What Is Decoding?

Written language is a code. Learning to read involves breaking the code—or decoding. In the English language, written symbols stand for the sounds that make up each word. This would be straightforward if every letter represented a different sound (or phoneme). But as we’ve seen, there are 26 letters, yet 44 different phonemes in the English language. For this reason, decoding focuses on different units of text called graphemes.

Graphemes are the smallest units of writing used to indicate a single spoken sound or phoneme. Graphemes range in length from one to four letters, and many different graphemes can represent the same phoneme. For example, the phoneme /t/ in the word “rat” is expressed by the grapheme “t.” But the phoneme /t/ in the word “rattle” is expressed by the grapheme “tt.” Similarly, in the word “bee,” the grapheme “ee” indicates the phoneme /ē/ (or a long e-sound). In the word “any,” however, that same phoneme is represented by the grapheme “y.”

Basically, learning to read means learning a few big skills: translating the symbols (letters and graphemes) into their sounds (phonemes), combining a sequence of sounds to make words, and then finding the words and their meanings stored in your memory. Many early readers who know English well already understand the meaning of a lot of the words they encounter when they are first starting to read. But this may not be the case for all students: English learners, for example. The diagram below—based on parts of Seidenberg and McClelland’s four-part processing model (1989)—illustrates these key decoding skills.

Three Basic Steps of Decoding

The Basic Steps of Decoding Graphic

Strategies for Decoding

Readers use two main tools for decoding. These are sound-symbol clues or phonetic decoding and word-meaning clues or structural analysis. We will discuss phonetic decoding in this unit and structural analysis in the next.

Phonetic Decoding

Beginning readers most often use sound-symbol clues. Early reading instruction using phonics teaches readers to connect sounds with letters and letter combinations. When you use sound-symbol clues to decode, you look at the letters and letter combinations and hear their sounds. You blend the sounds together to say the words, either out loud or in your head. Then, your brain searches through its bank of remembered words to find the correct meanings for each of the words.

This method of decoding is slow-going at first. It takes a lot of time and effort to sound out words using sound-symbol clues and identify what their combinations of letters signify. Fortunately, most readers soon begin to recognize by sight the words they’ve sounded out many times. The process of incorporating words into your sight vocabulary makes decoding much easier. As a reader, you get quicker access to the meaning of the text. As children regularly engage in longer periods of reading, they become so familiar with complete words that they know them as soon as they see them.