How Critical is Decoding for Young Readers?

Most any educator knows that mastery of the early skill of decoding is essential to later reading comprehension. According to, “There is strong and persuasive evidence that children who get off to a slow start rarely become strong readers.” Children who do not learn to decode have no way to grow in concepts, vocabulary, and understanding of the written text.

Reading is a skill in which those who learn to read well continue to improve at a fast pace, but those who rarely ever catch up. So, how do we help the students who are in the lower reading percentage to master decoding skills?

Some of the indications that a reader is struggling are:

  1. Very slow reading because it takes too long to make sense of the letters.
  2. Tries to guess based on a sound or two.
  3. Tries unsuccessfully to guess based on the context.
  4. Very little memory of what was read because reading is so hard and takes too long.

Some strategies to help a struggling reader:

MULTISENSORY INSTRUCTION: Multisensory instruction involves as many of the 5 senses as possible when learning a sound associated with a letter.  For example, if you are teaching the word for Pear, allowing the students to touch the pear, slice the pear and eat a piece, count the seeds inside, all while learning to associate the letters with the word creates the experience that connects the letters to meaning.

One excellent program for decoding using all of the senses is the Orton-Gillingham method.

PICTURE CLUES: Using picture clues can often help with hard recognition.

OLD FASHIONED PHONICS PRACTICE: Phonics is the ability to link the sounds of language with the written representation. This helps students build strong word attack skills as a foundation for reading skills. As an ordered and sequential program teaches them the associations, the practice of decoding by reading reinforces the recognition of sounds that letters and words make.

LETTER BINGO: With bingo cards that have a letter in each box, show a picture and have them cover the initial sound letter. When someone calls BINGO, have them read the letters back.

MAGNETIC LETTER BOARD: Give students magnetic letter boards and have them practice spelling and blend patterns with the letters. They can even make short sentences.

MODELING: Modeling while reading aloud how to decode a word by using the initial sound and the context can help struggling readers. Probably more beneficial is to do this in a one on one setting, helping each one individually.

CHUNKING: Chunking is the practice of breaking words into logical chunks so that students can decode each chunk individually and then put it all back together. This increases the understanding of how meaning, sound, and spelling all work together in a word.

Because reading is not a natural skill, students must be taught to read. Unfortunately, some students lag behind and may never catch up if there is no additional help in decoding skills and reading common words by sight. Reading is hierarchical, meaning that they must first learn to decode, then transfer the words to long-term memory for easy sight reading, and then comprehension increases as reading competency increases.




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