What is ‘Decoding’?

Teaching a child to read is all about “decoding,” a fundamental skill in which readers sound out unfamiliar words. While it may seem like a fancy educational term — and some parents will hear it a great deal in the early grades — decoding is just a recognition that written language, at its basic level, is a code in which letter symbols represent sounds.

“The process of decoding involves phonics and letter-sound relationships,” says Carly Shuler, co-founder and CEO of Hoot Reading, an online reading program. “Decoding is learning how letters sound individually and in combination with other letters. Decoding is also recognizing syllables and patterns within words.”

Decoding goes back to the origins of written language when spoken sounds, known as “phonemes,” were codified in the form of letters and groups of letters, says R. Kali Woodward, founder and executive director of the American Youth Literacy Foundation.

“The early inventors of writing and reading were able to isolate the phonemes and give them unique values in written form,” Woodward says. “So when we talk about ‘decoding’ in the context of school and teaching children how to read, we’re really talking about finding the phonetic pieces in any given word.”

[Read: When Do Kids Learn to Read?]

Decoding in Practice

Reading experts say decoding involves a series of smaller skills, such as taking apart the sounds in words, known as “segmenting,” and then blending them together. It also uses knowledge of letter and sound relationships, and the ability to use that knowledge to identify written words and understand what they mean.

In the end, it is the process of transforming print into speech by quickly matching letters or a group of letters to their sounds and being able to recognize the patterns that form syllables and words.

Decoding takes place in the part of the brain that handles language processing, and with enough practice, the brain uses the decoding skills automatically.

“When a child is sounding out the word ‘cat,’ for example, first they work through the individual sounds of the letters C-A-T,” Woodward says. “As they blend the sounds together, it starts to sound like ‘cat.’ Once the brain recognizes that the sound is a word within the working vocabulary, neural activity jumps … to find meaning to connect that sound with an idea or image of a furry animal with pointy ears.”

Experts say that some students have trouble accessing the part of the brain that automatically decodes and that, in these cases, students can be taught decoding strategies.

Decoding is also not just a skill used by beginning readers. When adults sound out a complex word, a name or an unfamiliar place, they are using decoding skills as well.

Learning to Read

Understanding the “alphabetic code” is essential to children learning to read, says Sara Leman, a literacy specialist and writer for Reading Eggs, an online reading program. “This is where individual letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of spoken language,” she says.

This makes decoding an essential reading skill. It helps children figure out words they have never seen in print but may have heard, and to sound out words they are not familiar with. It is the first skill that must be mastered to achieve reading fluency, build a vocabulary and master reading comprehension.

“This is the ability to break a word up into its individual letters or groups of letters, identify the corresponding sounds and then blend the sounds together to read the word,” Leman says.

Learning to decode often starts in kindergarten, when novice readers begin decoding one-syllable words. Then they progress to longer ones.

How Parents Can Help

Leman says the key to successful decoding instruction is to “keep things fun.”

“There are lots of ways that parents can help their young children to develop this essential skill,” she says. “This involves listening to and manipulating words and sounds.”

[Read: How Parents and Teachers Can Help With Spelling]

Here are some ideas:

Sound identification. Identify the first letter in the word, then play “I Spy” to find nearby objects that start with the same sound.

Manipulatives. Use tactile letters like magnets, playdough or other toys to spell out words, then change letters and sounds. Swap out a vowel to create a new word that your child must then sound out.

Letter patterns. Make a certain letter pattern (“ch,” for example) your pattern of the day and look for it in store signs or books that you read together.

Sound collage. “Write a focus sound in the middle of a large piece of paper,” Leman says. “Encourage your child to trace over it with a pencil, saying the sound at the same time. Ask your child to find and cut out pictures of things that begin with that sound. The pictures can then be glued onto the paper to create a sound collage.”

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

How Parents Can Help Kindergarten Readiness

How Parents and Teachers Can Help With Spelling

How Children Learn to Write

What is ‘Decoding’? originally appeared on usnews.com

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