Reading Strategies: Decoding

Four Steps to Help Students Transfer Decoding Strategies into Reading Fluency

Why do some students who are able to decode single words still have trouble reading?

Decoding strategies are a proven, essential foundation for effective reading. More and more teachers and schools are coming to this realization and are implementing research-based phonics programs that teach decoding strategies into their curriculum. Teachers and administrators alike are encouraged by the reading improvements of their students as they learn and develop decoding strategies. However, teachers are often baffled by students who are able to decode any word after completing a systematic phonics program like Reading Horizons but are unable to transfer decoding skills into fluent reading.

There are three reasons why students are unable to transfer decoding skills:

  1. The student has a language-processing disorder, such as dyslexia. Students with this condition use different parts of their brains when dealing with language. They look at the page as an overall picture and have a difficult time breaking the page into paragraphs, sentences, and words. Because they do not know how to handle the page, they revert to compensation strategies of whole-word recognition and guessing.
  2. Students simply do not automatically apply the strategies they have learned and need to be explicitly taught and shown how to do so. Most struggling readers need specific, clear, visual directions for every process.
  3. Students could have the visual processing disorder known as Irlen Syndrome and may need the help of colored overlays.

How do we help these students?

There are four steps that can help students transfer their decoding strategies into fluent reading. The instruction of these steps needs to be explicit and visual.

Step #1: Students should use a finger to track while they are reading.

Many teachers argue that this slows them down and impedes fluency. While it can slow them down initially, it is essential for accurate phonological processing of words and sentences.

Miscese Gagen emphasized why this is important in her article titled “Directional Tracking Explained." She said, “Scanning left-to-right in a straight line manner is not a natural process. Instinctively, looking all over is a superior way to gather and process information. Straight line, left-to-right processing is one of the arbitrary artificial components of our man made written English language that the student must learn and automatically apply. To read proficiently the student must not only know the individual sound but must process the letters in order left-to-right. Correct phonologic processing requires proper directional tracking.”

We assume that students will do this automatically. Research has shown that those with processing disorders have a difficult time applying this technique. The only way to help these students train their eyes to scan left to right is to have them use a finger to track what they are reading. This helps students look at and process the individual sounds within words and trains their eyes to work linearly, left to right. They will eventually be able to stop using this technique as it trains their brains to automatically scan left to right.

Step #2: Have students sound out each word, tracking left to right, without stopping or guessing.

Because many students with reading difficulties have compensation strategies and tracking issues, they do not always look at the word they are reading. If they do not recognize the word, they will often choose a word from their verbal vocabulary that sounds similar but is not the word they are trying to read. It is vital that these students look at the word and sound out the letters within that word; they should not be allowed to stop or guess. When they are taught to sound out a word a couple of times, it teaches them to process the word phonologically rather than through memorization.

Step #3: Teach the student explicitly how to apply decoding strategies to unfamiliar or difficult words.

Students should look at new and difficult words to see if the pattern follows one of the Five Phonetic Skills taught in the Reading Horizons program. If it does, then they should apply those phonetic skills. If it does not, then the word is probably a single-syllable word using another one of the 42 Alphabet Sounds, or it is a multi-syllabic word, and students should use the skills needed to decode those sounds. It seems logical that students familiar with decoding strategies would automatically apply them, but this is not always the case. As teachers, we must be very specific and show our students how to do this when dealing with words in text. Remind them that they do have the reading skills to handle unfamiliar words.

Step #4: Once students have applied decoding strategies and have figured out the sounds of the word, they should sound it out again from left to right.

Most of the time, students will be able to figure out the word if they apply decoding strategies. If they do not, then they can ask for help. As teachers, we should never let students skip over a word. We do not want students to miss an opportunity to connect the correct pronunciation with the visual representation of a word and encode it into their memory.


Teaching students these four simple steps empowers them with the tools to make them independent readers. We want students to know how to handle words in larger texts. As these skills become more automatic, then we are able to teach students comprehension strategies that will help them understand and apply what they read. Applying decoding strategies while reading is crucial to reading success.


Reading Horizons wants to make sure that teachers have access to the best teacher resources available. That's why we've created the What is Decoding? and the List of Reading Strategies webpages. There you will find information you need to effectively teach fluent reading strategies in your classroom.