If you have a child who is learning to read, you may have come across the terms “decodable words” and “sight words.” Being able to decode words is essential for beginning readers.
Decoding isn’t just about sounding out words. It involves taking apart the sounds in a word (“segmenting”) and blending the sounds together.
Another important skill for beginning readers is learning to recognize words at a glance. Kids need to build up a large group of “sight words.” Working on word recognition helps a child become a faster, more fluent reader.
Most beginning readers are taught to read both ways—by matching letters to sounds and by building a vocabulary of sight words. But kids with reading issues may need more specialized instruction.
Here’s what you need to know about sight words, decodable words and non-decodable words—and what can help your child learn to read.
Decodable words follow the rules of phonics. They are spelled the way they sound. Examples include jam and nest.
Once a child knows how to break words apart into their letter sounds and blend those sounds together, she can begin to “decode” one-syllable words like splash. As she gets familiar with syllable patterns, she can sound out longer words like Wisconsin.
Teachers use phonics rules to help with things like knowing whether the vowel in a word makes its short or long sound. Here are two examples of phonics rules:
- When a one-syllable word ends in a consonant and only has one vowel, that vowel tends to be short (mat, cop, dud).
- Adding a “magic e” at the end of that word changes the short vowel sound to a long vowel sound (mate, cope, dude).
Words That Can’t Be Sounded Out
There are lots of words that don’t follow the rules of phonics and aren’t spelled the way they sound. Look at who and was, for instance.
If you’d never seen those words before, you might guess they were spelled hoo and wuz. Sounding out these written words won’t work. The only way to learn them is to memorize them.
The goal is for kids to become so familiar with a non-decodable word that they don’t even try to sound it out. They automatically recognize it at a glance.
Sight words are words that readers can recognize instantly and effortlessly. These words can be decodable or non-decodable. They’re sometimes called “star words” or “high-frequency” words. That’s because early readers encounter them so often. Examples include the, of and said.
Automatically recognizing words helps kids become faster, more fluent readers. Repeated exposure to a word is key. That’s one reason many teachers create a “word wall” that lists a group of high-frequency words in alphabetical order. The word wall is placed on a classroom wall where students can see it often.
A word wall gives kids extra exposure to these words. It also gives kids instant access to words they’re likely to need during reading and writing activities. Word walls can include both decodable and non-decodable words.
Why Reading Can Be Hard
When kids have early reading issues, regular phonics instruction might not be enough. There are many possible reasons for this, including:
- Not being able to see the difference between individual letters. For example, b and d or m and w may look the same to them.
- Not being able to break apart words into individual sounds. (They may hear the word cat but not be able to hear the three separate sound units in C-A-T.)
- Not understanding the similarities and differences between words. (They might not know that the t sound at the end of cat is what makes it different from the word can.)
- Not hearing the subtle distinctions among sounds.
These types of challenges make learning to read very difficult. And they make memorizing sight words—some of which follow no rules and can’t be sounded out—even harder.
What Might Help
There are many teaching methods that help struggling readers. The most effective ones use a multisensory approach. This uses sound, sight, movement and touch to help kids understand and remember what they’re learning.
For instance, struggling readers may need to work on their phonemic awareness. Doing this can help them get better at hearing the phonemes—or smallest units of sound—in spoken language. One multisensory way to work on this is by clapping or tapping a finger as they hear each sound.
Skywriting is another activity that engages multiple senses. Kids can say letters and words while using their arm muscles to “write” them in the air.
If your child is having trouble learning to read, it’s important to find out why. A number of learning issues can cause difficulty with reading. They include dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and visual processing issues.
Getting to the bottom of your child’s issues can help both you and the school figure out the best ways to help her learn to read. Talk to your child’s teachers about what they’re seeing in the classroom. Finding books that are at your child’s reading level can help, too.