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10 Key Strategies for Boosting Decoding Skills in Young Readers

by | Jul 20, 2022 | Core Skills

When you read a book, or a grocery list, or a blog post like this one, you’re looking at words on a page (or screen) and translating them into speech.

This is decoding. It’s an unconscious process. You probably aren’t thinking, “I see ‘When’ at the beginning of this post, and I know it sounds like ‘/w/ /e/ /n/.’”

For most kids, decoding isn’t intuitive. They need to learn the skill explicitly and systematically. Decoding is a foundational skill on which the ability to sound out new words depends, so it’s critical for kids to understand it.

We can help you find strategies for helping your child learn to decode.

Strategies for Boosting Decoding Skills in Young Readers

The Short Cut

  • Decoding, an important early learning Core Skill, is the ability to recognize that a written word can be translated into a spoken one
  • Decoding strategies can help build your child’s confidence and familiarity with the sounds and letters they are trying to read
  • Decoding can be fun! There’s nothing like having that “aha!” moment when a kid recognizes a word and says it out loud
  • A learning membership that grows with your child can help them develop decoding skills at the right time and in the ways that fit them best

What Is Decoding in Early Literacy?

Decoding is the ability to turn a written word into the matching spoken word.

For example, when your child sees “cat” written out, they can decode it when they know it has three distinct sounds—/k/ /a/ /t/—that combine to make the word “cat.”

When your child can see a word, understands the sound each letter represents, and can blend the sounds together from left to right to say the word, they are decoding.

This skill is vital to literacy because once your child can decode words independently, they can begin reading fluently and with comprehension.

Skills Required for Decoding

Skills Required for Decoding

1. Alphabet Mastery

When your child sees the letter “m,” can they instantly identify its name and its sound? If not, decoding might be challenging.

Familiarity with the alphabet is a significant predictor of future reading success. Before beginning decoding lessons, make sure your child can tell you the sounds of any letters you will be using.

As a general rule, knowing at least two vowels and eight common consonants gets your child ready to take a step into reading. For further practice, use the letter recognition activities in this post.

When you come back to decoding, your child will have a much better foundation and will be able to move through the process more quickly.

2. Phonemic Awareness

In addition to knowing what each letter looks and sounds like, your child needs a certain level of phonemic awareness before they begin reading.

Phonemes are the smallest sound units that make up the words in a language—for example, /c/, /a/, and /t/ are the phonemes that make up the word “cat. Phonemic awareness is the ability to perceive and use those individual sounds in spoken words. Your child’s phonemic awareness grows over time.

As your child develops the ability to hear sounds in words, they can identify whether a sound is in the beginning, middle, or end of a word. They can also swap sounds in words (e.g., change the first sound in “cat” to get “hat”).

Remember that phonemic awareness is all about the sounds (/r/), not the letters associated with those sounds (could be r or wr, depending on the word).

While phonemic awareness has many different components, two of them are especially crucial for reading success—phoneme blending and phoneme segmentation.

Phoneme Blending

Blending phonemes is the ability to take two or more different sounds and put them together to make a word. To read, your child needs to be able to hear /b/ /a/ /t/ and blend those three phonemes (in the correct order) to make the word “bat.”

If your child can do this quickly and easily, they are likely ready to start decoding. If not, take some time to practice phoneme blending before you move on.

Try starting with a two-syllable compound word, like goldfish. Say the individual parts (gold-fish) and have your child tell you what word they hear. When this is easy, try other two-syllable words (ti-ger) and even three-syllable words (com-pu-ter).

Phoneme Recognition

Segmenting phonemes is taking a word and breaking it into individual sounds. If your child hears the word “bat,” they segment it by breaking it into /b/ /a/ /t/.

If they can’t yet do this, take time to practice. Try saying a word and have them tell you which individual sounds they hear in it.

Another strategy is to write a simple word on a piece of paper and ask your child to circle each sound as they say it. Then keep practicing until they can quickly and easily segment words into their phonemes.

