In order to decode words accurately, students must engage their attentional abilities. For example, students must be able to detect the salient or important features of letters and words, while matching sounds (phonemes) to symbols (letters) in order to create a meaningful word. While doing so, students must constantly self-monitor their work, checking as they read, to be sure that the sounds they are blending and words they are unveiling are meaningful.

Word decoding involves identifying the sequence of the letters in a word, and holding this information in mind while combining sounds to form a meaningful word. In other words, students must be able to recall the beginning of a word while reading the end of it. This ability to hold multiple letter sounds together on a ‘thinking counter space’ is facilitated by a student’s active working memory.

“Cracking the code” of reading requires a strategic approach. Decoding words requires students to use analytical skills related to the phonological (sound) and the structural (symbol) features of a word.

Here are some strategies to help students’ develop their ability to decode words.

Helpful Hints

  • Help students become aware of how they apply phonemic awareness abilities (e.g., rhyming, blending, and segmenting sounds in words) as they build word decoding skills. Link students’ development of phonemic skills to the sound-symbol basis for reading words (a metacognitive approach).  
  • Explore the use of a systematic, explicit phonics instruction program, one which moves the student through a series of developmental skills which lead to decoding abilities. For example, such a program might include:  
    • Explicitly teaching students how letters and letter groups correspond to distinct speech sounds  
    • Instructing students in rhyming, syllable counting, blending, and segmenting words  
    • Reading literature aloud to students  
    • Having students read stories that contain words corresponding to the skills they are developing (for example, reinforcing consonant blends or vowel patterns)  
    • Integrating reading and writing by linking the decoding of words with the spelling of words  
    • Building student independence in reading by promoting the use of decoding strategies.  
  • Teach sound-symbol relationships (i.e. the sounds for the letters of the alphabet) using visual cues. For example, use pictures as mnemonic aids for remembering letters (e.g. a picture of vase in the shape of a V, with letter V right next to vase).  
  • Encourage students to employ their word attack skills when approaching new words, for example, identifying the individual sounds of the word, breaking the word down into syllables, etc.  
  • Have students practice sorting words into categories using a variety of approaches (by rhyming, by short versus long vowel sounds, by first letter sounds, ending sounds, or middle sounds, etc.).  
  • Encourage students to self-monitor while they decode words by giving them guiding questions, such as “Does that sound right?”, “If I’m not sure of the word, is there any part of this word that I do know?”, “Did I sound out the beginning sound, middle sound(s), and ending sound in order?”, etc.  
  • Make use of the connection between reading and writing .For example, encourage students to write words they are learning in order to reinforce the sound-symbol correspondences.