Another critical component for word recognition is the ability to decode words. When teaching children to accurately decode words, they must understand the alphabetic principle and know letter-sound correspondences. When students make the connection that letters signify the sounds that we say, they are said to understand the purpose of the alphabetic code, or the “alphabetic principle.” Letter-sound correspondences are known when students can provide the correct sound for letters and letter combinations. Students can then be taught to decode, which means to blend the letter sounds together to read words. Decoding is a deliberate act in which readers must “consciously and deliberately apply their knowledge of the mapping system to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word they do not instantly recognize” (Beck & Juel, 1995, p. 9). Once a word is accurately decoded a few times, it is likely to become recognized without conscious deliberation, leading to efficient word recognition.

The instructional practices teachers use to teach students how letters (e.g., i, r, x) and letter clusters (e.g., sh, oa, igh) correspond to the sounds of speech in English is called phonics (not to be confused with phoneme awareness). For example, a teacher may provide a phonics lesson on how “p” and “h” combine to make /f/ in “phone,” and “graph.” After all, the alphabet is a code that symbolizes speech sounds, and once students are taught which sound(s) each of the symbols (letters) represents, they can successfully decode written words, or “crack the code.”

Why decoding is important

Similar to phonological awareness, neither understanding the alphabetic principle nor knowledge of letter-sound correspondences come naturally. Some children are able to gain insights about the connections between speech and print on their own just from exposure and rich literacy experiences, while many others require instruction. Such instruction results in dramatic improvement in word recognition (Boyer & Ehri, 2011). Students who understand the alphabetic principle and have been taught letter-sound correspondences, through the use of phonological awareness and letter-sound instruction, are well-prepared to begin decoding simple words such as “cat” and “big” accurately and independently. These students will have high initial accuracy in decoding, which in itself is important since it increases the likelihood that children will willingly engage in reading, and as a result, word recognition will progress. Also, providing students effective instruction in letter-sound correspondences and how to use those correspondences to decode is important because the resulting benefits to word recognition lead to benefits in reading comprehension (Brady, 2011).

Decoding instruction

Teaching children letter-sound correspondences and how to decode may seem remarkably simple and straightforward. Yet teaching them well enough and early enough so that children can begin to read and comprehend books independently is influenced by the kind of instruction that is provided. There are many programs and methods available for teaching students to decode, but extensive evidence exists that instruction that is both systematic and explicit is more effective than instruction that is not (Brady, 2011; NRP, 2000).

As mentioned previously, systematic instruction features a logical sequence of letters and letter combinations beginning with those that are the most common and useful, and ending with those that are less so. For example, knowing the letter “s” is more useful in reading and spelling than knowing “j” because it appears in more words. Explicit instruction is direct; the teacher is straightforward in pointing out the connections between letters and sounds and how to use them to decode words and does not leave it to the students to figure out the connections on their own from texts. The notable findings of the NRP (2000) regarding systematic and explicit phonics instruction include that its influence on reading is most substantial when it is introduced in kindergarten and first grade, it is effective in both preventing and remediating reading difficulties, it is effective in improving both the ability to decode words as well as reading comprehension in younger children, and it is helpful to children from all socioeconomic levels. It is worth noting here that effective phonics instruction in the early grades is important so that difficulties with decoding do not persist for students in later grades. When this happens, it is often noticeable when students in middle school or high school struggle to decode unfamiliar, multisyllabic words.

When providing instruction in letter-sound correspondences, we should avoid presenting them in alphabetical order. Instead, it is more effective to begin with high utility letters such as “a, m, t, i, s, d, r, f, o, g, l” so that students can begin to decode dozens of words featuring these common letters (e.g., mat, fit, rag, lot). Another reason to avoid teaching letter-sound correspondences in alphabetical order is to prevent letter-sound confusion. Letter confusion occurs in similarly shaped letters (e.g., b/d, p/q, g/p) because in day-to-day life, changing the direction or orientation of an object such as a purse or a vacuum does not change its identity—it remains a purse or a vacuum. Some children do not understand that for certain letters, their position in space can change their identity. It may take a while for children to understand that changing the direction of letter b will make it into letter d, and that these symbols are not only called different things but also have different sounds. Until students gain experience with print—both reading and writing—confusions are typical and are not due to “seeing letters backward.” Nor are confusions a “sign” of dyslexia, which is a type of reading problem that causes difficulty with reading and spelling words (International Dyslexia Association, 2015). Students with dyslexia may reverse letters more often when they read or spell because they have fewer experiences with print—not because they see letters backward. To reduce the likelihood of confusion, teach the /d/ sound for “d” to the point that the students know it consistently, before introducing letter “b.”

