Reading Strategies: Decoding for Struggling Readers

Critical Reading Strategies for Your Students

What, Why, & How Decoding Strategies Work for Struggling Readers

Effective reading strategies can range from questioning and visualizing to pre-reading and decoding. Reading strategies are used to help students become effective readers. To see improvement in a student’s reading ability these skills need to be mastered. Decoding is one of the most important foundational skills. Many times if there is a comprehension problem, at the root of that difficulty is a decoding problem. Teaching students proven decoding strategies provides them with a strong foundation to ensure reading success.

What is decoding? ›

Decoding is the process of translating print into speech by rapidly matching a letter or combination of letters (graphemes) to their sounds (phonemes) and recognizing the patterns that make syllables and words. There is an area in the brain that deals with language processing and does this process automatically. Statistically speaking, about 30 percent of students do not access this part of their brain automatically and therefore must be taught decoding strategies very explicitly and systematically. This means that we start with the simplest sound/letter concept and build to the more complex. This method of phonics instruction has been proven to be the most effective in helping students gain decoding skills.

Why are decoding strategies important?

Decoding is important because it is the foundation on which all other reading instruction builds. If students cannot decode words their reading will lack fluency, their vocabulary will be limited and their reading comprehension will suffer. Teaching higher-level reading strategies to students stuck at the word level is ineffective and frustrating.

How can I teach decoding?

Explicit, systematic and multi-sensory phonics instruction produces effective decoding skills. Phonics can be taught both implicitly or explicitly. Implicit phonics begins with a whole word and then looks at beginning sounds, ending sounds and context clues. Explicit phonics does the reverse by building from a single letter to a word. Because of poor results with implicit phonics, phonics instruction has been given a negative connotation—phonics is not really effective unless it is taught explicitly and systematically. Phonics taught any other way could be compared to an alphabet soup of sounds. The way it is taught is what determines the level of success, particularly for those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Presenting phonics and instructing it in a logical sequence, in which one concept builds upon the next, is another essential component of teaching phonics and decoding. This systematic approach helps students to master skills quickly and move to the next concept seamlessly. Teaching phonics using a multi-sensory approach reaches all learning styles in a classroom and gives those struggling readers the visual and hands-on instruction they need. When phonics is taught according to these guidelines, students will be able to find decoding success and it will quickly become an automatic process for them.


Automatic recognition of individual words leads to fluent reading of strings of words, which in turn leads to full comprehension—the goal of reading instruction. When this process is automatic and efficient then additional reading strategies can be taught to help the students understand more from what they read and have a successful and fulfilling experience with text. As a teacher or parent what more could you want?


Having the right resources for teaching is crucial for improving reading instruction. To help give you the tools you need, Reading Horizons has created a free online reading workshop as well as a list of reading strategies.

Learn how decoding strategies can help your students succeed: