The ABCs of Decoding: Understanding the Basics

I’ve been doing a lot of language and literacy assessments lately of elementary-aged children whose testing shows great phonemic awareness abilities (PA) but significantly impaired decoding skills. Many of their parents, well-versed in all the recent conversations on the importance of phonemic awareness raging on social media, have been asking me a variation of the same question: “My kid has great phonemic awareness skills, why is it that s/he can’t even read such basic sentences as ‘Sam had a bat. The bat was big. Sam hit the ball with the bat‘”?

So today I wanted to write a brief post outlining the basic skills involved in decoding. And guess, what? PA is just the tip of the iceberg! So what is involved in the successful decoding of text?

Yes, phonemic awareness or one’s ability to recognize and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words, is very important. It is just one of the prerequisite skills needed for decoding, but it is not the only skill by far! Young readers need other equally important skills, to decode effectively!

  1. Letter-sound correspondence involves understanding the relationship between written letters or letter combinations and their corresponding sounds. Emergent readers need to know how to match each letter or group of letters (e.g., consonant digraphs and trigraphs) to the appropriate sound/s to decode words accurately (Juel, 1988; Ehri, 2005; Share, 2008).
  2. Blending involves combining individual sounds to form a word. Readers must be able to smoothly blend sounds together to recognize and pronounce words correctly (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; Goswami, 2000; Lervåg & Hulme, 2009).
  3. Segmenting involves breaking a word into its individual sounds for the purpose of analyzing word structures and decoding unfamiliar words by identifying the sounds within these words (Ehri, 1995).
  4. Word pattern recognition allows readers to recognize commonalities in print such as word families, or frequently occurring letter combinations (e.g., “th” or “str”), and allows them to anticipate and decode unfamiliar words more easily (Perfetti, & Hart, 2002; Share, 2008; Treiman, & Kessler, 2006).
  5. Syllable recognition allows readers to learn the rules for dividing words into syllables for the purpose of breaking long and complex words into smaller, more manageable parts for easier decoding (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; Ziegler & Goswami, 2005; Levesque, Kieffer, & Deacon, 2019).
  6. High-frequency word recognition allows readers to easily recognize common words which do not follow common phonetic patterns or rules but need to be recognized instantly upon seeing for fluent decoding. Familiarity with a set of common high-frequency words supports efficient decoding of the surrounding text (Nation & Snowling, 1998; Perfetti, & Hart, 2002; Ehri, 2005;).
  7. Morphological knowledge allows readers to understand how prefixes and suffixes or affixes can alter root words. It also allows readers to identify the meaning of unfamiliar words by breaking them down into their constituent parts. It helps them develop a deeper understanding of word meanings and improves their overall decoding skills. (Ehri & Saltmarsh, 1995; Carlisle 2000; Rastle & Davis, 2008).

So while it’s really great to teach PA abilities, in conjunction with print of course, (Bus & van IJzendoorn, 1999; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Ehri et al 2001; Clemens et al, 2021) for best reading outcomes, don’t forget to target all of the above skills for the purpose of effective diagnosis and treatment of decoding deficits!


  1. Bus, A. G., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness and early reading: A meta-analysis of experimental training studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 403-414.
  2. Carlisle, J. F. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12(3-4), 169-190.
  3. Clemens, N., et al (2021, Dec 14). They Say You Can Do Phonemic Awareness Instruction “In the Dark”, But Should You? A Critical Evaluation of the Trend toward Advanced Phonemic Awareness Training.
  4. Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 934-945.
  5. Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D. M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(3), 250-287.
  6. Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 167-188.
  7. Ehri, L. C., & Saltmarsh, J. (1995). Beginning readers outperform older disabled readers in learning to read words by sight. Reading Research Quarterly, 30(2), 163-178.
  8. Ehri, L. C. (1995). Phases of development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18(2), 116-125.
  9. Goswami, U. (2000). Phonological representations, reading development and dyslexia: Towards a cross-linguistic theoretical framework. Dyslexia, 6(3), 133-151.
  10. Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4), 437-447.
  11. Lervåg, A., & Hulme, C. (2009). Rapid automatized naming (RAN) taps a mechanism that places constraints on the development of early reading fluency. Psychological Science, 20(8), 1040-1048.
  12. Levesque, K.C., Kieffer, M.J. & Deacon, S.H., (2019). Inferring meaning from meaningful parts: The contributions of morphological skills to the development of children’s reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 54, 63–80.
  13. Nation, K., & Snowling, M. J. (1998). Semantic processing and the development of word-recognition skills: Evidence from children with reading comprehension difficulties. Journal of Memory and Language, 39(1), 85-101.
  14. Perfetti, C. A., & Hart, L. (2002). The lexical quality hypothesis. Precursors of functional literacy, 67-86.
  15. Rastle, K., & Davis, M. H. (2008). Morphological decomposition based on the analysis of orthography. Language and Cognitive Processes, 23(7-8), 942-971.
  16. Share, D. L. (2008). On the Anglocentricities of current reading research and practice: The perils of overreliance on an “outlier” orthography. Psychological Bulletin, 134(4), 584-616.
  17. Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(5), 276-286.
  18. Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2006). Spelling as statistical learning: Using consonantal context to spell vowels. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 847-862.
  19. Ziegler, J. C., & Goswami, U. (2005). Reading acquisition, developmental dyslexia, and skilled reading across languages: a psycholinguistic grain size theory. Psychological Bulletin, 131(1), 3-29.
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