Early readers are like CIA analysts, using what they know about symbols and patterns to decipher unfamiliar texts and messages. And one of their most important code-cracking tools? Phonics.
In reading, phonics and decoding are closely intertwined. And the Science of Reading confirms that strong decoding skills help students sound out and decipher unfamiliar words, opening up new levels of reading and learning.
What’s the definition of “phonics”?
Phonics is a method for understanding the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds (phonemes) they represent in words. It’s a crucial skill that helps students decode and read words accurately. The Science of Reading recognizes phonics as one of the five foundational reading skills—along with phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—that contribute to reading proficiency.
Phonics instruction focuses on teaching students the systematic and explicit rules and patterns of letter-sound correspondences. It typically begins with teaching the basic letter-sound correspondences, such as the sounds associated with individual letters or letter combinations (e.g., “a” as in apple, “sh” as in shell).
As students progress, they learn more complex patterns and rules, such as vowel digraphs (two vowels together producing a single sound, like “ea” in beach) and consonant blends (two or more consonants together, like “bl” in black).
Decoding in reading
Decoding is a key part of phonics instruction—and a vital skill that helps students unlock meaning. It’s what students are doing when they use phonics skills to sound out words, breaking them down into individual phonemes or letter sounds.
By understanding the relationship between letters and sounds, students can apply their knowledge to decode new words. For example, knowing that the letter “s” represents the /s/ sound allows students to decode words like sit or sun based on their knowledge of phonics.
(A note on encoding vs. decoding: While decoding focuses on translating written words into spoken language, encoding refers to the ability to convert spoken language into written words.)
Why is decoding important—especially when combined with phonics?
Decoding skills are fundamental because they bridge the gap between recognizing individual letters and understanding the meaning of words. Phonics instruction is most important when it teaches and reinforces decoding skills.
Together, the two accomplish a lot:
- Building word recognition: Decoding skills enable students to recognize words accurately and independently. By applying phonics knowledge, students can decode unfamiliar words, expanding their word-recognition abilities.
- Enhancing reading comprehension: Decoding is an essential component of reading comprehension. When students can decode words effectively, they can focus on understanding the text, making connections, and engaging in critical thinking.
- Boosting independence: Decoding skills help students tackle unfamiliar words on their own without having to rely as much on context or memorization.
Phonics and decoding activities
To reinforce decoding skills, educators can incorporate various phonics and decoding activities. These might include word blending exercises, word family practice, phonics games, or guided reading sessions.
Phonics instruction gives students the tools to recognize and understand the relationship between letters and sounds. Decoding skills allow them to apply this knowledge to reading words accurately and independently. When educators explicitly teach phonics and reinforce decoding skills, they set students up to engage with the unfamiliar, expand their vocabularies, and become confident and curious readers.