What are decoding skills?

In order to decode words, the learner must

  • Recognize the letters in the word
  • Associate each letter with its sound
  • Hold these sounds in sequence in memory
  • Blend these sounds together to determine the word
  • Retrieve the meaning of the word 


Why are decoding skills important?

If students learn to decode, they will be able to read new words.

If students are only taught sight word recognition skills, they will have a limited reading vocabulary.

Students who can decode words are able to read a wider range of books.


Sample goal for single word decoding

When presented with a simple 3-letter word in print, the learner will

  • decode the word
  • indicate the word by saying it out loud, signing it, or selecting the appropriate picture or AAC symbol with at least 80% accuracy


Instructional Task

Here is an example of the instructional task to teach single word decoding skills.

  • The instructor presents a written word.
  • The learner
    • looks at the letters in the word
    • thinks of the sounds for each of the letters
    • blends them together in his/her head
    • determines the word
    • says the word out loud, signs it, or selects the correct picture or AAC symbol.


Instructional Materials

Here is an example of a response plate for instruction in single word decoding.

  • The written word is big.
  • The response options are big, pig, bib, and bug.

Response plate for decoding:  big, pig, bib, bug.

This response plate is from the Accessible Literacy Learning (ALL) curriculum from DynaVox Mayer Johnson, Inc.  Picture Communication Symbols (c) 1981-2009 DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, Inc. are used with permission. All rights reserved.

The learner must:

  • look at the letters
  • associate them with their sounds
  • blend the sounds in his/her head in sequence to determine the word
  • say the word, sign it, or select the correct picture or symbol


The pictures are carefully chosen:

  • one is the correct answer – big
  • one represents a mistake in the initial letter sound – pig
  • one represents a mistake in the final letter sound – bib
  • one represents a mistake in the middle letter sound – bug.

Analyzing the learner’s errors can help to identify areas that require more instruction.


Instructional Procedure

The instructor teaches decoding skills using the procedures described earlier.

  • Model
    • The instructor demonstrates decoding for the learner.
  • Guided practice
    • The instructor provides scaffolding support or prompting to help the learner decode successfully.
    • Points to the letters in sequence.
    • Says each letter sound in sequence elongating the sound and blending it with the next sound.
    • Then points to the letters and says the sounds a bit faster.
    • The instructor gradually fades this support as the learner develops competence.
  • Independent practice
    • The learner looks at the letters in the word, says the sounds in his/her head, blends them, and determines the word independently.
    • The instructor monitors the learner’s responses and provides appropriate feedback.


Student Example

Sandra is 14 years old in this video.

  • Sandra has cerebral palsy
  • We started to work with Sandra when she was 13 years old. At that time, she was recovering from surgery and was being home schooled two days a week for an hour each day. She had not previously received literacy instruction other than instruction in the letter names.
  • She uses speech, gestures and a communication book to communicate as well as a computer with speech output (a DynaVox MT4).
  • This video was taken after approximately 8 weeks of instruction.
  • Sandra is learning to decode single words. In the first example,
    • Jennifer, a graduate student at Penn State,
      • shows her a response plate with 4 PCS: the picture symbols for nap, cup, cat, and cap.
      • reviews the symbols with her to make sure she knows them
    • Sandra
      • looks at the written word - cap
      • thinks of the sounds for each of the letters
      • blends the sounds together in her head
      • points to the PCS for the target word, cap
  • After 2 months (approximately 8 hours) of instruction, Sandra has successfully learned to decode regular 3-letter words
  • She uses these skills to read words during shared reading activities
  • Sandra is well on the way to becoming a successful reader. Click to learn more about Sandra’s success learning literacy skills and the impact on her life.



Learners can start instruction in decoding as soon as they

  • Know 4-6 letter-sound correspondences
  • Are able to blend sounds together to determine words.

As students learn new letter-sound correspondences, they will be able to read more words.

Start by teaching learners to decode regular 3 letter words.
As learners develop competence, introduce longer 4 letter words.

Some words are irregular and cannot be decoded

  • For example, “said”, “was”, “there” These words must be memorized by sight.
  • Click on sight word recognition skills for additional information.


Last Updated: February 19, 2019