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Word Decoding: What, why and how – a great summary for ECT.

Decoding is an important and necessary skill your pupils should master. It is essential for good reading and better vocalization. The ability to be able to decode words is the foundation to build up other reading techniques.

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Decoding in the national curriculum

Decoding is an important and necessary skill your pupils should master. It is essential for good reading and better vocalisation. The ability to be able to decode words is the foundation to build up other reading techniques.

Learning to decode words start in year one and is expected to be taught until year six.

What is decoding?

Decoding might sound like something spies do to get information – and in a way, it makes sense. Decoding is the art of being able to sound out words.

It is a skill that allows pupils to apply their knowledge of how letters sound together along with letter patterns and spelling to correctly pronounce and read written words. Being able to recognise and understand how words link it together gives the pupil the ability to recognise words quicker and to rightly pronounce words they have never seen before.

It is common for children to pick up on decoding naturally, yet teachers need to explain and illustrate this subject further for a clear understanding. A good way to approach Decoding is by using phonics, reading our instructions to get a feel of how letters sound together, how to vocalise words including principles such as dialect and symbols.

Why do we decode words?

To read and vocalise words properly we sometimes have to sound out words that we are not familiar with. This almost becomes a reflex as you grow older, but for younger pupils, it is incredibly important to master this skill. A big part of learning to read and write is to learn how to sound out the words you are reading. This comes in handy, especially when learning how to spell words.

Why do phonetics help?

To decode is to connect how words sound with their represented letters, therefore using phonics instructions can help pupils understand decoding much better. Like for example if we use the letter S along with the vowels “e”, “i” the sounds are softer: Second, Sell, Silvia, Simply. However, if we use “u” or “a” they are harsher sounding: Sap, Sack, Sung, Supper.

Check out Learning with Emile for more tips on Phonics.

How do we decode words?

  • How each letter sounds when included in words such as the L in Lullaby and List.
  • How to blend the sounds in a word. Take for example the word Home, the official UK transcription is / hə / ʊ / m / which if we blend it sounds like home.
  • How different groups of letters sound like ph in phone, th in thanks, the sh in shiny, how different the th sounds in “then” compared to “thorn”. These groups are classed as consonant digraphs.

Typically, young pupils who are just learning how to read will start applying decoding to their learning by understanding one-syllable words, which then builds up into longer words as they progress.

It is good to know that not all words can be decoded or are more complicated to decode than others, and this is due to relying on the rules of phonics. Most of our language (English) follows phonetic rules, however, those that don’t might be harder to decode. For example: bury, build, ballet. There are words that pupils must memorise, and these words are star words. These words are memorised to help students instantly recognise them without having to use any strategies to decode them.


Star words are often introduced by teachers in groups based on progress level – these words are integrated in a way that pupils memorise them without having to stress about them. It is helpful to underline the irregular part of the words so pupils can focus on that sound. There are also techniques that you can apply to help students who are struggling with irregular words:

  • You can go into detail about the word. Read the word, write the word, ask the pupil what the word means, ask your pupil how to read and write the word.
  • Use mnemonics to remember words! The most popular one is “because”, Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants.

What if a student struggles with decoding:

It is completely normal for students to understand decoding at different rates education and progress is not a race but a journey pupils must take to reach their goal. However, if the level of struggling to understand decoding could mean that some pupils could be suffering from dyslexia.

Struggling to decode can be a key sign of dyslexia in primary school. And if pupils are having more difficulty than expected, such as:

  • Segmentation of individual sounds
  • Confusing letters together
  • Reading similar words incorrectly

It could mean your student needs a dyslexia assessment to receive the support they deserve. 


Back to our spy analogy at the beginning of this blog, we can apply this idea to the activities we do with our pupils.

By setting out a sentence that uses words that your pupils might not be familiar with, you can get them to pretend to be spies and race to see who can decode the “secret” message.

Here are some other ideas: 

  • You can have students sort picture cards by the sound you are teaching. This allows children to repeat the sound as many times as they need to fully understand.
  • Involve as many phonics activities as you can, these are key to your pupil’s decoding mastery.
  • Use manipulatives to help teach pupils how each letter sounds and their relationships with other letters.
SPaG at home
  • Draw your words — use illustrations to bring to life your sounds and words. Pupils are more likely to remember pictures rather than words, therefore why not get artsy and create a classroom display that will aid your class to remember letter-sound relationships. This is incredibly helpful to learn word and spelling patterns. Source.
  • Make a bead slide with your students — by creating bead slides, you can stress the awareness of phonetics. Pupils move the beads from one side to the other whilst they practice the segmentation of words to pronounce and read them. Source.

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