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Conquering Decoding Skills

Kathleen Law offers decoding strategies particularly suitable for students with dyslexia, but useful for so many more

Have you ever watched a young reader seemingly have the ability to lift words off the page? Students like this have become proficient decoders, and with that, they can attend better to comprehend what they are reading.

Decoding is not easy for students with dyslexia.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Decoding is an essential part of learning how to read and comprehend print.

Before readers can successfully decode, critical skills need to be solidly in place. One of the skills is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words (phonological awareness); another skill is knowing the correlation between letters and sounds (this is called phonics). To help students become successful readers, these skills need to be taught in an explicit, systematic, sequential way.
Once readers have these skills in place, teachers can start implementing decoding strategies and techniques.
I highlight six great decoding strategies below.

  1. Segmenting and Blending Activity
    Being able to segment and blend words is one step in learning how to decode. One way teachers can help students do this is by making their own blending board for students to practice with.
    What you need: Sticky notes, index cards, or paper and pencil
    How to make a blending board: First, create letter cards with any of the following: Post-It Notes, index cards, pieces of paper. Write the lowercase letters of the sounds your students know, one letter per card. Put the letter cards in vowel, consonant (VC) order or consonant, vowel, consonant (CVC) order. Starting at the left, point to each letter and sweep across with your hand as the student reads each sound and blends them into a syllable. A syllable is a word or word part that contains a vowel sound. Sometimes, this activity will create nonsense syllables. Ask the students to give a thumbs up if this is a real word that is spelled and pronounced correctly. Introduce new letters and sounds and then add them to the blending board.
  2. Word Chaining
    Word chaining is an engaging way to practice manipulating letters/sounds in words.
    What you need: Paper and pencil
    How to practice word chaining: Have students turn a piece of paper horizontally and draw five to six boxes across the page from left to right. Give them a word like map and ask them to write it in the first box. Moving to the second box, change one sound, such as changing /m/ to /t/, and have them write the new word (tap). Continue like this until all of the boxes are filled. Have students read through the word chain. Once the students understand this activity, it can be done with a partner.
  3. Word Dictation
    A great way to check if students are applying new learning is to ask them to encode, or spell words through word dictation.
    What you need: Paper and pencil
    How to practice word dictation: Give the students a one-syllable word. Have the students repeat the word and count the sounds they hear.
    Ask the students to draw one line for each sound and then put the corresponding letter(s) on each line. Make sure they have the correct number of sound lines. If they correctly spell the word, have them write the word again next to the lines. If they misspell the word, support them by walking through steps 2 and 3. When all the words are spelled correctly, ask the students to read through the list.
  4. Compound Words
    Once a student is able to decode single-syllable words, we can introduce and practice compound words. Compound words are two words put together to make a new word.
    What you need: Pencil and half a sheet of paper for each student
    How to practice compound words: Fold the right and left sides of the paper toward each other to meet in the middle, creating two flaps.
    Open up the flaps and write the compound word (as an example, catfish). Close the flaps and write cat on the left flap and fish on the right.
    Ask students to draw a picture of a cat on the left and a fish on the right. When they are finished, open up the flaps and draw a catfish. Students can then come up with other compound words and share them with their peers.
  5. Rapid Word Charts
    As students become more confident decoding words, we then want them to practice recognizing the words quickly or automatically. Rapid word charts are a great way to give students additional practice reading the words they have previously decoded.
    What you need: Piece of paper and pencil
    How to practice rapid word charts: Create a grid with six boxes going across the page and six boxes going down the page. Choose six previously taught words and put them into the grid in random order. Have the students read across each row until they get to the end.
    Students can challenge themselves by timing each read with the goal of beating the best time. For a more gamified activity, number each row going down. Add dice or cards numbered one through six. Whatever number is rolled, the student will read the corresponding row.
  6. Decodable Sentences and Stories (Fluency practice)
    Decodable texts offer students the opportunity to practice and apply previously learned phonics skills that have been explicitly taught. Using decodable texts helps students with word recognition, fluency, and automaticity. Repeated readings benefit students by providing extra practice. Some decodable text may contain irregularly spelled words like was. It is important to teach and practice these words so students can successfully read them in the text.
    What you need: Decodable texts
    How to practice decodable sentences and stories: Read the text aloud while the student reads along or follows along silently. Ask the student to read the text aloud for a second time. If they make a mistake, offer support by asking them to go back to the word and decode it. Then have the student reread the sentence correctly. Continue reading the text. For additional practice/repeated readings, have the student read to a partner or record themselves on a digital device. Send the text home for extra practice or ask a volunteer to listen to the student read.

Kathleen Law is a structured literacy, Orton-Gillingham, and science of reading–certified teacher and current instructional content specialist for IMSE. IMSE offers a number of free digital and printable resources to help teachers make an impact for students, including a printable blending board, digital blending boards, short vowel CVC flip book, word chaining trains, decodable fluency practice, and reading strategy bookmarks. You can find a full list of free, customizable lesson templates from IMSE at or by following them on Instagram (@imse_og).

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