Reading Decoding and Learning Disabilities

Reading Decoding. Getty Images Credit: Hero Images

Reading decoding is the practice of using various reading skills to read or "decode" words. In reading decoding, readers sound out words by pronouncing their parts and then joining those parts to form words. In order to read with sufficient fluency to comprehend what is being read, readers must be able to decode words and join the parts quickly and accurately. Children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, basic reading, or reading comprehension frequently have difficulty learning decoding skills and need a great deal of practice.

Readers who do not develop decoding skills will also have difficulty with reading comprehension. The earliest phases of reading decoding instruction usually involve phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Typically, in grade one, children learn how to sound out the various sounds in words and combine them to make words up to one syllable. They will also likely work with both long and short vowel sounds.

As children progress through the primary years, they learn to decode more increasingly complex words with more than one syllable. In the upper primary years, children begin to learn about prefixes and suffixes. They will also explore Greek and Latin roots to gain a better understanding of the meanings of complex words. As children become proficient with these skills, the skills become more automatic. Children no longer feel the need to sound out each letter to decode words. They begin to rely more on sight recognition. It is not uncommon, however, for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia to need more time and more practice with such skills than children without learning disabilities.

As children become more proficient with recognizing words and parts of words on sight, they also begin to learn how to blend clusters of letters and recognize common groups of letters and how their meanings are affected by those clusters. Children begin to read clusters of letters rather than letters individually. Children are typically taught to look for parts of words or root words that they already know to decode larger unfamiliar words. For example, dog and house make up the word doghouse.

How Children With Learning Disabilities Have Help With Decoding

Children with learning disabilities in reading or dyslexia often have weaknesses in phonological skills, and this affects their ability to learn to decode with efficiency. They can often fully understand passages that are read to them, but they lose the meaning of passages when they attempt to read them themselves. To address this problem, struggling readers often need repeated drill and practice of phonics and decoding activities over a longer period of time than non-disabled children. Researchers typically recommend research-based instruction programs to address these needs.

Many research-based programs include explicit instruction in decoding such as:

  • Sounding out letters and clusters of letters.
  • Learning word families that have similar roots, such as might and bright.
  • Learning to predict words by using context clues. For example, in "The dog barked all night," a reader can predict the word barked based on its beginning sound and the fact that it makes sense in the sentence.
  • Learning high-frequency words by sight.

Teachers assess children's reading skills using paper worksheets and also by performance-based assessment. That is, students read aloud, and teachers listen carefully to note the specific types of errors children make as they read. Teachers may have students read lists of words and also sentences and paragraphs to assess their skills. This practice, called miscue analysis, is a helpful way of identifying which of the child's skills are weak and where he needs more practice. Students may make errors in letter-sound cues, context cues, or in syntax. When teachers identify these errors, they can tailor instruction to meet the child's individual needs.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Hulme C, Snowling MJ. Reading disorders and dyslexia [published correction appears in Curr Opin Pediatr. 2018 Aug;30(4):597]. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2016;28(6):731–735. doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000411

  2. Hulme C, Snowling MJ. Learning to Read: What We Know and What We Need to Understand BetterChild Dev Perspect. 2015;7(1):1–5. doi:10.1111/cdep.12005

  3. Al Otaiba S, McDonald Connor C, Foorman B, Schatschneider C, Greulich L, Sidler JF. Identifying and Intervening with Beginning Readers Who Are At-Risk for Dyslexia: Advances in Individualized Classroom InstructionPerspect Lang Lit. 2009;35(4):13–19. PMID: 25598861

  4. Denton CA, Al Otaiba S. Teaching Word Identification to Students with Reading Difficulties and DisabilitiesFocus Except Child. 2011;2011:254245149. PMID: 25614707 

  5. Priebe SJ, Keenan JM, Miller AC. How Prior Knowledge Affects Word Identification and ComprehensionRead Writ. 2011;7:581–586. doi:10.1007/s11145-010-9260-0

  6. Denton CA, Fletcher JM, Taylor WP, Barth AE, Vaughn S. An Experimental Evaluation of Guided Reading and Explicit Interventions for Primary-Grade Students At-Risk for Reading DifficultiesJ Res Educ Eff. 2014;7(3):268–293. doi:10.1080/19345747.2014.906010

  7. Horst JS. Context and repetition in word learningFront Psychol. 2013;4:149. Published 2013 Apr 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00149

  8. Ramig CJ. The reading Miscue Inventory. A promising approach to diagnosis of the reading-disabled. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 1975;14(4):326-34. doi: 10.1177/000992287501400404