Problems When Learning to Decode

Sometimes, students’ efforts to sound out words don’t seem to help them figure out what those words are. Perhaps they don’t pronounce the word as it is spoken in Standard American English. Some students—for instance, English learners (ELs), those who have trouble hearing, and those with oral language articulation difficulties—may encounter this type of challenge.

Of course, it is also possible that a word is totally unknown to a reader. Even if the reader can sound out the word, it might not be in his or her oral vocabulary. This situation happens to all of us from time to time, even to very good readers. But it happens most often with, and causes the most frustration for, students who haven’t had a lot of experience with oral language. These children have a smaller supply of words and meanings stored in memory.

Readers who experience difficulty breaking the sound-symbol code often become frustrated. They may become so discouraged that they stop trying. When decoding problems last for a long time, students may come to see reading as punishing, rather than enjoyable.

What should teachers and parapros do to reduce student frustration? First, they should make decoding activities fun.  Second, they should make sure that students are successful.  Experiencing success will build students’ confidence and enthusiasm for reading. Finally, teachers and parapros should provide opportunities for students to use spaced practice when they are learning new phonics skills. Arranging many short practice sessions over a longer period of time works better than scheduling longer sessions over a shorter period of time.

Assessing Phonemic Awareness Skills

If a student appears to struggle with decoding, the teacher or parapro might find it helpful to see if gaps in phonemic awareness or letter-sound association are part of the problem. Perhaps start by asking the student to name the sounds of the consonants as you point to each of them. If the student says the name of the letter, such as “letter t,” say, “Yes, and what sound does that letter make?” Then do the same thing with the sounds of the vowels as you point to them. Remember that vow­els have both long and short sounds. There are also some tools available for measuring students’ knowledge of the sound-symbol connection. You can get a phonics inventory from the website for the National Center for Intensive Intervention. Many school reading programs also have such tools.