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Decoding words when reading
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Decoding: Focus on 6 steps when sounding out words

When we tell a struggling reader to “sound out the word”, it means that we expect some decoding to take place. Decoding a word is a lot more than just sounding out the letters of the alphabet. It also involves manipulating letters based on all the knowledge a person has acquired on phonics, spelling rules and syllables.

It reveals the student’s skills in phonemic and phonological awareness, letter identification, differentiating letter sounds, changed sounds, blends, syllables, rules, their exceptions and the ability to process all of these in the mind before saying a word out loud.

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While performing this activity has become second nature to a competent reader, it is very difficult for a struggling one. Before decoding takes place, you should ensure that the reader is equipped with the necessary skills for reading. Here are 6 steps to help a struggling reader when decoding words.

6 Steps for decoding words when reading

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1. Read from left to right

A struggling reader blurts out a word that may not even start with the same letter of the word on the page because he or she may not be reading from left to right. Seeing the word ‘mug’ and saying ‘jug’ shows that the student recognised ‘ug’ and guessed a word known with the same ending.

The guessing game can even occur with beginning sounds that are confusing. Seeing the word ‘big’ and saying ‘dog’ shows that the student probably confused the ‘b’ with a ‘d’ and recognised the ‘g’. But why replace the ‘i’ with ‘o’? Looking at the whole word before starting from left is the problem.

Encourage your student to read from left to right when decoding a word. Demonstrate this activity by placing the index finger on the first letter and slowly dragging it to the right. When the reader practises this continuously, the eyes would be moving from left to right automatically.

2. Sound out the first letter or blend

Sounding out the first letter or blend when decoding words becomes very tricky for many words. A student may know that ‘c’ is for cat, but does not understand why ‘c’ is also for city. Blending ‘p’ with ‘l’ in play seems straightforward, but ‘p’ with ‘h’ in phone just makes no sense.

Sounding out the first letter or blend requires knowledge on letter identification, hard and soft sounds, long and short vowels, and digraphs. Here are some initial letters on which to focus for decoding.

b and d. The letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ are very challenging for many struggling readers. Sort out your student by posting a chart on the wall showing that ‘b’ has a belly and ‘d’ wears a diaper.

c and g. The letters ‘c’ and ‘g’ have hard and soft sounds based on the short vowels that follow, but have exceptions. They are soft before ‘e’, ‘i’ and ‘y’ as in cent, city and cylinder; and gentle, giant and gym. Exceptions are get, gear, girl and gimmick.

ch, sh, gh, ph, xy and th. Digraphs are two letters with one sound that must be learned before decoding takes place. Beginning digraphs are ‘ch’ in cheese, ‘sh’ in ship, ‘gh’ in ghost, ‘ph’ in phone, ‘xy’ in xylophone and ‘th’ in think which is voiceless and this which is voiced.

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3. Break the word into syllables

Reading intervention usually occurs when older students are faced with words containing 3 and 4 syllables and don’t know what to do with them. A syllable is a single part of a word that has a vowel in it.

When decoding a word, breaking it into syllables is an important step. The word apple has 2 syllables ap/ple. The word participate has 4 syllables par/ti/cip/ate. Some syllables contain smaller words as in cat in catastrophe and catalogue, and familiar blends as in ‘ous’ in righteous and delicious.

Spend some time breaking words into syllables and have your student recognise the 6 types that can be represented while clapping when said. These are:

open syllable ends in a vowel (shemotel, revise)

closed syllable ends with a consonant (fruitwelcome, compose)

vowel consonant e syllable (wake, compete, dislike)

r-controlled syllable (car, resortportable)

vowel team syllable (laughgoatmeaning)

consonant -le syllable (simple, table, cycle)

4. Look at the whole word for familiar blends

You usually recognise familiar blends while breaking a word into syllables. Also, you sound them out as you move from left to right. A struggling reader would find this a difficult task.

When a student memorises a word like courageous, the decoding technique is skipped. The word courageous requires several decoding skills.


hard c is pronounced like ‘k’ because it comes before an ‘o’.

syllables cour/age/ous are r-controlled, open, and closed.

trigraph ‘our’ after the ‘c’ must be learned because ‘ou’ before an ‘r’ sounds like ‘or’ and not ‘ou’ in house or soup.

sight word ‘age’ must be learned as the ‘a’ is long ‘g’ is soft and ‘e’ is silent.

suffix ‘ous’ must be learned as it turns the noun ‘courage’ into an adjective ‘courageous’.

Decoding skills are mastered overtime once practised on many other words daily.

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5. Sound out words in the mind

Having all the skills necessary for decoding words is one thing. Being able to apply these skills quickly in your mind before saying the word out loud is another.

A proficient reader performs this magnificent task in milliseconds. A struggling reader can start by sounding out the words slowly in the mind.

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Help your student to read fluently with consistent practise of decoding words in the mind. Create charts from small words, ones that are challenging, and words with several syllables to decode.

2 letters: am, an, as, at, of, on, or, ox, us, be, he, me, we, by, my, do, go, no, so, to

3 letters words that contain 2 letter words: ham, jam, ram, yam, can, fan, man, pan, ran, tan, van, gas, has, was, bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, con, ion, ton, for, box, fox, pox, bus

b and d: bad, bed, bid, bud, dab, dad, did, dub

a, b, d, g, p and q: add, bag, gap, pad, squad

3, 4 and 5 syllable-words: maintenance – main/ten/ance, believeable – be/lieve/a/ble, and continuously – con/tin/u/ous/ly

6. Ask yourself if the word makes sense

Now that your student is decoding words successfully, the last step is to make sure a word makes sense before saying it out loud. This is necessary so as to avoid saying the wrong word out loud and then having to go back to the drawing board in your mind.

Have your student think about if a word makes sense after decoding it. A familiar word would make sense because the reader heard it before. An unfamiliar word would require decoding and possibly researching for correct pronunciation.

A word in a sentence would make sense based on the grammatical form it assumes along with the other words. The noun ‘child’ can become plural ‘children’, adjective ‘childish’, and abstract noun ‘childhood’.

It is important to teach a struggling reader the 8 main parts of speech for words to make sense after decoding them correctly.


These are 6 steps for decoding words properly. After your student masters the skill of decoding, then you can safely ask him or her to sound out words. When doing reading intervention, take your time with these steps because they are critical to the reading activity. Remember that consistent practise is the key to fluency.

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See also:

Is my child a struggling learner? 5 obvious signs

Reading intervention: 20 critical literacy problems to address

Autism signs parents should take seriously

Bad grades: Tips for students, parents, teachers

Delayed student in a traditional classroom

Lack of focus: A guide for parents

Personalised learning in the classroom

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