The Spelling and Reading Connection

Spelling and reading go hand in hand. That’s because decoding and its opposite, encoding (turning a spoken word into a written word), both rely on phonemic awareness.

If your child can’t yet segment words into individual sounds, they will have difficulty spelling. They won’t know which letters they need to write down or the order in which to put those letters.

The good news is that if you’ve been working on phonemic awareness, they should be well on their way to being able to decode and encode. And if they aren’t quite there yet, continued practice can help them improve as readers and writers.

10 Practical Tips to Enhance Decoding Skills

Decoding is one of the foundations on which reading is built.

It comes before comprehension because your child can’t make sense of what they’re reading if they don’t understand the relationship between letters and sounds.

Even if your child excels at comprehending a story when you read it to them (which is fantastic!), they may need some encouragement and experience with decoding before they can make sense of stories they read out loud or to themselves.

To help your child build their decoding skills, try these tips:

1. Use Audiobooks

Use Audiobooks allowing your child to listen to the audio version of a book

You may have heard that allowing your child to listen to the audio version of a book while they silently read along with it slows down the process of learning to read. It doesn’t!

In fact, it’s a useful way to gain proficiency in decoding because it’s a multisensory experience: Your child is using their eyes and ears to tackle it. It helps kids make the symbol-sound connection.

If your child is able to look at books while you’re in the car, adding an audiobook is a great way to pass the time and, more importantly, to support them on their reading journey.

2. Try a Manipulable

Try giving your child the opportunity to manipulate magnetic letters.

Ask them to put the letters in alphabetical order on your refrigerator door, a magnetic board, or at a table. (Sing the alphabet song as they do it and you’ve got a three-sensory experience!)

Work up to your child spelling words with the letters.  

3. Personalize Decoding

Try a Manipulable

You and your child can sit down and write a letter or email to someone special.

Maybe they have a sibling in college or a family friend who lives far away. Whoever it is, just make sure your child knows them and has something they want to communicate. If the content of the note is relevant to your child, they’ll be much more engaged, which will make the writing less challenging.

You can start by being the scribe for your child. Have them compose the note while you write it down, sounding out each word and pointing to it as you go. As their skills progress, your child can do their own writing.

4. Find Some Fun!

Ultimately you want your child to equate reading with pleasure. If they love reading, they’ll do it more. And if they do it more, their literacy skills will grow.

Try making a puzzle out of a word. Let’s say the word is “cat.” Write it on an index card. Then cut the word into three puzzle pieces, one for each phoneme (c-a-t).

Do this for a bunch of words. Then work with your child to put the puzzles back together. Once they’ve got it, ask them to read the words out loud.

5. Make Sounds Silly

A companion strategy to making decoding fun is to make words sound silly.

The same principle is at work—you want your child laughing while they learn! Try taking a walk and pointing out things you see—a bird, a tree, a flower, a slide—and sounding out the phonemes in silly voices. (“Look! Do you see the bbbbbbb iiiiii rrrrrrr dddddd?”)

Getting as much practice as possible in sounding out words will help build a solid foundation for your child’s ability to read.

6. Helping Hands

Sometimes words on a page can feel overwhelming to a child. They may not be experienced enough with reading to know where to start (at the top and left side of the page).

If this is true for your child, have them follow with their finger, pointing just under each letter and moving slowly across as they sound out the word. Focusing on their finger will help them keep track of where they are in the book.

If your child is struggling with a word, they can also cover up part of the word with their finger and make their task simpler by focusing on one sound at a time. As they sound out the word, they can slowly reveal the next letter.

7. Practice Patience

Let your child struggle with words. Not all the time—you know best when they’ve reached their frustration threshold—but don’t rush in while they’re still engaged and working at it. Sometimes they need time to figure out a word.

8. Let Your Child Fumble

Often kids look to us to confirm that they’ve been successful reading a word. This is a good thing! It shows they’re aware that they may not be getting a word right, which makes mistakes easier to address than if they’re whipping through every word in a sentence whether they get it right or not.

But when they make a mistake, see what happens when you give your child a chance to figure the word out for themselves.

