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.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Kim Greene, MA is the managing editor at Understood. A former elementary teacher and a certified reading specialist, she has a passion for developing resources for educators.