According to the National Institute for Literacy, the most important skills for literacy are decoding, morphology, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each of these builds upon and works with the others to help students understand and apply the knowledge of every subject they’re learning.
Decoding is essential to literacy skills: it allows one to determine the spelling and meaning of words they’ve only heard but haven’t seen, as well as sound out words they aren’t familiar with. Without decoding, it’s incredibly challenging to continue to advance reading and literacy abilities.
What is Decoding?
Decoding is students’ phonic and phonemic awareness, or their ability to apply their knowledge of letter sound relationships, patterns, and pronunciation. It involves segmenting (taking apart the sounds in words) and blending (putting sounds back together). A few more definitions important to understanding decoding:
Letter-sound relationships: Decoding starts with the ability to match letters and their sounds: readers should be able to start segmenting and blending different letter combinations and patterns.
Letter patterns: Students must recognize that certain groups of letters that appear together in words and make a sound don’t match up with reading each letter sound individually.
Pronunciation: When kids understand letter-sound relationship and letter patterns, they can sound out words. Beginning readers start with decoding and pronouncing one-syllable words, and then work their way up to longer ones.
Phonics & Decoding
Phonics and phonemic awareness are a huge part of the decoding process. Phonic instruction helps students learn the letter-sound foundational pieces that enable beginner readers to “decode” unknown words.
The National Reading Panel says the goal of phonics instruction is to “provide students with the knowledge and ability to use the alphabet to make progress in learning to read, write, and comprehend.” Phonics instruction increases fluency, reading accuracy, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
Note, phonemic awareness is different: phonemic awareness instruction only qualifies as phonics instruction when it involves teaching children to blend or segment the sounds in words using letters.
Phonics instruction is teaching students to use letter-sound relations to read or spell word—not just speak them.
Some helpful definitions from LD@School for a review:
- Phonological Awareness: The skill of identifying and manipulating sounds.
- Phonemic Awareness: Understanding that words are made of sounds (44 English phonemes) that can be used to create new words.
- Grapheme Awareness: Understanding that symbols in reading (letters) correspond to sounds.
Why is Decoding Important for Literacy?
The ability to decode is the foundation upon which all other reading skills–morphology, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension–are built on. Without decoding ability, children are unable to read and write at a proper grade level. Children must know that:
- Speech is composed of the smallest meaningful units of sounds (phonemes);
- Letters and word parts are visual language symbols
- Written letters represent specific sounds
- Phonemes and morphemes can be manipulated through segmenting and blending
By sounding out phonemes, readers can determine full words and their meaning. They can also figure out how to write new words based on the phonemes they hear within them. Students must be able to not only recognize phonemes when standing alone, but also be able to separate (segment) words into the phonemes that create them.
Again, reading and sounding out these words is phonemic instruction, while using letter-sound relations to read or spell words is phonic instruction.
How Do You Teach Decoding Skills to Students?
Although some students may understand a bit of decoding, phonics, and phonemic awareness on their own, explicit instruction beginning at a young age is usually required. And this is true even when working with adolescent learners and ELLs. Students who struggle to decode in middle and high school often suffer from poor comprehension.
The National Association of State Boards of Education has found that 10% of middle and high school students have decoding deficits that “impair their fluency and comprehension.” Students must decode with automaticity so they can use their energy to comprehend the text–not just to sound out and identify words.
Explicit, intensive, and systematic decoding intervention can create large gains in reading accuracy and comprehension for readers of all ages.
When teaching decoding, instruction should use an integrated approach to develop comprehension, as well as a use of academic language. Make sure to only focus on a couple strategies at a time, so students can gradually build up their understanding.
1. Include Sample Sentences
Choose sample sentences from text you’re reading (as well as additional sentences outside the text if needed) that use the phoneme or phonemes you’re teaching. Have students read these sentences, identify the words with the phonemes, and practice pronouncing the phonemes individually, and within the word.
2. Compare & Contrast
Choose contrasting word pairs that highlight different phonemes, like “bat” and “bet.” Then, have students write these words in the air. This will help them picture the words in their mind and connect the different sounds to different word combinations visually and auditorily. Students should be explicitly taught to identify and categorize four types of vowel sounds: short, long, variant, and r-controlled, and then blend these phonemes into words.
3. Make a List
When teaching a specific phoneme using a text, make a list of all the words in the text that use that phoneme. That way, students can practice pronunciation before encountering the phoneme and word in the reading, making it more likely they’ll be able to pronounce the word later in context.
4. Tongue Twisters & Rhyming Games
Tongue twisters and rhyming games are two fun and effective methods of teaching phonics and promoting decoding skills. Tongue twisters and rhymes often use various forms of the same phoneme, requiring students to pronounce and understand a lot at once. Whether you’re all practicing a tongue twister together, playing a game of Telephone, or listing as many words as possible that rhyme with “fall,” make sure your students know the phoneme they’re working on. Use LessonWriter’s example sentence to start off with (see above) and then have students make their own!
5. Oral Reading
Oral reading is helpful for building many literacy skills because it’s multisensory: students are seeing, hearing, and pronouncing the words and phonemes. Another option similar to oral reading is choral reading: the teacher and class read a text aloud together, taking the spotlight off of struggling readers while encouraging them to participate. Research shows choral reading leads to a gain in fluency, vocabulary development, an appreciation of literature, and reading confidence. As students build up their oral reading and decoding skills, make sure to check in with their text comprehension as well with some after-reading questions to encourage them to think about the text while reading it.
6. Bonus! Try LessonWriter
At LessonWriter, our Pronunciation Practice provides decoding support automatically with the phonemes of your choice. We suggest phonemes based on their prevalence in the text, the past phonemes you’ve taught in your lessons, and sequential difficulty of the phonemes. You can either choose our suggestions, or pick which ones you want to focus on in each lesson.
Teaching Decoding Skills in the Classroom: One Phoneme at a Time
Decoding is such an important part of literacy: without it, students will not be able to advance their fluency and comprehension skills. It’s important to teach decoding explicitly and support students in their various stages of learning. Proper decoding instruction will allow students to expand their reading and literacy skills exponentially both inside and outside of the classroom.
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