How do children decode? Making sense of symbols

How do children learn to interprete

Many teachers think that decoding happens when kids start identifying the right sound with the right letter. But it’s more than just knowing what sound each letter makes. Real decoding happens when kids actually start using this knowledge to spell and read. Decoding is their ability to match letters and sounds rapidly, changing print into speech, in order to slowly and
steadily become global readers.

During instruction, we teach decoding via segmenting and blending. Basically, we help them understand how we take apart sounds (=segmenting) and how we combine them together (=blending). Kids who are able to do both, are literally sounding out words, meaning that:

  • They are becoming fluent speakers and readers.
  • They are able to read and spell new words.
  • Their reading comprehension is heightened.
  • They can blend sounds into words and vice versa.

Decoding needs to be systematic, explicit and multi-sensory. In plain English, we need to find ways to teach them how to look for letter patterns. And then, how to create these patterns themselves. A huge red flag while decoding, mainly relates to kids practically guessing how words sound:

  • By looking only at the first letter of the word.
  • By trying to isolate and reproduce the sound of the first letter of the word.

In cases like these, kids read very slowly because they are trying to make sense of what they’re reading and process it altogether. That’s a strenuous and discouraging task by itself. Imagine adding underlying factors like language deficits, interference with L1 or attention problems. Kids rarely don’t want to learn how to read. They’re naturally motivated. They love learning
letter chants, hands-on syllable rhymes or playing alliteration games. Three simple ideas to get you started:

  1. Play Robot Talk. It’s a fun way to show them how we segment orally. Don’t forget to ask them to put their finger on their chin, and feel it move as they pronounce each syllable. You’ll love their feedback!
  2. Use push lights. Plain, round, battery lights. You’ll need at least 4. One for each syllable. Keep adding more lights as you teach longer words or even phrases. Variable 1: read out words and tap the number of syllables you hear. Variable 2: read a word and pronounce it as you tap the lights. Do they match? Variable 3: Multi-syllable words – use different color lights to teach stress and intonation.
  3. Lay hide-and-seek with letters. Help them “see” the letter in their head and let their imagination will do all the work for you. You’ll need a black box and plastic alphabet letters. Place one letter in the box. Have them feel the shape, lines and curves of the letter. While doing that, they inevitably create an image in their mind, one you should encourage them to recall every time they need to remember this letter in particular. It’s a sensory memory experience. Do you see the potential?

Teaching young learners what written language looks and sounds like is essential. But what written language feels like to them is a totally different story. “I hate reading” is almost never literal.


Iphigenia Mariou

Educational Department

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