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Decoding

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. © BalancedReading.com, 2002

 
Decoding text is half of the game of reading.  To be able to read, children must be able to comprehend language, and they must be able to decode text (see the Simple View discussion).  Simply decoding text, however, is not sufficient -- children must be fluent and highly accurate at decoding text.  Decoding should be as automatic as possible.  In the beginning, decoding is laborious, and a great deal of concentration must be devoted to sounding out words.  Once a child learns how to correctly sound out words, what that child needs more than anything is practice.  Time spent on task at this crucial stage is critically important, and the task that children spend the most time with is reading actual text.  Once a child has figured out most of the basics for sounding out words -- once the child has developed good decoding strategies -- the child needs to practice those strategies with real words in real text.

To learn good decoding strategies, children rely on more basic, more fundamental skills.  First, children must develop an understanding that words have meaning, and that there is a structure to text.  Children develop healthy "concepts about print" when they spend time lap-reading and reading interactively with their parents, caregivers and teachers.

Next, children must become familiar with the letters of the alphabet -- they must learn to easily identify and distinguish the letters.  They don't have to learn the letter names, necessarily, but they must be able to easily and individually identify them somehow.  Children must also develop an understanding that spoken words are made up of phonemes -- phoneme awareness is one of the biggest stumbling blocks that children face, and teachers must make sure that all children have phoneme awareness as soon as they can.  And children must put their knowledge of the letters together with their awareness of phonemes -- they must learn that the letters in printed text represent the phonemes in spoken language.  In other words, they must learn the alphabetic principle.

These are the fundamentals that give rise to good decoding skills.  Children who have these skills (concepts about print, letter knowledge, phoneme awareness, and knowledge of the alphabetic principle) in kindergarten usually go on to become healthy readers.  Children who are still learning these skills at the end of the first grade usually do not go on to become healthy readers (See "M is for Matthew Effect").

These basic skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for reading success.  Children must practice applying these skills with real words and real text.  They must be given many, many opportunities to write and read real connected text, and they should get many opportunities for feedback and instruction from teachers.

The primary goal is to teach children the patterns that exist in the English spelling system, but this is not usually accomplished by teaching some abstract rules about spelling-sound relationships -- children are good at finding patterns, but they are lousy at applying rules.  To emphasize the patterns that exist, instructional strategies like those advocated by Pat Cunningham (Making Words, Making Big Words, and Phonics they Use) are extremely effective.

I've written a document that outlines the essential knowledge domains that underly healthy decoding skills called "The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read," and I've also written a short document illustrating the difference between decoding and reading called "Decoding and the Jabberwocky's Song."  Also this article by Connie Juel and Cecilia Minden-Cupp is quite informative.

In English, there is a good deal of regularity between the letters and the sounds (phonemes), but there are also quite a few exceptions.  There are very few letters in English that always correspond to a single sound, and there is no one sound that always corresponds to a single letter (See "P is for Phonics").  English, it is said, has a "deep orthography," which basically just means that there are a lot of words that are not spelled the way they sound (e.g. "colonel" or "choir").  This is illustrated by the following table that shows the one-to-many relationship that exists between letters and sounds (phonemes).

 
Letters Words that represent different sounds each letter can make
A APPLE, AUTHOR, AUTHORITY, ANY, SAID, SAY, ALGAE
B BOX, LAMB
C CITY, COUNTRY, CHAIR
D DOOR, LACKED
E BED, BEAD, STEAK, EUREKA, THE, SEW
F FOOD, OF
G GIANT, GRUNT, RING, REIGN, SIGN, ENOUGH
H HOLE, PHONE, SHINE, CHORE, CHOIR, HOUR, EXHIBIT
I FINE, LID, CEILING, WEIRD, GOITER
J JAM, JALEPEÑO
K KING, KNIFE
L LOVE, TORTILLA
M MOON, MNEMONIC
N NOON, KING
O BOY, BOOT, FOOT, BLOOD, COYOTE, OUNCE, ONCE, PEOPLE, AMOEBA
P PAT, PHONE, PSYCH, PNEUMATIC
Q QUEEN, MOSQUITO
R ROOT, PERRIER
S SAND, SUGAR, EASY, AISLE
T TAN, THAN, THIN, LATCH, OFTEN
U UNDER, POUND, UNIQUE, TULIP, POUR, AUTHOR, AUTHORITY, CHURCH, BUSY, DIALOGUE
V VINE, VOILA
W WON, WREN, COW, LOW, AWFUL, FEW, WHICH, WHOLE, TWO
X RELAX, LUXURY, EXECUTIVE, XENON
Y YES, PSYCH, THEY, SAYS, VERY, PYGMY
Z ZOO, WALTZ, RENDEZVOUS
Letter Clusters
AU AUTHOR, AUTHORITY, LAUGH, BUREAU, RESTAURANT, DINOSAUR, BEAUTY, GAUGE
EA EAT, CREATE, GREAT, IDEA, DEAF, HEAR, HEARD, HEART, BEAR, BUREAU, BEAUTY
OU OUT, YOU, YOUR, COULD, YOUNG, JOURNEY, ENOUGH (see OUGH for more)
CH CHORE, SCHOOL
TH MOTH, MOTHER, FATHEAD
IE PIECE, PIE, QUIET, FRIEND, SOLDIER
OO FOOD, FOOT, BLOOD, FLOOR
OA TOAD, BOARD, BROAD
AI TRAIN, SAID, AISLE, AGAIN, AIR
OUGH COUGH, THOUGH, THROUGH, THOROUGH, THOUGHT, ENOUGH

A Decoding question from a reader on the Discussion Forum:


Can you give some examples how can I teach kids to show them how to use chunking in word identification?

"Chunking" is a more efficient strategy for word identification that kids should be adopting in 2nd grade and beyond.  There are certain letters in the English writing system that tend to go together.  It is more efficient for students to process those chunks of letters as a group than to process them individually.  Common chunks like "ING" or "THA" or "EAT" should be very quickly and efficiently processed.

Some of Pat Cunningham's "making words" activities are great for teaching kids to chunk letters in word identification.

Start by giving each student letter cards or letter tiles with the following letters:

A E T L K S N

Tell the students to arrange the letters to make the word "TAKE."

Then ask them what letters they need to change to make the word "LAKE."

Then tell them to make the word "SAKE."

Then tell them to make the word "SNAKE."

Then change it to "STAKE."

Point out to them that the letters "AKE" are common letters in English. They are used in a lot of different words.  You can demonstrate some more using other letters (SHAKE, FAKE, MAKE, BAKE, etc.)

You can do the same thing with initial letters or medial letters.

Go from STRING to STRONG to STRAW to STREET -- tell them that the letters "STR" are common in English.

Go from RING to BRING to STRING to THING to KING -- tell them that "ING" is a common chunk of letters.

To expand, have them look for common chunks of letters in their book -- letters that often go together.  They might come up with examples like:

"THE" (THE, THEM, THEY, THEME, THEIR, ANOTHER, etc.)
"OOK" (BOOK, LOOK, TOOK, SHOOK, BROOK, COOK, HOOK, etc.)
"PLA" (PLAY, PLATE, PLAN, PLASTER, PLACE, etc.)
"AME" (SAME, LAME, CAMEL, NAME, BLAME, etc.)

Have students create words for pocket charts that contain letter chunks.  Next to "OOK" they would have LOOK, BOOK, TOOK, SHOOK, etc.  When a student comes up with a new one, they can add it to the pocket chart.



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Last Updated 2-2-09