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WHAT IS DECODING?

Updated: Nov 17, 2023




Decoding text is fundamental. It is the foundation on which literacy stands. If students can't decode, they will lack the mental energy to comprehend. Decoding is essential, and it should be the bedrock of the Foundation classroom.


Any parent of a dinosaur lover does it when they meet those overly long dinosaur names. We all do it when we see an unfamiliar word.


Decoding is all about letter-sound relationships — the ability to sound out an unknown word using letter-sound knowledge. To blend sounds, a child has to know what to blend. Show your child how words are made up of speech sounds we say — the letters on a page represent these sounds. Even silent letters have a part to play, but that is a story for another day.


A systematic sequence that moves from simple to complex in tiny cumulative steps is the most effective.


As John Walker from Sounds-Write so aptly puts it–


“If children can talk, they can blend sounds to form words. If they can’t blend when they’re learning to read, it’s probably because, for one reason or another, they need much more practice in connecting spellings to sounds.”

I just created this new set of bookmarks as a gentle guide to help parents know how to best support early reading at home. Many parents really want to help, but they are stuck too. The best way parents can support early reading is to help their child decode, not guess words. Let's help parents and carers set up good reading habits in their homes.


Grab the free set here.




Print out the free posters and bookmarks for your home or classroom here.


The ability to decode is the foundation that all learning stands on. I can read this text — therefore, I can take meaning from it. I can transfer my knowledge of the sound-symbol correspondence to other words when I read.


All children must learn how to decode — some will do this independently, but most need explicit, systematic instruction to achieve this.


In the beginning, I always use a 2 step approach.

Modelling is crucial


  1. I segment the word for the child, so they can hear how many sounds are in the word and see the graphemes (individual letter or letter strings) that represent the sounds — the letter-sound correspondence.

  2. I connect the sounds (connected phonation) and model how to blend the sounds to read the word. This step takes time. Connected phonation helps students to blend the sounds when reading.

The child then has a go using the printed word.


This takes time. Many correct repetitions are crucial.


We need to teach students how to sound out unfamiliar words and blend sounds to read so they feel empowered to have a go!


To decode text, we have to keep our eyes on the words.



The words carry the meaning, and the words contain letters and letter strings that need translating into speech to read the text. Using the picture is not a decoding strategy. Teaching segmenting and blending until your child or student can do it is crucial.


Model it, but don’t do it for them. It takes many repetitions. It's not a walk in the park.


Books for young children come with the most amazing pictures. I love brilliant illustrations — I have even bought books just for the illustrations. The thing is, the illustrations are for engagement — they are all about awe and wonder. The illustrations are because of the words. The words came first.


Using the picture is not a lasting strategy for decoding.


Just imagine a child reading a book about a horse. They see a word they don’t know, but they know it begins with ‘H’, and it’s near a picture of a horse. The chance is high that they will read the word horse because of the context. But they didn’t link the letters to sounds. They didn’t segment the word and link the sounds to the letters.


That's not really reading. That's really a guess.


The next time the word comes up, the child will have difficulty again if it’s without a picture. We must teach children to focus on the words, letters and sounds to develop word attack skills. They can then use this knowledge with many other words.


Reading becomes a guessing game if we do not teach the alphabet code systematically.


Children must learn how to decode. Reading is not a guessing game. Decoding is most effective if we connect that explicit teaching to a chat about the words and text, so meaning and vocabulary build too. Learning to decode is not barking at the text. Learning to decode is the first step to becoming a fluent reader. No effective teacher ever said, just read the words — let’s forget about the meaning.



Effective educators systematically teach word attack skills and talk about the words.


The two sides of the Simple View of Reading are merged as they should be.


Click here for a very readable blog post from Tiffany Peltier to learn more.


Pictures are a great way to start a conversation about a story, and this chat will develop your child’s vocabulary and comprehension. But they don't help decoding.

We have to be intentional in our practice.


Are we teaching decoding or chatting about the story using pictures? The skill of decoding opens the door to reading.


I made some decoding strategy bookmarks a while back. There are various in this FREE pack. Check them out here.




Click here to get my decoding strategy bookmarks.

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