, 27 of those years were spent in some form of dyslexia education. She received her CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist) certification in 2006 from LEAD, and later obtained her QI (Qualified Instructor) certification in 2018 from Southern Methodist University. Aimee is trained in multiple dyslexia curricula.

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