How to Strengthen Decoding Skills with Instructional Scaffolds

Girl reading a book

The first step in how to strengthen decoding skills is to connect phonemic awareness to print. In our previous post we discussed strengthening phonological awareness by incorporating targeted scaffolds (temporary assists). In that post, we focused on the oral aspect of phonemic awareness. However, it’s important to emphasize that research supports bridging the gap between oral language skills and print awareness.

What do I need to know about phonemic awareness vs decoding?

These two skills can take place simultaneously. That said, human brains are wired for speech, not reading. Complex skills and sounds can be processed phonologically before students are able to apply these skills to print.

That means, when teaching students to read short vowel words such as log, cup, and sat, it is important to address additional sounds, such as long vowels and vowel diphthongs, orally. (i.e. ‘What word am I saying? /k/…/ou/…/ch/’. Answer: couch.)

Students may not yet be able to read the word couch, but they can say the word couch and practice segmenting and blending it orally. When the time comes to teach vowel diphthongs, students will not be flummoxed by a new sound.

Students can attach print to short vowel words while at the same time working on developing an awareness of all the various sounds in the English language.

How do I do both things at once?

First, warm-up with a few minutes of phonemic awareness activities such as segmenting and blending, manipulating beginning, ending and middle sounds, etc. Check our previous post for helpful scaffolds.

Next, help students attach sound to print by quickly reviewing letter, keyword, sound. Show students a letter card that also has a picture. Students say the name of the letter, the name of the picture, and the beginning sound. Including the picture name in the drill is a scaffold that can assist students in recalling the sound the letter makes.

Focus on the specific phonemes you would like to reinforce through print. Review short vowel sounds if students are learning to read CVC words. Drill consonant digraphs if you want students to read words with digraphs.

Letter, keyword, sound cards help students connect the sound of the letters to the printed form
These letter, keyword, sound cards help students recall the sound for r-controlled vowels.

Letter/keyword/sound is a scaffold. Once students are adept at recalling these three components with automaticity, then remove the keyword. Show students a card with a letter(s) only (no picture). Then students say the letter name(s) and the sound…ar, /ar/

Small r-controlled sound cards with printed letters
After practicing with the keyword, remove the scaffold and practice letter names and sounds. only.

These quick drills of letter names and sounds help students grasp the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle forms the basis of reading.

Some of my students have trouble learning specific letters.

Some letters are easier for students to learn than others. The short vowel sound can be particularly problematic for some. Visually similar letters such as b, d, p, and q pose difficulties for other learners. Other students may be able to recall the letter names and sounds, but they lack automaticity. In this case, letter/sound fluency grids are a helpful tool used to target trouble spots.

Image of TPT Letter Name and Letter Sound grids

But how do I get my students to read WORDS?

We introduce the idea that we use letters to read words. We tell our students explicitly that when we read a word, we don’t need to say the letter name, we just say the sound of the letter. It is important to demonstrate what not to do. Place the letter cards ‘s‘, ‘a‘, & ‘t‘ in front of the students. “We don’t say ‘s, /ssssss/, a, /aaaaaa/, t, /t/.”

Show them what to do instead. “We just say the sounds of the letters and blend them together. /ssss/…/aaaaa/…/t/, sat.’

If you’ve taught young students for any length of time, you know that they don’t always make those types of connections themselves. It’s important not to leave anything to chance, so take a moment to be explicit in your teaching.

True story – A kindergarten student once asked, “Why do we need to learn letters anyway?” That was a wakeup call for me! I thought everyone knew that knowing the letter names and sounds was the gateway to reading. So, I explained, “If we can read letters then we can read words. When we can read words, we can read sentences. If we can read sentences, we can read stories.” I saw the light dawn in his eyes. Then I made the following visual to remind all my students about the steps to reading.

Image of the Stairway to reading. 1. Letters become words 2. Words become sentences 3. Sentences become stories. Help your students make the connection!

How do I strengthen decoding skills?

For beginning readers and struggling readers who have developed a habit of looking at the first letter and guessing, the scaffold of successive blending is a game-changer.

To break the habit of guessing, reveal one letter at a time, as explained in the following steps:

Lay the letter cards face down.

  1. Turn over the first card and demonstrate reading the sound of the letter.
  2. Flip the next card. Say that sound. Then blend the two sounds together.
  3. Reveal the final card. Say the sound of that letter. Then blend all three sounds together.
  4. Turn the cards face down again and follow the same steps. This time the student uses successive blending to read the word.
  5. Practice successive blending with several more words.
  6. It’s important to also incorporate reading words on paper because students don’t always inherently know that a skill or technique can be applied to more than one situation. We have to show them.

Our post on successive blending provides additional information on this important scaffold.

Moving beyond successive blending.

Successive blending is a temporary scaffold that, if necessary, can be used when introducing new phonics skills. However, the goal is to remove the scaffold when it is no longer necessary. Once students can read words using successive blending, help them move onto the less intensive scaffold of tapping.

