By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
As an avid reader with diverse interests, I am constantly stumbling across new, unfamiliar words. Sometimes those words are completely made up, like alethiometer, which references an imaginary divination tool from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Other times, I find a word so unusual to me that I expect it to be made up, only to discover that it exists and usually means something really specific — like horripilation, the scientific term for getting goosebumps.
Words in my home language of English, both real and imaginary, impress me. You could call me a “word nerd.”
Like me, my ‘niece by choice’ is also a fan of words. At just four years old, Jaz loves to ‘read’ the letters around her, often to the amusement of her family. I recently hosted pizza night with her family, and unsurprisingly, Jaz ran straight to the nearest bookshelf upon arrival. This time, however, she didn’t want me to tell her a story. Instead, she demanded that she read a story to me.
Lo and behold, she happened to grab The Golden Compass off the shelf, the book where I first encountered my favorite made-up word.
“That’s a pretty big book,” I said. “Do you want to read that one, or a shorter one like this?” I held up Ten Apples Up On Top.
But Jaz glared at me. “No! This one!” she insisted, waving the 350-page novel.
I caved and agreed: “Ok. Let’s learn a new word first.” Her eyes widened with excitement. “We can try and sound a word out together.” I opened the book and pointed to alethiometer. “How about this one?”
Jaz stared hard at the page for a few seconds before grinning. “I know that word!” she exclaimed. “It’s alligator!”
It took some convincing, but eventually Jaz accepted the possibility that the word might not be alligator — and that she could discover what the word really was. With help and encouragement, she named each letter, then sounded out what she knew bit by bit. When she fluidly said the full word out loud for the first time, she jumped with excitement and proceeded to tell everyone at dinner all about her new word.
It didn’t matter that Jaz had no idea what an alethiometer was, or even that it didn’t actually exist. Jaz was practicing impressive decoding skills in reading that will benefit her for her entire reading life.
This story reminds me of just how important decoding is for reading in any language — and why it is crucial for educators to understand how to effectively teach it to students, now more than ever.
Decoding skills: what they are and why they matter
In literacy, “decoding” refers to breaking down unfamiliar words into smaller chunks in order to figure out how to pronounce them and understand their meaning. These skills are ultimately a core anchor for all other reading abilities a child needs to develop to become a strong reader.
The primary reason why decoding skills in reading matter stems from how humans have evolved. Our brains are extremely adept at oral language development. Kids learn how to speak naturally and almost without anyone directly teaching them. This ability makes sense because humans have spoken language for much, much longer than humans have written language down — tens of thousands of years longer, in fact!
In stark contrast, it takes humans more time, effort, and energy to learn, understand, and recall the relationship between letters written on paper, the sounds those letters make when spoken, and the meaning that specific combinations of letters or words convey — also known as reading.
Our evolutionary history with language has major implications for reading instruction. By building decoding skills in reading, students navigate unfamiliar words more readily because they can figure out the fundamentals that make up that word.
According to Understood.org, in order to successfully decode written text, students need to know:
- What sound or sounds each letter in an alphabet makes
- How to take apart the sounds in a word and blend them
- How groups of letters can work together to make a single sound
These guidelines for decoding apply to reading any and all written languages, whether they use the Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, or any other alphabet.
If you think kids are the only ones that decode words — think again! Adults use decoding skills in reading all the time.
When was the last time you encountered a new name of a person or place that you’ve never seen or heard spoken before? You probably tried to sound it out, at least in your head. That’s decoding in action. Over time and with enough exposure, kids and adults alike recognize these new words faster and more readily, which supports their fluency in reading them in the future.
Decoding and the science of reading
The science of reading refers to the body of scientific research spanning multiple disciplines all about how kids learn to read most effectively. Thanks to this empirical literature, educators know that decoding skills are just one of many interrelated, teachable elements that form a student’s reading ability.
One of the most critical reading research insights about decoding is that it must be taught explicitly and systematically — students need to fully understand “the code” of a language in order to successfully decode it in written form.
Explicit instruction means that the relationships between letters, letter groups, and their sounds are clearly and distinctly taught to a student. Systematic instruction means instructors take a clearly defined and structured approach to teaching these relationships to students. Explicit and systematic phonics instruction is empirically validated as an effective means by which to teach students how to read.
Decoding skills in reading don’t develop in isolation in the classroom, either. Kids are exposed to letters and words all around them all the time, offering ample opportunity for kids to practice these essential literacy skills and build their phonemic awareness.
And who could better support these everyday learning moments than families!
Families help kids “crack the code”, too
Educators and families make excellent partners when it comes to building students’ decoding skills in reading and any skills critical to literacy development.
Parents, caregivers, and guardians are a student’s first teachers in life. They play an integral role in cultivating early reading skills and other competencies that underpin a student’s later success and wellbeing, both at school and beyond. When students enter the classroom environment, families join an expanded learning team that shares their desire to see kids thrive. It is therefore essential that educators support families to accessibly engage in their child’s education so they can also support educators to achieve this goal. Effective family engagement is a partnership!
The benefits of family engagement in education impact literacy in particular. Research shows that when families are engaged with their schools, children see improved outcomes that include increased reading scores. Schools also benefit from these relationships when founded in trust and collaboration. Teachers are more satisfied. Kids attend school more often, and have greater social emotional learning skills in place. Each of these outcomes also influences how well students can learn to read.
The importance of equity in education and family-school partnerships cannot be understated here. Equitable family engagement creates opportunities for traditionally underserved student populations to experience more positive outcomes. When it comes to reading development, there are so many ways that educators can support families to practice skills like decoding at home — without any extra equipment, specialty training, or time commitment.
So, how can educators loop families in to cultivate students’ decoding skills in reading?
5 tips for parents to build decoding skills at home
ParentPowered is passionate about bringing educators and families together through its evidence-based family engagement curricula. We’ve collaborated with hundreds of schools, districts, and community organizations to empower their families with easy, everyday learning activities for literacy and other areas, delivered weekly via text message.
Our team collected their favorite family-friendly strategies for building decoding skills in reading. Share these with your families and other educators in your network!
1. Sound it out — creatively!
Sounding out letters and words is the bread and butter of decoding. And what could be more fun for a little learner than sounding out a word in a silly voice? Encourage families to get creative as they support their child with sounding out new letters or words they encounter. This activity is perfect for helping preschoolers get kindergarten ready:
- FACT: When children say all of the sounds in a word, they are paving the way towards learning to read and write. Sounding out words is key to literacy.
- TIP: Talk like robots on the way to school. Say the word cat to your child, emphasizing each sound using a robot voice (c-a-t). Then ask your child to try.
- GROWTH: Keep saying each sound in words. You’re preparing 4K! Try harder words like ch-i-p-m-u-n-k. Chipmunk! Let your child choose some words too!
2. Play with rhymes
Rhyming is a handy tool for educators and parents to support kids with recognizing letter and word sounds consistently. It’s also a fun way to gamify phonological awareness building, and easy to integrate into at-home routines without extra effort. Share this activity from our Core Curriculum with families of preschoolers to help them get started with rhyming for learning:
- FACT: Rhyming’s a fun way to build essential reading skills! Rhyming helps children hear the sounds in words and discover that words can share the same ending.
- TIP: Rhyme along with daily activities. As you zip your child’s coat, call out words that rhyme with “zip” (lip, flip, trip, sip). Can your child add a word?
- GROWTH: Keep rhyming! Rhyme with harder words, like “sock” as you put on socks (clock, lock, block). Invite your child to join. Nonsense words are okay!
3. Clap or tap out words
Some children benefit from practicing letter-sound relationships using more than just their voice and eyesight. Multisensory teaching strategies offer families creative ways to build decoding skills by using other senses like touch, taste, and even smell. Offer this kindergarten-friendly activity to families as an alternative way for a child to practice sounding out words:
- FACT: Words have different beats. There are short words like CAT (1 beat) and long words like CRO-CO-DILE (3). Clapping the beats helps kids sound words out.
- TIP: As you fill the tub, say, “Let’s clap the names of things we see, and count how many beats. SOAP (1 clap), WA-TER (2 claps), SHAM-POO (2 claps).”
- GROWTH: Keep clapping out the beats in words. At dinner, clap the names of things you see around you: BOWL (1 clap), NAP-KIN (2 claps), SIL-VER-WARE (3 claps).
4. Practice spelling
Decoding skills in reading are most frequently taught in kindergarten classrooms, but they continue to play an active role in phonics instruction as students get older. Learning how to correctly spell words becomes increasingly important, and decoding can help students in this effort. This activity is excellent for families of first grade students to apply their blossoming decoding skills to spelling:
- FACT: Kids often spell new words based on how they sound. They may not always spell them correctly, but that’s okay. Spelling by sound is key to learning!
- TIP: As your child gets dressed, say, “How do you think you spell the word ‘pants’?” Encourage them to really sound the word out as they say each letter.
- GROWTH: Keep spelling by sound! Now encourage your child to write the word “pants” on a slip of paper and tape it to the place where they keep their pants.
5. Focus on “invisible” skills in reading
As students get older, they continue to rely on decoding skills (and use them well into adulthood). Yet their reading journey shifts to emphasize other aspects of literacy, such as comprehension strategies and vocabulary development. Behind the scenes, students are also practicing a wide variety of cognitive, social, and emotional skills that in turn support literacy. This activity helps parents encourage persistence and problem solving in their third grader — social emotional learning abilities sure to empower students in the future when navigating challenges with reading and writing:
- FACT: Sometimes a few deep breaths are all it takes to help kids calm down. When kids are calm, they have an easier time solving problems and learning.
- TIP: At bedtime, lie next to your child. Ask them to join you in taking 5 deep breaths. Say, “Let’s breathe so deep our bellies go up and down!”
- GROWTH: Keep taking deep breaths. Now when you see your child is starting to get frustrated, say, “I want you to pause and take 5 deep breaths.”
Grow students’ decoding skills in reading — anytime, anywhere
Kids like Jaz — and adults like you and me — need strong decoding skills to support our reading journeys. The great news is that decoding skills can grow anytime, anywhere. The beauty of a collaborative partnership between home and school is that continuity of learning that follows. It takes a village to create the best possible environments for children to thrive, and educators can find excellent allies in their family and surrounding communities.
Looking for a low-lift, high-impact curriculum that guides your families to support student learning? Join an upcoming info session to discover the power of everyday learning moments with ParentPowered’s family engagement programs, designed to grow alongside the kids and families they serve.