One of the first steps when teaching children to decode is helping them learn the letters of the alphabet and their sounds. Connect letters to familiar objects or people that start with that sound help children understand letter sound relationships. For example, children may quickly learn what sound the first letter in their name makes. Pair other letters with pictures that cue children to their sounds. The letter ‘h’ could be represented by a house and the letter ‘w’ could be paired with a wagon. Display the pictures on the wall or have children make their own alphabet books to refer to.
When ready, children need to learn how some letters work together to form one sound. For example, explicitly teach them the sound ‘sh’ makes. Without this knowledge, decoding words like “ship” and “shut” becomes very difficult! A visual cue, like the index finger to the lips, can help children remember the sound ‘sh’ makes.
Take advantage of teachable moments when children are reading. If a word like “nice” comes up in a story, seize the opportunity to teach them that ‘c’ can also make a sound like an ‘s.’ Then, to reinforce this new learning, choose another book that contains the soft ‘c’ sound to read the next day. You may also wish to add this learning to an anchor chart so it can be referred to when necessary.
As children progress with reading, they will begin decoding longer words. This requires teaching strategies such as finding parts they know. For example, the word “understand” can be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. Children may recognize ‘un’ and the word “an” or “and.” They may know to blend the ‘s-t’ together. They can apply their decoding skills to solve these more complex words.
When teaching children how to decode, it is important to explicitly point out that there are some words that cannot be decoded. Consider the word “the.” If children try to decode it one letter at a time – ‘t-h’e’ – it is highly unlikely they will come up with the correct word. This is the case for a number of sight words, also known as high-frequency words. Words like “was,” “of,” and “to” cannot be decoded. Instead, children need to memorize what they look like so they can recall them automatically when they appear in texts and develop word recognition skills.
When children struggle to decode, it significantly affects their ability to engage with the text. One major pitfall is that their reading comprehension can suffer. This occurs because they are devoting so much time and energy to decoding words that the meaning of the text breaks down.
When decoding is too hard, there is also a breakdown in reading fluency. Fluency is the ability to read at the proper speed – not too fast and not too slow – and with appropriate expression and a high level of accuracy. When children struggle to decode a text, their reading often becomes slow, expression is not a focus, and many mistakes are made. Their reading may sound very robotic and monotone.
To support reading comprehension and fluency, it is important that children are given opportunities to read texts at their instructional level. This does not mean that every book has to be easy to read. An instructional level provides some challenges where children need to employ reading strategies to solve unfamiliar words.
When children are experiencing difficulty with decoding, it is important to identify the root of the problem. Determine if they have a firm grasp of letter sounds or if more learning is required. Watch how they approach words with blends and identify whether they can fluidly join sounds together.
Analyze the types of errors children make when they’re reading. Do they notice when something they read doesn’t make sense or sound right? Do they need prompting to go back and try again?
It is also important to observe how children tackle unfamiliar words. Do they give up quickly? Do they immediately look to you for help? They may need a review of strategies to use when they come upon an unknown word.
Lastly, make sure you are providing children with appropriately leveled texts. Trying to read books that are too difficult can lead to frustration and a lack of motivation. Encourage a love of reading by providing children with a variety of texts they can read successfully.