This will help them learn how to gauge when they’ve made a mistake or not. If they seem really lost, gently guide them by having a conversation about the context of the word within the sentence or story. (“Let’s think. The cat is standing in the rain. Does ‘The cat is wheat’ make sense? Or is it something else?”)

9. Go Slowly

The tortoise won the race in the tale of the tortoise and hare. Slow and steady is OK! Don’t feel like you have to rush your child through the early stages of reading.

Let them take their time learning to decode words. Start with simple, three-letter, short-vowel words that begin with common consonants. A is a good vowel to use. For example, you could try “cat,” “bag,” and “pat.”

Then, as your child gains proficiency, slowly increase the difficulty by using a new vowel (“sip, “bit,” pit”).

Take your time—they might feel overwhelmed and discouraged if you make it too hard too quickly. And you want them to enjoy reading, not view your practice sessions as something to dread.

10. Practice Frequently

A few minutes of reading every day can pay off. It’s much better to spend a little time practicing each day than an hour in a single day and then nothing for a week or two.

Decodable books—ones in which the author uses words that are easy to sound out—are a great place to start.

Try to make reading a fun, regular part of your child’s life. Let them choose the books they want to read or take turns reading aloud to each other. The more time you spend reading together, the more your child will learn and improve their decoding skills.

Incorporating Decoding into Everyday Activities

As adults, we’re unconsciously decoding all the time without even thinking about it. We read road signs, recipes, instructions, social media posts, emails, text messages, books, and more.

If you can bring some intentionality to the process of translating written words into speech, you can find countless moments within your day to help your child practice.

A few ideas for slipping decoding into your daily routine include:

1. Look for Opportunities

If you can keep your eye and ear out for moments to pause and practice decoding, you’ll be able to help your child many times a day in short bursts.

Sound out their name when you call them to the breakfast table. Break down words on signs in the grocery store or at the bus stop. Choose a few words to focus on when you read your bedtime stories together.

2. Make Decoding Fun

This idea is worth repeating! If you can make practicing decoding light and creative, your child will be more open to it. Try playing a game of “I Spy” with sounds (“I see something that starts with an /r/ sound”). Or choose a phoneme and tell your child you’re going to become detectives to search for it all day long.

3. Use the Objects around You

If you have alphabet magnets on your fridge, ask your child to spell out words with them. If you take out the play dough, make letters out of it. Build words with blocks.

When you make decoding a multisensory activity, you increase the chance your child will enjoy it. And for kids, play and fun are important aspects of learning.

4. Engage in Lots of Conversation

Expanding your child’s vocabulary ultimately grows their decoding skills too.

Exposing your child to a rich and diverse array of vocabulary words positively affects their ability to read down the road. Hearing words first makes it easier to decode them written on the page later.

Let your child drive the topic of conversation, and introduce new vocabulary words as you talk!

5. Build Books into Your Day

Any positive interaction with a book is an opportunity for decoding. Try:

  • Creating a space in your home dedicated to reading
  • Putting books everywhere (yes, in the kitchen and bathroom too!)
  • Paying attention to what your child is curious about and getting books from the library about those topics
  • Creating as many rituals as you can around reading (such as before bed, while waiting at the doctor’s office, and on car rides)

Learning to Read with Begin

Photo illustration showing photos of kids using the Begin brands: Little Passports, HOMER, Learn with Sesame Street, and codeSpark

Decoding isn’t a simple skill, and it takes a while to master. But if you incorporate it into your child’s day-to-day life, they’ll have an easier time learning it. Once they feel confident about matching letters on the page to sounds, they’ll be on their way to real reading!

And we can help!

Our age- and stage-matched learning membership helps kids learn to read through apps, activity kits, and books. Our HOMER app (included in several stages of the membership) has been proven to raise early reading scores by 74% with just 15 minutes of use a day.

Take our online quiz today to discover which stage of our membership is best for your family!


Dr. Jody Sherman LeVos
Jody has a Ph.D. in Developmental Science and more than a decade of experience in the children’s media and early learning space.