Teaching Children to Decode

Decoding consists of related skills. It makes sense, then, that teaching children to decode would teach those skills.

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

Early Instruction 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. Cumulative instruction means that each step of instruction builds on previous learning. 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.


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, and sh in the fourth because sh makes one sound. The figure below illustrates this.

F L A SH graphic

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.

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. 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.

At this point, many students 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.