As we explained in the post about successive blending, even tapping is a temporary scaffold. To move students off of tapping, we teach students how to keep their voice on, also known as continuous blending.

Attaching print to phoneme manipulation

Here’s another true story.

I was working with a first-grade student who had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia. She had finally learned many of the letter names and sounds and was working on her decoding skills. My student had not yet recognized rimes like -at, -id, and -un and was still tapping every word. She needed to work on onset and rime with a focus on manipulating the beginning phoneme (sound).

So, I set out the letter cards to spell the word ‘cat’. She was very familiar with this word and read it right away.

Then I took away the letter ‘c’ and explained that the letters ‘a’ and ‘t’ still say ‘at’. I put the letter ‘c’ back in place. “So…” I said, “if you can read ‘cat’ then you can read ‘bat’,” while placing the letter b on top of the letter c. Her eyes literally lit up!

Then we followed the same procedure placing new letters on top of the first letter card. She read the words, mat, fat, rat, and sat. She was over-the-top proud of herself.

We continued to do this as a daily reading warm-up working with various rimes. Then we changed it up and manipulated the final sound. The word pin became pit. Pit became pig and so on.

Then came medial sound manipulation. Big became bog, became bag, became bug, became beg.

Last, we stepped it up to the ultimate challenge. I told her I was going to change one sound. It might be the beginning, middle, OR ending sound. She had to be on the lookout so I couldn’t trick her. (Sidenote-young learners really have fun when they can’t be tricked by their teacher.)

An example of this type of phoneme manipulation might look like this: cat-cut-cup-pup-pug-peg-leg. These are known as word chains or word ladders.

This phoneme manipulation game helps students become flexible word-solvers and helps to strengthen their decoding skills.

Reading and spelling are reciprocal skills.

You can strengthen decoding skills by incorporating spelling into your literacy lessons. Spelling is a powerful vehicle for reinforcing common patterns found in the English language and helps to reinforce neuronal pathways. This in turn, helps reinforce decoding (reading) skills.

The scaffold of phoneme-grapheme (sound to letter) mapping can be incorporated as new phonics elements are introduced. When students are first learning to read and spell words with consistently regular patterns such as the closed syllable with digraphs or consonant blends, r-controlled syllables, and suffixes -s, -es, using a spelling grid reinforces awareness of phonemes.

Consonant Blends sound mapping worksheet
Before students write the letters, they are encouraged to tap the sounds and draw a small dot in the square. One dot, one sound.

Phoneme-grapheme grids can be used as a temporary scaffold as new phonics elements are being learned. Once students are able to accurately spell the phonics pattern in their daily writing or dictation practice, then the grid can be set aside until the next pattern is introduced.

Word ladders (or word chains) for spelling, similar to the reading word ladders described above, encourages students to focus on the individual phonemes of words. Magnetic tile boards add a kinesthetic component to this activity.

We ask our students to spell a word such as lad. Then we say, ‘Listen very carefully. I’m going to say another word. Only one sound will change. You can point to your letters and tap the new word to see where the sound has changed. Then change only one letter. Ready? Change lad to lid.”

Magnetic letter tiles spell the word, lad.
Magnetic letter tiles help students connect the grapheme (letter) with the phoneme (sound).

A sample word ladder might look like this: lad, lid, bid, bud, bun, run, fun, fin, pin, pen, pet, pot.

What about decodable texts?

One of the arguments we’ve heard against the use of decodable texts is that students have to be able to read non-controlled texts. To that we say, “of course!” Decodable texts are not meant to be used forever. They are designed to strengthen decoding skills by reinforcing neuronal pathways.

A set of decodable books includes a nonfiction and a fiction title.
This set of decodable books includes both a nonfiction and a fiction text.

The carefully planned use of decodable texts helps reinforce the concept that words are made up of patterns that follow consistent rules. After working on a specific phonics pattern, it is important to allow students the opportunity to read that pattern in connected text. If they get stuck on a word, the students can apply their current knowledge of phoneme awareness to tap and blend the word successfully.

Otherwise, you run the risk of sending the message that the English language is random. When students draw this conclusion, they may become frustrated and give up or they may resort to guessing at words. Either way, that is not what we want for our students.

To find out more you can turn to our blog, ‘How Will I Know When It’s Time to Stop Using Decodable Texts?’

How can the scaffold of marking text strengthen decoding skills?

Marking the text raises students’ awareness of graphemes (letters) that represent phonemes (sounds). Sometimes, before reading aloud, we ask students to ‘pre-read’ and mark the words containing the focus phonics element.

picture of how to mark bonus letters
Physically marking the text helps students solidify their understanding of bonus letters.

Remember to remove the instructional scaffold when it is no longer necessary.

You are the expert in your classroom. As such, careful observation of your students will help guide you in determining when a particular scaffold is no longer needed.

Where can I find SOR aligned resources?

All of the resources mentioned this blog are available in our TPT store.

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