What is Decoding and How Can You Teach It?


  1. What is decoding in reading?
  2. Why is teaching decoding strategy important?
  3. What can trouble with decoding look like?
  4. What are some effective decoding methods?
  5. What can you do to help children who have trouble decoding?


Learning how to read and write is a fundamental skill. With appropriate resources available, most children are able to pick up these skills at a very young age. While you might feel like children are bound to learn decoding in phonics, in reality, it does require a fair amount of supervision and guidance from you. 

Learning how to read and write or decode is an entirely scientific process. Like most other things, if you use the right techniques, your children can learn decoding reading rather fast.

But what exactly is decoding? Does something as basic as processing language need to be actively taught?

Here’s everything you need to know about decoding words and why it’s so important to actively teach young children how to decode


What is decoding in reading? 


Decoding in reading is the process of translating written text to speech by matching letters, combinations of letters or words to their sounds. With practice, the learner starts to recognise the patterns that syllables make when they are used in different contexts. Understanding these relationships help children recognise familiar words quickly and figure out the pronunciation or use of words they haven’t seen before. 

For example, in order to figure out how the word ‘fish’ is pronounced, the child needs to have seen and heard other ‘sh’ words like sheet, shield, shoes, etc. Alphabetic decoding skills also help children determine how the same letters/syllables can be pronounced differently in different words. For example, the ‘g’ sound is different in both ‘goose’ and ‘gel’. 

Decoding a word requires the child to learn three primary things : 

  • Which sound or sounds each letter makes.
  • How to take apart the sounds in a word and blend them. 
  • How groups of letters can work together to make a single sound, like gn in gnome. 

On average, while it is observed that kids start decoding words during kindergarten, it is worth noting that decoding is a life-long learning process. Remember the time you went to an unfamiliar place in another country but couldn’t pronounce the name of that dish? That’s another instance of decoding.


Why is teaching decoding strategy important?


We understand that decoding strategy might seem like too much of an arbitrary process to be actively taught to children. While this is partly true, this opinion is based on two big assumptions:

  1. The child is capable of picking up the skill naturally without active support
  2. The child will take an active interest in reading and watching content that will help familiarise them with words

While there is an area of the human brain (Wernicke’s area) that helps with decoding naturally, as many as 30 percent of all young children have difficulty accessing it. This means that at least initially, they will have a hard time figuring out how to read and write on their own. These children usually need to be taught decoding skills in a systematic manner. 

The best way to go about this is by starting with the most straightforward word-letter relationships and working your way up to the complex ones. A child who does not understand decoding words well might show little to no interest in reading. This can go on to affect their academics and overall personality. On the contrary, children who learn how to decode early are more likely to develop a healthy love for reading which opens them up to a world of possibilities.


What can trouble with decoding look like? 


It is perfectly normal for a young child to need some help with decoding. It can, however, be a warning sign if it happens too often. Children who have trouble decoding words (i.e. mostly children who have difficulty engaging the Wernicke’s area of their brain) exhibit a few tell-tale signs. It is a good idea to keep an eye out for the following signs in your children: 

  • They use the first sound or two to guess what the word is. This is common with children who have trouble understanding complex phonetic sounds. Guessing a word off of the initial sounds is one of the most basic mistakes children are bound to make when they don’t fully understand how word-letter relationships work. For example, the child might replace words like ‘sun’ and ‘songs’ with each other while reading out loud. 
  • They guess the word purely based on context. While it is important to understand the context in which words are used, relying solely on this might be a sign of trouble. Children who do this usually try to trace each word they see back to the small pool of familiar words that they understand well. For example, the child might read the word ‘home’ as ‘house’ because of the image in their book. 
  • They read at a pace that is a lot slower than usual. Reading slowly is normal, but if the child starts to take a little too much time pronouncing words, it means they are having trouble decoding. These children usually have a hard time taking letter-word sounds apart and blending them together. 
  • They have trouble understanding and remembering what they read because so much of their attention goes towards figuring out how to decode each word. 

What are some effective decoding methods? 


Systematic decoding strategies prove to be the most effective when it comes to teaching young children how to decode words. A few basic teaching methods that can help you with this are:

  • Building a strong phonological awareness in the beginning 

Being able to recognise, register and process sounds is a vital part of decoding. Most children who have trouble decoding usually struggle with differentiating one sound/ sound group from another. It is important to teach children to be able to hear different sounds and recognise how they are used. Starting with how each individual alphabet sounds usually helps children register phonetics well. You can then move towards small phonetic word groups. Here, the child can be made to hear similar-sounding syllables and point out the difference between them. 
  • Teaching how to break written words down into individual syllables

One place where many parents and teachers go wrong is only teaching children how to break up words orally. While this might be helpful in teaching children how to recognise sounds, it doesn’t provide any help with reading written text. Most young children have trouble breaking a written word down into its basic syllables. Teaching them how to do this (the syllables in most words end with a vowel) is important. 
  • Looking for familiar syllable/word patterns 

Looking for familiar spelling patterns such as digraphs, blends and chunks is also a key skill when it comes to decoding. Teaching children how to spot and register these patterns helps them understand syllable-word relationships better. They can then use this knowledge to predict how new words are spelt/pronounced. Recognising peculiar word patterns like homophones, homonyms, silent letters, etc., can help children sharpen their decoding skills. 
  • Teaching how to segment and blend words 

Once the child understands how groups of letters and syllables work, it is time to start playing around with them. You can assign different colours and shapes to each syllable/group of letters and ask the child to try combining them in different ways. This will help them construct meaningful words and sentences on their own. Seeing how words can be clubbed together first-hand will help them understand the processes of segmenting and blending much better. 


What can you do to help children who have trouble decoding?


While learning how to decode text is a normal part of early human development, some kids might find it challenging to do this entirely independently. In order to help such kids, you need to start seeing things from their perspective first. How difficult do they find it to decode words? Facing excessive difficulty in reading and understanding words can be a sign of a learning disability.

Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADHD can alter the way a person perceives and processes text. Such kids usually need special assistance with decoding, basic arithmetic, etc. If your children face difficulty learning how to decode, you can contact their school teachers or counsellors, who will have a learning disability diagnosis test handy. When found in time, children can be taught to cope and go about their academic lives just like everyone else. 


In conclusion 


Decoding is the process of translating written text to speech and vice versa. While it is a natural process in human beings, it can be taught to children in an efficient and systematic manner. Children should be taught how to decode by breaking down words into individual syllables and letters groups. They should then be taught to experiment with segmenting and blending these syllables in order to come up with meaningful words. This helps them learn how to recognise and pronounce new words with relative ease.

It is important to learn to decode because children who learn to do it early on are more likely to become avid readers. These children then have the chance to explore varied content choices that add to their overall personality.

At GoStudent, we provide interactive tutoring in 30+ subjects that can help your children become well-rounded individuals. Our 3000+ world-class tutors and subject matter experts can help your children reach their full potential. If you are interested in exploring further, we urge you to book a free trial.

Start your kid’s learning journey