What is Decoding?

Decoding is a fundamental reading skill. When a reader identifies the individual sounds made by letters of the alphabet, as well as the way those sounds blend together to make unique words, they are decoding the written language.

Quick View:

  • What Does Trouble With Decoding Look Like?
  • Teaching Decoding to Reluctant Readers
  • What Are Sight Words?
  • What Parents Can Do to Help Kids With Decoding

The earliest stage of reading is learning to identify individual letters and memorize the sounds they make. Stringing those sounds together and understanding how those sounds blend is at the heart of decoding.

For many reluctant readers, this has been a struggle from the start. It is important to realize that learning to read requires mastery at every stage. A reader cannot have a shaky grasp of decoding and hope to become a strong reader. Kids who have not mastered decoding often become reluctant readers, as they lack this fundamental skill.

Who enjoys being asked to do tasks they aren’t any good at?

What Does Trouble With Decoding Look Like?

Trouble with decoding generally looks something like this:

  • Reading very slowly because they don’t know the sounds each letter makes
  • Guessing at the word based on only the first few letters
  • Lacking comprehension of the text because they are struggling so hard to identify the words
  • Using contextual clues (pictures) to guess at the words

This last point — using pictures and other clues to help identify words — is actually taught all over the country as a legitimate reading strategy. For decades, this is how millions of kids were taught to read. Sadly, overwhelming research demonstrates how this is a flawed model that leads to poor reading skills.

Check out: At a Loss For Words: How a Flawed Idea is Teaching Millions of Kids to Be Poor Readers

Teaching Decoding to Reluctant Readers

Teaching decoding breaks down into three main steps:

  • Teaching to identify the letters of the alphabet
  • Teaching the sound each letter makes
  • Teaching how sounds blend together

The most effective method for teaching letter sounds and how they blend is phonics instruction. When we’re talking about making connections between letters and sounds, we’re talking about phonics.

Phonics is a wide, engaging field with many different methods of teaching. While parents can do much to teach phonics at home, it is important to recognize that phonics is a systematic approach to language and reading. Just as a house must be constructed from the foundation up in a specific way, phonics is best approached in a particular fashion so that mastery of skills build upon one another.

Check out: 5 Key Characteristics of Phonics Instruction

What Are Sight Words?

Not all words can be sounded out. That’s just what makes English special, I guess. Because these words cannot be sounded out, they are generally taught to be identified whole by sight.

Here’s a complete list of sight words.

There are actually different lists of sight words, the most common of which are Dolch Sight Words and Fry Sight Words (the list above is Dolch). Their names come from the individuals who compiled the lists.

Dolch Sight Words are made up of 220 words most commonly found in reading material for kindergarten through second grade.

Fry Sight Words are made up of 1,000 words and is based upon the American Heritage Word Frequency Book. Fry’s list is comprised from reading material for third through ninth grade.

What Parents Can Do to Help Kids With Decoding

  • Help your child to master identifying the letters of the alphabet
  • Help your child master letter sounds
    • I Spy is a good game. You can identify a letter sound, like sss for S, and then I Spy around the house for objects that start with that sound (stove, step, stair, etc.)
  • Help you child identify how changing letters changes the words
    • This can be done easily with alphabet magnets. You can spell a word (Bat) and then change a single letter to alter the sound and word (Bit, But, Bot).
  • Help your child identify common letter patterns in everyday life
    • Many combinations appear again and again, like sh or ch. Point out these combinations on signs, in magazines, on paperwork, etc. This will help your child recognize them and connect them to the real world.

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