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Decoding Skills for Struggling Readers

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Very often, when a younger child is a struggling reader, they have a hard time mastering decoding skills. However, it’s important that teachers use vital interventions to help first graders master those decoding skills. Decoding is a vital part of reading, and our students will never become fluent readers without it. 

I was a horrible reader when I was a child because I could never match my letter sounds to words to sound them out. I had to go to a tutor and a special school because by the time I was in the second grade, I was still reading at a kindergarten level. 

Looking back on it now, as a special education teacher, it’s obvious that I was struggling with decoding. 

So what is decoding? Why does it matter? And how do we teach it? In this post, we are going to cover everything an elementary teacher needs to know about decoding skills and struggling readers!

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Decoding goes beyond just knowing your letter sounds. It’s knowledge of how letters and their sounds interact with one another. 

For example, let’s look at the word “know.” 

If you’re just learning to read, you might want to pronounce the K in know, but a person with a good knowledge of decoding skills and how letters relate knows that when the K is followed by an N, it stays silent.

Some children can learn these relationships through simple reading and exposure, but most struggling readers will need explicit instruction on letter relationships and patterns if they are to master decoding skills. 

Phonemic Awareness and Decoding are related but not the same thing. In fact, I like to think of decoding as a step up from phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness focuses just on letter sounds, not the patterns and how letters relate to one another. 

Children cannot learn decoding skills without having a solid foundation in phonemic awareness. If your struggling reader is having difficulty with decoding, check to make sure their phonemic awareness foundation is solid before focusing on decoding.

Decoding skills are a big part of reading in general. The best way I can think to describe it is by examining the Scarborough reading rope. 

Copyrighted images used under Fair Use. Originally Published in Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

This is essentially the graphic of a rope that shows the individual component or strands and threads of reading. Decoding is one of three threads in the basic reading skills strand that goes on to form the whole rope.

If children don’t master decoding, they won’t have the basic reading skills they need to master the complicated skills required of them in the comprehension strand. 

For more information on the Scarborough Reading Rope, click here!

Aside from reading often, sounding out words, and practicing in general, the most important thing teachers can do is make sure to work on phonics skills early with their students. 

Use any curriculum that your school provides to work on decoding and if your school does not have a set curriculum talk to your administration about getting some. 

The one I am most familiar with is Fundations.

That’s not an affiliate link. I just like Fundations best because my students with disabilities find it engaging and the language familiar enough that they can follow along.

Additionally, there are a lot of decoding games for struggling readers.

This one is a personal favorite and works great regardless of it you’re homeschooling or teaching in the classroom. 

I give students a blend or glued song or diphthong and tell them to find me something that has that sound in how you spell it. 

I sent a student I was working with was in a home environment to find something with “th” once, and I was expecting him to bring me a math workbook or his picture thesaurus. Instead, he brought me his mom or mother. 

It’s a wonderful way to get your kids with sensory and movement needs to go up and around during the day, and they have tons of fun doing it.

Magnetic poetry is also a wonderful way for kids to work on decoding skills and building words. It’s similar to the magnets you get with Fundations, and they make a great hands-on activity for your kiddos.

You can buy magnetic poetry kits for kids and combine them with a cookie sheet to have a fun activity for your whole class or small group trying to spell different words with different patterns. 

Click here to see it on amazon.

These might be better for your older kiddos who are still working on decoding or those in your class who are more advanced. 

However, the New York Times has some amazing word games, many of which you don’t need to subscribe to play at least once a day.

Some classes like to open the day with a Wordle puzzle.

And I’ve had many students become obsessed with Spelling Bee.

The important thing when teaching decoding skills to struggling readers is to make it fun and enjoyable for them. Very often, our struggling readers are bogged down constantly with drills. They wind up hating reading because it’s hard and repetitive.

Mixing in some games can be a great way to improve their performance and motivation to be good readers!

Try to pick one game from this list to try with your kiddos, and then find me on Instagram! I want to hear how it goes!

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