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Key Literacy Component: Decoding

National Institute for Literacy
Decoding is the ability to correctly decipher and identify a word from a string of letters. Students who struggle with decoding are at a disadvantage, but explicit instruction can help them learn this skill.

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Decoding or word identification refers to the ability to correctly decipher a particular word out of a group of letters. Two of the skills involved in decoding or word identification are phonemic awareness and phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound. These units of sound are called phonemes.1

Adolescents who are phonemically aware, for example, understand that three phonemes, /k/, /a/, and /t/, form the word cat. Students understand that the word fish also has three phonemes because s and h together make the distinct sound, /sh/. Phonemic awareness also includes the ability to identify and manipulate these individual units of sound.2 For example, phonemically aware students can make a new word out of weather by removing and replacing the first consonant sound with another consonant sound (e.g., feather).

According to the National Reading Panel report3, direct instruction in phonemic awareness is most beneficial when offered to young children. Kamil (2003) 4 arrived at similar conclusions in his review of the literature, stating that phonemic awareness instruction is most effective in supporting reading improvement if it is provided in kindergarten and first grade. In fact, most children gather some level of awareness of phonemes before their adolescent years. If this awareness has not been fully developed and exercised, however, middle and high school students may experience difficulty with phonemic awareness when they encounter words that are unfamiliar to them. Research has found that instruction in decoding, word recognition, and spelling help improve phonemic awareness for students who have difficulty understanding how to blend sounds to articulate unfamiliar words.5

Phonics is the understanding of the relationship between the letters in written words and the sounds of these words when spoken. 6 Students use this understanding as the basis for learning to read and write. Phonics helps students to recognize familiar words and decode new ones, providing these students a predictable, rules-based system for reading.7

What do good readers do?

Good readers have a conscious understanding of the individual sounds, or phonemes, within spoken words and how these sounds are manipulated to form words.8 In a spoken word, phonemes are the smallest parts of sound that make a difference in meaning. For example, changing the first phoneme in the word map from /m/ to /k/ changes the word from map to cap. Successful readers manipulate the blending and segmentation of phonemes used in speech and use this knowledge to support their ability to read new words and to learn to spell words. Adolescent readers make many of these sound connections at the syllable level and decode new sounds using word chunks or syllables, such as re-, pro-, -tion, -ment, that are already familiar to them.9

Readers with strong phonics skills are able to use their knowledge of letters and their sounds to pronounce unknown words. This ability allows readers to listen to the pronunciation of an unknown word and match the pronounced word to one that they recognize in their receptive (listening) and productive (speaking) vocabularies. Readers with strong phonics skills rely on these skills to decode quickly unknown words that they encounter while reading.10

What challenges do adolescent readers face regarding decoding?

Content-area teachers need to be aware of the literacy challenges faced by adolescent readers with decoding problems. These struggling readers need more intensive intervention in order to remediate their reading difficulties. To provide some perspective on the scope of the problem, some researchers estimate that approximately 10% of adolescents struggle with word identification skills.11 Although this percentage may not seem that large on the surface, it is important to realize that this estimate is for the population of all adolescents and that when talking specifically about struggling readers this estimate is likely to be much higher12; with this in mind, reading or literacy specialists, together with others in their schools, serve as an important resource to more systematically address the needs of these students. This section aims to provide some useful background for content-area teachers regarding the challenges faced by adolescent readers struggling with decoding skills.

Based on their research, Shaywitz et al. (1999)13 asserted that students who are unsuccessful in reading words that are unfamiliar to them may also struggle with poor phonemic awareness skills. This is especially problematic for adolescent readers with dyslexia and those who encounter many words that are new to them as they read content-area texts. Studies involving adolescents with dyslexia have revealed that an individual’s lack of phonemic awareness represents the specific cognitive deficit responsible for dyslexia.14 Without sufficient awareness of the sounds that make these new words, adolescent readers are unable to move to other levels of literacy, such as phonics or fluency. More simply put, phonemic awareness has been found to mediate word identification in all readers; therefore, this phonological skill deserves the attention of educators in middle and high schools.

Struggling with phonics negatively affects students’ reading comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge, and reading fluency. Adolescents with weak phonics skills lack effective strategies for decoding unknown multi-syllabic words. Even words used by students when conversing with others can be the same words these students are unable to sound out when presented with the words in print. As a result, these words remain unknown to them in print.15 At grade five and beyond, students encounter 10,000 or more new words a year in their grade-level and content-area texts, and most of these words are multi-syllabic.16 Not surprisingly, the inability to decode multi-syllabic words negatively influences readers’ comprehension. Readers whose poor phonics skills prevent them from reading grade-level text independently cannot build their reading vocabularies at the same rate as their peers.

How can instruction help adolescent students with decoding?

Adolescents with decoding difficulties need more intensive practice and instructional time to develop their reading skills more thoroughly. Specifically decoding instruction should emphasize syllable patterns and morphology. This instruction would be, in general, most appropriately delivered by a reading specialist, and content-area instructors should focus on referring adolescent students with difficulties in phonemic awareness and/or phonics to a reading specialist for formal assessment of their reading skills. The following section focuses on instructional approaches that can strengthen phonics and phonemic awareness skills and provides examples on how they can be incorporated into classroom instruction.

For struggling adolescent students with decoding difficulties, the reading specialist should integrate phonemic awareness and phonics instruction as a support to the classroom lessons and texts that are assigned. Although there is little research on adolescents and phonemic awareness, recommendations for instructing adolescent students who struggle with phonemic awareness and phonics can be derived from research involving students with dyslexia17 and adult beginning readers.18

Both phonics and phonemic awareness instruction should occur within the context of an integrated approach to developing students’ comprehension and use of academic language (that is, the language used in educational settings) and should focus on only one or two skills or strategies at a time.19 Important components of academic language are the vocabulary used to communicate concepts within a particular discipline (specialized academic vocabulary such as osmosis and perimeter) and the vocabulary used across disciplines to express precisely ideas and information (non-specialized academic vocabulary such as examine and cause). Academic vocabulary is distinguished from the “everyday” vocabulary that is used to communicate on a less formal level outside of the classroom.20 For example, the non-specialized academic vocabulary words examine and cause contrast with the everyday vocabulary words look at and make.

The following research-based recommendations provide context for how phonemic awareness and phonics instruction can be directly taught to explicitly build these skills or primarily aimed at strengthening these skills by incorporating them into activities that also build other literacy components such as vocabulary. It is not envisioned that content-area instructors will focus on these phonemic awareness and phonics skills during their instruction but it may help instructors gain a clearer sense of where struggling readers might have difficulties.

Modeling phonemic awareness skills when introducing new vocabulary

Phonemic awareness skills can be strengthened through instruction when introducing new vocabulary. To develop these skills, the reading specialist should provide instruction with a focus on identification of rhyming words, blending of isolated sounds to form words, and segmentation of a word into its individual sounds.21 While this instruction is not intended to be delivered in the content-area classroom, it could be appropriate in the English language arts class. For example, when teaching the conventions of poetry, English language arts teachers can read aloud poems that rhyme and draw students’ attention to the rhyming words. They can also ask students to identify the particular syllable or syllables within the words that are responsible for the rhyme.

Instruction can also emphasize specialized academic vocabulary for words that change meaning when one phoneme is substituted for another and emphasize these changes when introducing new vocabulary. For example, a teacher can demonstrate how deleting the phoneme /r/ from the word revolution results in the word evolution and likewise demonstrate how adding the phoneme /r/ to the word evolution results in the word revolution. Segmenting words into their phoneme units helps develop students’ awareness of the relationship between sound and meaning. Follow-up discussion of the phonological and semantic similarities and differences between words such as revolution and evolution will help students not only develop phonological awareness but also extend their vocabulary knowledge.22

Providing instruction in phonics strategies helps students articulate and identify multi-syllabic words

Research on phonics indicates that certain phonics instructional strategies improve the reading abilities of both younger and older readers. 23 Although research has suggested that phonics instruction is useful for all students24, those with weak phonological skills tend to benefit most from this type of instruction.25

Multi-syllabic words are especially important, as these words encompass most of the new vocabulary encountered by adolescents in their reading. Multi-syllabic words also provide much of the new information in content-area texts.26 Teaching word analysis strategies for decoding multi-syllabic words helps adolescent readers decode other unknown words, build a sight-word vocabulary, and learn how to spell words.27

When selecting vocabulary words to teach, teachers should focus on multi-syllabic, high frequency, specialized and non-specialized academic words and on sound patterns that are difficult for struggling readers. Examples of multi-syllabic words found in content-area reading are circumference, geographical, parameter, imperative, and simultaneous.

