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What is decoding?

By Julie Rawe

At a Glance

  • Decoding is a key skill for learning to read.

  • Readers use decoding to “sound out” words they don’t recognize.

  • Some words can’t be decoded.

A big part of learning to read is learning to “sound out” words that don’t look familiar. This skill is called decoding. 

The term decoding may make you think of spies and secret decoder rings. That makes sense because written language actually is a code. It uses symbols (letters) to represent sounds. 

To decode a word, you need to know: 

  • Which sound or sounds each letter makes, like how a g sounds in goose and how it sounds in gel.

  • How to take apart the sounds in a word and blend them. For example, with jam, the first sound is /j/, the next sound is /ă/, and the last sound is /m/. Then slowly blend them in “jjjaamm.

  • How groups of letters can work together to make a single sound, like sh in fish. Kids learn these kinds of letter patterns when they study phonics.

Kids typically start learning how to decode in kindergarten. Beginning readers start with decoding one-syllable words and work their way up to longer ones.

Adults use decoding too. Think about the last time you came across the name of a person or place you weren’t familiar with. You had to sound it out. But after you encounter that new word enough times, your brain starts to recognize it at a glance. This is true for kids and adults.

Dive deeper

How phonics helps with decoding

Decoding connects how words sound to how those sounds are represented by letters. Phonics instruction helps readers make those connections.

For example, when the letter c is followed by the vowels e, i, or y, it usually makes its soft sound, as in cell, city, and cypress. With other vowels, the letter c makes a hard sound, as in cap, code, and cut.

Phonics instruction in the classroom can help kids learn these patterns. 

Learn how phonics helps people become better readers and spellers.

Why some words can’t be decoded

Decoding relies on the rules of phonics. Most words in the English language follow those rules. But some words don’t. For example, if kids try to sound out the word of, they might pronounce it “off.” Or they might try to spell it “uv.”

Some schools use the term trick words to describe words that don’t sound the way they’re spelled, like of. Kids need to memorize these words so they recognize them instantly instead of trying to sound them out. 

Learn more about sight words .

What trouble with decoding looks like

Some kids learn to decode easily. Some take a little more time, and others seem to struggle to make any progress at all. 

You may be seeing signs of trouble with decoding if kids often:

  • Use the first sound or two to guess what a word is, like saying sun when the story says songs.

  • Use context to try to guess what a word is, like seeing a drawing of a building and the word house but guessing that the story says home.

  • Read very slowly because it takes a long time to blend the letter-sounds together.

  • Have trouble understanding or remembering what’s read because it takes so much time and effort to figure out each word.

Learn common reasons why kids read very slowly .

How to help kids build decoding skills at home

There are lots of things families can do to boost kids’ decoding skills. You can focus on different parts of decoding:

  • Identify sounds in words: Find the first sound in a word. Then play a game of “I spy” to find other objects around you that start with the same sound.

  • Manipulate (or change) sounds and letters: Use magnetic letters to spell out a word like bat. Then change a letter, like replacing the a with i or e, and say the new word.

  • Focus on letter patterns: Look for those letters in everyday life. For example, point out ch and sh words on store signs and in books that you read together.

Learn how audiobooks can help kids get better at decoding.

Next steps

Not all kids who struggle with reading have trouble with decoding. But if a child is struggling with decoding, it could be a sign of dyslexia. There are many ways families and teachers can help struggling readers. Partnering with each other can be a great first step.

Related topics

Reading and writing Reading and writing

Did you know?

Many people think that writing letters backwards is a sign of dyslexia, but that’s often not the case.

More on: Reading and writing

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom