Recognizing the Characteristics of Word Decoding Problems

What Is Word Decoding?

Word decoding is the act of breaking up words into smaller parts (syllables, letter combinations or single letters), in order to identify and understand them. For instance, the word napkin is made of two syllables ("nap" and "kin"). Good readers use this process of breaking up larger words into smaller chunks in order to read fluently and make sense of words. Some readers, however, become overwhelmed because they do not naturally engage in this process. Some readers struggle with simple letter combinations, while others do not have problems until encountering words with multiple syllables.

Of course, this problem can't be handled until it has been observed, so read on to discover some characteristics of word decoding problems.

A Student Can Answer Questions After Read Alouds, But Not After Silent Reading

Sometimes a student can answer both low and high level questions after the teacher has read something aloud or presented information to the class, but then has a hard time responding when she is asked to read the material to herself. This is a sign that her comprehension is fine, and her problem may be in breaking up words into recognizable chunks while reading. To observe this in your students, offer chances for them to answer questions to material that you read, as well as material that they read to themselves. Make a note of any students who can answer questions to read alouds but make errors after silent reading.

A Student Is Reluctant to Read Aloud in Class

If you have an otherwise outgoing student who acts silly, angry or embarrassed when asked to read aloud, he may have trouble decoding larger words. To see whether the problem is in his reading skills or just his attitude, ask him to read you something aloud in a more private way, perhaps in a corner of the room or the hallway while other students are working.

It is imperative that you actually hear him read out loud, so that you can look for the signs that follow. Build in time in class to hear your students read out loud, so that problems do not go undiagnosed for too long; sometimes even high schoolers have problems decoding because they have used coping mechanisms to make up for their reading problems, and thus fooled teachers into missing the signs.

A Student Reads Slowly and Lacks Expression

If your student is reading at a much slower pace than his peers, he might be putting extra energy into identifying words. Readers who decode well can read more or less fluently, only being stumped by foreign or very long, unfamiliar words. So students who often pause while reading or lack expression because of slow reading may not have the basics of decoding mastered.

A Student Only Pays Attention to the Beginning Sounds of Words

Many readers can identify simple sounds, sight words and short words with regular spellings, but struggle with words that have more than one syllable. Students like this can identify a larger word's initial sounds or recognizable beginning, but must take a guess about the rest of the word. For instance, a student with problems decoding words may read the sentence "He is terrific" as "He is terrible," because he knows his sight word "terrible" begins the same way; he hasn't gone on to notice that the rest of the word isn't the same. Listen to notice if your students consistently make this type of error.

A Student Relies too Much on Context

A good sign that a reader is not paying attention to individual sounds is if she consistently uses a sentence's context to guess words. For instance, a student might read the sentence, "She hears the bark of a Doberman" as, "She hears the bark of a dog." She saw the familiar word "bark" and took a logical guess at the animal that would make that sound. These readers are reading only their sight words and maybe some words with simple sounds, and then filling in the gaps with guesses. Although most readers make this type of error once in awhile (especially when reading too fast), students who do this often may not know how to use a word's letters or syllables to sound things out.

A Student Has Trouble Sounding Out Nonsense Words

This is harder to observe in a natural setting, but one way to see if your student can read without depending on context is to remove the context. Readers who break up words into recognizable pieces can read unknown words as long as they contain familiar letters or syllables. For instance, you would need to use decoding to read the made up word "soolaroo." When you read that, you probably (unknowingly) used the familiar syllables and spelling patterns to pronounce the word. So if you expect that your student is not reading words all the way through, you can ask him to read a word like that.

Additional Resources

If you have students who exhibit any of these signs of word decoding problems, the next step is to help them! Below are some resources you can use if you would like to address decoding issues in your classroom. Just don't forget one of your most valuable resources: your school's reading specialist or literacy coach. He or she can evaluate any students you are concerned about, and offer valuable advice.

Reading Rockets: A great site for advice on identifying phonics/decoding problems and tackling them

Scholastic: Lessons for teaching syllables

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.: A lesson format for building decoding skills


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  • Author's Experience