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Content: Teaching Children to Decode

Decoding consists of related skills.  The code can be broken—decoded—by using several clues. The first step to decoding involves using sound-symbol clues.

1. Using Sound-Symbol Clues

The first step in teaching decoding is to develop children’s phonemic awareness. This is their ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the sounds and syllables that make up words. We talked about phonemic awareness in previous units. Students must also learn to associate the written letters with the sounds they represent. 

Most reading programs for Kindergarten through third grade have activities to teach these skills to beginning readers.  

Using a structured literacy approach, these activities should be both systematic and cumulative 


  • Systematic instruction follows the natural structure of the language. For example, it moves gradually from simple to complex sound-letter associations, and from the normal patterns or rules of how letters sound to the exceptions.

  NORMAL PATTERNS/RULES –Predictable relationships 

Word Type Reason for Relative Ease/Difficulty Examples
VC and CVC words that begin with continuous sounds Words begin with a continuous sound it, fan
VCC and CVCC words that begin with a continuous sound Words are longer and end with a consonant blend lamp, ask
CVC words that begin with a stop sound Words begin with a stop sound cup, tin
CVCC words that begin with a stop sound Words begin with a stop sound and end with a consonant blend dust, hand
CCVC Words begin with a consonant blend crib, blend, snap, flat
CCVCC, CCCVC, and CCCVCC Words are longer clamp, spent, scrap, scrimp

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES of how letters sound

Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 1998; see References

 Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts (1998). Professional Development Guide. Austin, TX: Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Cumulative instruction means that each step of instruction builds on previous learning.  It includes all the following parts of learning, builds upon each part and teaches skills in an explicit manner that allows for data collection, progress monitoring and diagnostic evaluation to ensure the teaching matches the need.

What is Structured Literacy? - Braintrust

The technique for helping students decode phonetically that’s described below is both systematic and cumulative. It moves from words with a single syllable to those with multiple syllables. It also builds on students’ already-established phonemic awareness.


2. Syllabication


One popular teaching method involves phoneme-grapheme mapping.

 This method uses strips of blank squares or boxes; these are sometimes called Elkonin boxes after the psychologist who invented them. There are many ways to use these strips. For example, you could give each student blank squares, equal to the number of sounds in a word. If you’re teaching the word flash, each student would receive four blank squares. You’d pronounce the word slowly, saying each sound clearly. The students would then write the letters that make each sound in the appropriate square: 

  • f in the first square,  
  • l in the second,  
  • a in the third,  
  • sh in the fourth because sh makes one sound.  

The figure below illustrates this.

sound boxes for the word "sheep"

Here is a link to more examples of Elkonin boxes. https://bogglesworldesl.com/elkonin_boxes.htm

You can then call the students’ attention to words that are spelled the same except for the first let­ter or letters. As we mentioned in the last unit, these words can be grouped together into word families, such as the 

un word family: bun, fun, run, sun, and so on.

HERE’s a video of the UN word family.


Once students have learned how to separate the sounds in one-syllable words, like flash, they’re ready to deal with multi-syllable words. First, they might learn to break multisyllabic words into their individual syllables.  (Remember that a syllable is a word part that includes one, and only one, vowel sound.)

For example, lion would separate into two syllables: li and on

Lion Word Strategy

You can help students notice syllable divisions by writing down each syllable with different colored markers or on a different colored card. Or maybe the students could clap once for each syllable they hear. For example, re (clap) – mem (clap) – ber (clap).

This technique of dividing written or spoken words into separate syllables is known as syllabication.

6 Syllable Types: Everything to Know & Examples - Literacy LearnAt this point, manystudents should be able to use sound-symbol clues to decode unfamiliar single-syllable words when they encounter those words in sentences. Some will even be able to sound out multisyllabic words, perhaps by using their fingers or a card to cover a word’s second and third syllables, and then uncovering each syllable in turn.

Module: Helping Students Read

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