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Decoding and Sight Words – Reading Comprehension Series

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

By approximately age 7, children should be able to identify written letters, understand the sounds they make, and break words into syllables – this is also known as phonological awareness, which we discussed in our last blog post. They've probably started reading picture books out loud to you. But are they able to sound out words to read, or do they just have the words memorized?

There are two ways adults read: sight word reading and decoding.

Let's start with 'sight-word' reading, also known as 'whole-word' reading. When you read the word 'apple', you are likely not sounding that word out. You see the word 'apple' like a picture of an apple 🍎. You recognize it immediately upon sight, or you read it as a 'whole' word, not individual letters blended together.

"Sight words" are words that children see so often that they have memorized their pronunciation – they can recall them on sight. Some early examples can include: the, and, what, from, this, all, two, long, which, each, many, would, she, etc.

Having this automatic recognition of common words can be helpful, but we don't want to create the habit of memorizing words because eventually kids will be faced with too many new words to memorize at once. We want them to develop their decoding skills.

Decoding is more commonly known as "sounding out" a word or phrase. We take apart the sounds of a word one by one and then blend them together to pronounce it in full. Slowly blending the sounds "b", "eh" and "d" together, a child produces the word "bed". Part of decoding is also understanding that multiple letters placed together can form a single sound. For example, S and H together form the sound "sh" in "ship".

Most children will develop this skill on their own, but a sizeable minority are delayed in learning to decode words. A child may not be progressing with decoding if they often:

  • Use the first sound to guess what a word is

  • Use pictures or other clues to guess what a word is (e.g. they see a picture of a house and say "house" even though the written word is "home")

  • Have difficulty telling you about what they read because they were too focused on figuring out each word

In order to help kids build their decoding skills, you can try these strategies together at home:

  • Look for letter patterns at home and outside in your daily routine. You can point out words that your child that begin with "ch", "sh", "tr" etc. in books, play, store signs, and more. Make it a game by assigning everyone their own letter pattern to look for.

  • Use multi-sensory techniques to help kids process each sound in a word. Shaving cream on a window, sand on a baking sheet, or letter magnets on the fridge are great ways to get children using their fingers to spell out words as they say the sounds. This also reinforces their muscle memory for writing.

  • Start asking questions while reading with your child to get them used to understanding the content rather than focusing all their energy on each individual word. You can also use this story sticks activity to have prompts on hand.

Let us know what strategies worked for you in the comments below! Have a question about your child's literacy skills? Ask a Speech Language Pathologist or reach out to us for a phone consultation.


Andalusia Speech Therapy has multiple clinics across Ontario and offers virtual therapy to anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.

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