Decoding: The Basics – About This Unit

What is phonics? Phonics is a method of teaching reading and writing in which teachers instruct students how to connect the sounds of language with the spelling patterns that represent those sounds. In other words, teaching phonics builds the skills necessary for the sound-based decoding of words.

Decoding is critically important for learning to read—so important that we devote two whole units to it. This unit explores the importance of phonics for decoding words, and it provides strategies for teaching students to decode phonetically. The next unit considers several more advanced concepts related to decoding: using meaningful parts of words for decoding (morphology) and developing sight vocabulary.

Core Concepts

Written language is a code. When we learn to read, we try to break the code. In English, this involves connecting letters with sounds to figure out what the word is. There are a few key strategies that readers use to figure out, or decode, new words. These strategies involve breaking words into parts. Educators help students learn to read by teaching them to decode.

When teaching beginning readers, we use what are known as decodable texts. All texts are decodable, but these have been specifically chosen because they reinforce the sound-letter relationships that are taught during instruction. As such, decodable texts mirror the progression of classroom instruction, becoming incrementally more challenging by including new words that are consistent with the new sound-letter relationships learned in class.

Key Vocabulary

AJAX progress indicator
  • Decoding (or Sounding Out)
    Translating printed words into spoken words. Students match letters and sounds and recognize the patterns that make up syllables and words.
  • Grapheme
    The smallest unit of a system of writing–the way symbols are written to represent the sounds, or phonemes, of a language.
  • Loanword
    A word that enters a language directly from another language, usually as a result of historical contact between people speaking those languages.
  • Morphology
    The study of words' structure.
  • Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)
    A framework enabling educators to identify and support struggling learners. MTSS has three levels, or tiers, of support. Educators plan ways to support struggling learners (interventions) and ways to measure if the strategies are working, starting at Tier 1. If students don't reach their learning goals, they receive more support at the next tier (Tier 2). Tier 3 provides the highest level of support.
  • Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping
    An evidence-based practice for helping students draw the connection between the sounds we hear and the letters that represent those sounds.
  • Phonetic Decoding
    Finding the meaning of an unfamiliar word by translating letters and groups of letters back into the sounds they represent, connecting the sound of the word to the words stored in one's verbal vocabulary, and realizing the word's meaning. See sound-symbol clues below.
  • Phonics
    A method of teaching reading and writing by connecting the sounds of language with the spelling patterns that represent them.
  • Sound-Symbol Clues
    Finding the meaning of an unfamiliar word by connecting symbols (graphemes) to the sounds they represent (phonemes). The word-sounds connect to words that are part of the reader's oral vocabulary, so the reader realizes the word's meaning. After much practice during early reading development, the process usually becomes fast and automatic. See phonetic decoding above.
  • Spaced Practice
    An educational model where short lessons (or practice sessions) occur frequently over a long period of time. It contrasts with massed practice, that is, instruction with longer lessons that occur infrequently. Evidence demonstrates that spaced practice is more effective for learning than massed practice.
  • Standard American English
    The dialect of English commonly taught in schools in the United States. This is the dialect most often used in professional settings. It is distinct from the many regional dialects of American English.
  • Structural Analysis
    Finding the meaning of an unfamiliar word by identifying the root word, word parts such as prefixes (beginnings) and suffixes (endings), and the word's construction. Structural analysis works best with longer words.
  • Syllable
    A word part that includes a single vowel sound only.