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What is Decoding and Why Does it Matter for Learning to Read?

What is Decoding and Why Does it Matter for Learning to Read?

You might remember a time in school when you first heard a classmate shout, “Iyay ancay eakspay igpay atinlay!”

Until you’ve learned the secret language of Pig Latin, deciphering that statement can feel frustrating. But once you have been taught to move the first consonant or consonants to the end of the word and add -ay; and to add -yay to words that start with a vowel, it feels far simpler to extract meaning from the above, “I can speak Pig Latin!”

What is Decoding in Reading?

Decoding is the process of extracting meaning from information given in a secret or complicated way. When teaching reading, our role is to reveal the secrets of the alphabetic code and to provide the feedback and support beginning readers need to extract meaning from print. To extract meaning, or to comprehend a text, requires that a student first look closely at the letters on the page and draw on their knowledge of the sounds each of those graphemes represents in order to decode a word. This is why phonics instruction plays such a foundational role in a balanced literacy framework. 

How to Teach Decoding in Reading

In one portion of the day, typically no longer than 20-30 minutes, a teacher will lead an explicit phonics lesson that either introduces or reinforces a particular grapheme or set of graphemes—for instance, vowel combinations that represent long vowel sounds, like ai, ea, and oa

A phonics lesson plan might follow a predictable structure, such as this:

  • Introduce the grapheme 
  • Practice with words in isolation 
  • Practice with words in a connected text 

Across the week, students engage in a series of phonics activities (ie. word sorts, making words, dictation, etc.) to learn and use this knowledge to read and write words—first in isolation, and then in connected text. Students often participate in a shared reading of a decodable text or in an interactive writing experience that offers them massive practice with the target phonics focus. 

As a student’s toolbox begins to fill with more and more graphemes, they become better equipped to construct and deconstruct words as they read and write. For example, when a student has learned consonant digraphs like sh, th, and ch, along with short vowels, they can unlock hundreds of words. And once they have added inflected endings and long vowel phonograms to their toolbox, they will be set up to decode and encode countless more words. 

Benefits of Using Decodable Texts in the Classroom

In a balanced literacy classroom, in addition to daily phonological awareness and phonics lessons, reading lessons are taught to demonstrate and coach readers to draw on their growing phonics knowledge to monitor and decode hard words in books. A teacher might model how they pause to notice when a word they have read aloud does not match the letters on the page. Then, the teacher might recruit the class to help correct the error, using what they’ve learned about phonics to decode it. Later, as students practice this work independently, the teacher will work with students individually and in small groups to coach them to draw on what they know about letters and sounds to tackle the unknown words they encounter in their books.

Supplying readers with decodable texts allows you to maximize their exposure to a particular phonics focus and therefore increase the amount of decoding practice readers are expected to do. Introducing decodable texts that contain the phonics students have already learned also sets readers up to be much more successful when reading independently. 

Decoding and Reading Comprehension

Beyond making meaning in the moment, successfully decoding a word has another benefit. Over time, a readers’ decoding work can improve their sight word knowledge. When a reader decodes a word, they map the sounds onto the letters. And with repeated decoding exposures, the word becomes stored in the reader’s long-term memory. This process, known as orthographic mapping, leads to instant word recognition. A large bank of sight words makes reading infinitely easier and far more fluent. 

So, why does decoding matter for learning to read? As students’ word recognition becomes increasingly automatic, more energy can be allocated toward deepening reading comprehension. After all, the ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning—to comprehend the text, to build knowledge, and to grow ideas. Therefore, alongside reading lessons geared toward comprehension strategies, teachers will also engage the class in read aloud and whole-group discussions of grade-level, complex texts, and guide students to do this thinking work in their own books. 

Together, decoding and comprehension instruction develop highly skilled readers.

The Jump Rope Readers are a series of engaging and diverse decodable books that captivate beginning readers. Each fiction book introduces new phonics features and high-frequency words to help students build skills. After kids have read several fiction books, they can read a matching set of nonfiction books that give them opportunities to practice the same words and letter-sound correspondences while learning about new content in a new genre.

Together, all the Jump Rope Readers provide lots of supportive practice that allows students to gradually improve their skills as they step up towards the ultimate goal of reading confidently and fluently.

The Reading and Writing Project at Mossflower was created out of the pioneering work that Dr. Lucy Calkins began over forty years ago. Inspired by her research, she developed innovative curricula and methods that transformed the way children learned to write, adapting the collegiate and professional-level “writing workshop” model for elementary-age students. Today, RWP-M remains deeply rooted in this experience, where Dr. Calkins and her team of experienced educators author the Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Phonics for grades K through 8, and several series of engaging decodable texts. More than authors of curriculum, at its core, the Project is a community of practice, a think tank, and a professional development organization dedicated to working with schools and educators to empower students to become what we have always known them to be: proficient and enthusiastic writers, readers, and thinkers. 

Topics: Engagement, Fiction, Literacy Instruction, Read-Aloud, Reading, Reading Instruction, Books, Comprehension, Decoding, Literacy, Nonfiction, Phonics, Primary Grades, Reading Strategies, Reading fluency, Comprehension strategies, Whole-group literacy, Decodable texts, Decodable books

Date Published: 01/19/24

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