What Is Decoding?

By Kate Kelly
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At a Glance

  • Decoding is a key skill for learning to read.

  • It involves using letter-sound relationships to pronounce written words.

  • Many kids learn to decode through structured literacy instruction.

A key skill to becoming a good reader is the ability to sound out words you don’t know. This process is called decoding. Kids typically start learning this skill in kindergarten.

Here’s what you need to know about decoding, and why it’s so important for reading.

What Is Decoding?

Many people think decoding happens when kids start to know which sound each letter makes. But there’s more to it than that.

Decoding happens when kids use their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to correctly pronounce written words. That includes more than just knowing the sounds individual letters make. Kids need to know concepts like letter patterns, too.

Letter patterns are groups of letters that appear together in words and make a sound that doesn’t match up with reading each letter sound individually.

Take for example, the letter pattern -tion, which is at the end of many words. It sounds like “shun.” Knowing that pattern can help kids decode words they haven’t seen before, like “option” or “caption.”

Some kids pick up on these relationships on their own. Most kids learn it through explicit instruction in the classroom.

The process of decoding lets kids 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.

Trouble With Decoding

Some kids learn it easily, some take a little more time, and others really struggle. When a child struggles with decoding, it can be a flag of a reading difference like dyslexia.

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 kids who struggle with phonological awareness skills (like clapping out the syllables in their name) may have trouble with decoding later. So might preschoolers who have trouble recognizing words that rhyme.

That’s because they have trouble identifying the individual sounds that make up words. So when they get to kindergarten, certain reading activities might not make sense: activities that involve blending sounds to make words, segmenting words into individual sounds, and matching sounds to letters.

Not all kids who struggle with reading have trouble with decoding. But decoding may be a problem if a 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’s read because it takes so much time and effort to figure out each word.

How to Help Kids Build Decoding Skills at Home

There are lots of things you can do to boost your child’s decoding skills. You can start by talking to your child’s teacher and asking for more information about where the breakdown is happening. If the teacher says your child struggles with identifying and manipulating sounds in words, you can work on this at home.

Tongue twisters and rhyming games are two activities 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 focus on 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, 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 to help kids with reading skills.

If you’re concerned about your child’s progress, ask about specialized reading instruction. Talk to your child’s teacher about whether there’s a response to intervention (RTI) program in place for struggling readers. You can also request a free school evaluation to learn more about your child’s strengths and challenges, and what can help.

Key Takeaways

  • Decoding requires identifying individual sounds that make up words.

  • It helps kids sound out words they’re not familiar with.

  • Specialized instruction and lots of practice can help kids get better at decoding.

About the Author

About the Author

Kate Kelly 

has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Kelli Johnson, MA 

is an educational speech-language pathologist, working with students from early childhood through 12th grade.

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