A key skill to becoming a good reader is the ability to sound out words you don’t know. This process is called decoding, and kids typically start learning it in kindergarten.
Most kids pick it up through their regular classroom instruction. Some learn it easily, some take a little more time, and others really struggle. When a child struggles with decoding, it can be a flag that he might have a reading issue like dyslexia.
Here’s what you need to know about decoding, and why it’s so important to the ability to read.
How Decoding Works
The process of decoding allows kids to figure out most words they’ve heard but have never seen in written form. (Decoding relies on the rules of phonics. Kids need to memorize words that don’t follow those rules.) Decoding also helps kids sound out most words they’re not familiar with at all. It’s partly an auditory process, and partly a visual one.
Decoding starts with the ability to match letters and their sounds. But it also involves being able to take apart the sounds in words (segmenting) and blend sounds together. When kids can do both, they can sound out words. Beginning readers start with decoding one-syllable words, and then they work their way up to longer ones.
When You May Notice Trouble With Decoding
Problems with decoding usually become apparent when kids start learning to read. But signs can surface earlier, when kids are tuning in to the sound structure of words.
For instance, young children who have difficulty clapping out the syllables in their name may have trouble with decoding later. Young kids who have trouble recognizing words that rhyme may also struggle to decode when they get older.
That’s because they have trouble identifying the individual sounds that make up words. So when they get to kindergarten, certain activities may make no sense to them. These activities might involve blending sounds to make words, segmenting words into individual sounds, and matching sounds to letters.
Signs Your Child May Struggle With Decoding
Not all kids who struggle with reading have a decoding issue. But decoding may be a problem if your child often:
- Tries to guess what a word is based on the first sound or two.
- Tries to guess what a word is based on context.
- Reads very slowly because it takes a long time to make sense of the letters.
- Has trouble understanding or remembering what she reads because it takes so much time and effort to figure out each word.
How to Help Your Child Build Decoding Skills at Home
There are many things you can do to boost your child’s decoding skills. You can start by talking to your child’s teacher and asking where the breakdown is occurring. If she says your child struggles with identifying and manipulating sounds in words, also known as phonemic awareness, you can work on this at home.
Activities that encourage your child to isolate or repeat individual sounds can help build phonemic awareness. Tongue twisters and rhyming games are two you can do anywhere. A game of “I spy” is another fun option for when you’re in the car, on the bus or out for a walk.
If the teacher says your child is struggling with vowels, you can target those. For example, spell out bat with magnetic letters, and then ask what happens if you substitute an i for the a.
As your child’s class moves through the alphabet, look for those letters and sounds in everyday life. For example, ask her to point out ch and sh words in the mail that comes to the house, on signs, in books that you read together or in the magnetic letters on the fridge.
There are also computer games and apps that can make decoding fun. Tech Finder can help you find the best age-appropriate ones for your child.
If you’re concerned about your child’s progress, you can ask about specialized reading instruction, like multisensory instruction. You can also consider requesting a free school evaluation. An evaluation can help you figure out why your child is struggling and how best to support her needs.