To introduce the alphabetic principle, the Elkonin Boxes or “Say It and Move It” activities described above can be adapted to include letters on some of the chips. For example, the letter “n” can be printed on a chip and when students are directed to segment the words “nut,” “man,” or “snap,” they can move the “n” chip to represent which sound (e.g., the first, second, or last) is /n/. As letter-sound correspondences are taught, children should begin to decode by blending them together to form real words (Blachman & Tangel, 2008).

For many students, blending letter sounds together is difficult. Some may experience letter-by-letter distortion when sounding out words one letter at a time. For example, they may read “mat” as muh-a-tuh, adding the “uh” sound to the end of consonant sounds. To prevent this, letter sounds should be taught in such a way to make sure the student does not add the “uh” sound (e.g., “m” should be learned as /mmmm/ not /muh/, “r” should be learned as /rrrr/ not /ruh/). To teach students how to blend letter sounds together to read words, it is helpful to model (see Blachman & Murray, 2012). Begin with two letter words such as “at.” Write the two letters of the word separated by a long line: a_______t. Point to the “a” and demonstrate stretching out the short /a/ sound—/aaaa/ as you move your finger to the “t” to smoothly connect the /a/ to the /t/. Repeat this a few times, decreasing the length of the line/time between the two sounds until you pronounce it together: /at/. Gradually move on to three letter words such as “sad” by teaching how to blend the initial consonant with the vowel sound (/sa/) then adding the final consonant. It is helpful at first to use continuous sounds in the initial position (e.g., /s/, /m/, /l/) because they can be stretched and held longer than a “stop consonant” (e.g., /b/, /t/, /g/).

An excellent activity featured in many scientifically-based research studies that teaches students to decode a word thoroughly and accurately by paying attention to all of the sounds in words rather than guessing based on the initial sounds is word building using a pocket chart with letter cards (see examples in Blachman & Tangel). Have students begin by building a word such as “pan” using letter cards p, a, and n. (These can be made using index cards cut into four 3″ x 1.25″ sections. It is helpful to draw attention to the vowels by making them red as they are often difficult to remember and easily confused). Next, have them change just one sound in “pan” to make a new word: “pat.” The sequence of words may continue with just one letter changing at a time: panpatratsatsitsiptiptaprap. The student will begin to understand that they must listen carefully to which sound has changed (which helps their phoneme awareness) and that all sounds in a word are important. As new phonics elements are taught, the letter sequences change accordingly. For example, a sequence featuring consonant blends and silent-e may look like this: slim—slime—slide—glide—glade—blade—blame—shame—sham. Many decoding programs that feature strategies based on scientifically-based research include word building and provide samples ranging from easy, beginning sequences to those that are more advanced (Beck & Beck, 2013; Blachman & Tangel, 2008).

A final important point to mention with regard to decoding is that teachers must consider what makes words (or texts) decodable in order to allow for adequate practice of new decoding skills. When letters in a word conform to common letter-sound correspondences, the word is decodable because it can be sounded out, as opposed to words containing “rule breaker” letters and sounds that are in words like “colonel” and “of.” The letter-sound correspondences and phonics elements that have been learned must be considered. For example, even though the letters in the word “shake” conform to common pronunciations, if a student has not yet learned the sound that “sh” makes, or the phonics rule for a long vowel when there is a silent “e,” this particular word is not decodable for that child. Teachers should refrain from giving children texts featuring “ship” or “shut” to practice decoding skills until they have been taught the sound of /sh/. Children who have only been taught the sounds of /s/ and /h/ may decode “shut” /s/ /h/ /u/ /t/, which would not lead to high initial accuracy and may lead to confusion.