As mentioned earlier, for those students who continue to struggle with phonics and phonemic awareness skills, more focused instruction should primarily be delivered by reading specialists after the reading skills of these struggling students have been formally assessed and their areas of difficulties identified. Listed below are some suggested guidelines for how phonics instruction could be delivered for difficult academic vocabulary and sound patterns:

  • Take time before lessons to determine the content-area words with which students may struggle.
  • When introducing these words, articulate each syllable slowly (e.g., e-co-sys-tem), pausing slightly between the syllables. 28 Repeat this articulation several times.
  • Point out patterns in the pronunciation and spelling of prefixes, suffixes, and vowels in selected words (e.g., rac-ism, sex-ism, age-ism, etc.).29
  • Point out similarities and differences among words that belong to “word families” (e.g., define, definitely, definition).30
  • Model using new or difficult words in different contexts.31
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice using new or difficult words and reinforce correct pronunciation and usage.32
  • Ask open-ended questions that require students to respond using the new or difficult words (e.g., Do you think racism, sexism, or ageism is more prevalent in our society? Why?).33

Use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction to teach phonemic awareness and phonics skills

Scientific research supports the use of direct, explicit, and systematic instruction for teaching phonemic awareness and phonics.34 Examples of steps that could be used by teachers are listed below; however, note that for adolescent students this instruction is most appropriately delivered by a reading specialist rather than a content-area instructor:

  1. Explain, demonstrate, and model the skill or strategy with content-area words and within the context of the subject matter students are currently learning.
  2. Guide students to practice the skill or strategy and provide corrective feedback (or informing the student of their incorrect practice and giving them the correct information).35
  3. Provide time for independent or peer-collaborative practice of the skill or strategy.
  4. Repeat these instructional steps until students are able to apply the skill or strategy independently in their reading and writing.36

As you may have noticed, teachers could take advantage of some of the suggestions above to introduce new vocabulary that their students may encounter in the content-area classes they teach. When introducing new vocabulary words that have common prefixes, suffixes, or roots, teachers can instruct students in the meanings of these word parts and how to use this knowledge to decipher new words. Teachers can begin with vocabulary that they are currently teaching and then extend instruction to non-specialized academic vocabulary and specialized vocabulary from other disciplines. For example, teachers can teach students the meaning of the prefix poly when teaching the words polygon and polyhedron. At the same time, they can teach students how to apply knowledge of these prefixes to decipher the meanings of other words that begin with the prefix (e.g., polytheism, polygraph, polygamy, etc.).37

Provide extra time for phonemic awareness and phonics instruction and opportunities for students to practice using new skills when reading

Adolescent readers who struggle with decoding need extra time to decode each word and to apply their higher order thinking skills to comprehend fully the text that they read.38 These students will need extra time for reading in the classroom and outside of class. For adolescent students who struggle with decoding, they should be referred to the reading specialist on staff to more intensively address their reading needs. As an aid, content-area teachers may consider taping instructional lessons and passing on these tapes to struggling readers to review at their own pace.39

What do we still need to know?

Much more research needs to be conducted with adolescent students in the areas of phonemic awareness and phonics. Investigation of students’ phonological skills has typically occurred in the primary and elementary grades. With both young children and adolescents, however, there are still many questions that need to be answered. For example, research is needed to study whether or not small group settings are the most effective teaching environment for phonemic awareness for older students. In addition, researchers have paid little attention to the possible connections between phonics instruction and motivation. It is important to better understand how adolescents’ levels of motivation influence their reading ability.40 Finally, additional research is needed to determine how decoding and fluency skills relate to reading difficulties faced by some older students.

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Adapted from What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy. Retrieved from