Decoding English Words

English is a phonetic language which utilizes letters, letter combinations, and patterns. To learn how to decode or sound out words, one must not only know letter sound-correspondence, but also understand different letter combinations (blends, digraphs), and how different patterns (Silent E, Vowel Team) work. Some of the most common English words have retained their historic spelling and are taught as sight words because they are not decodable.

Vowels. English is a vowel-driven language and readers look for vowels first when decoding new words. Vowels are often taught in different orders for native English speakers and new English speakers. Native speakers are familiar with short vowels. For this reason, most phonics programs introduce short vowels first. However, a multilingual learner often learns short vowels after learning long vowels. New English learners are often unfamiliar with short vowel sounds, so these can be difficult to hear, pronounce, and learn. on the other hand, new English learners are familiar with long vowel names/sounds from learning the alphabet. The Silent E pattern for long vowels is usually taught first, followed by vowel teams, short vowels, R vowels, and digraph vowels. The order of learning vowel sounds is not significant because one must learn all of vowels and their patterns for decoding.

Learning to read and write vowels may seem a waste of time to students whose first language does not write vowels. An ESL teacher was complaining about the spelling of her Arabic students at my school. When she realized that Arabic (and other languages) does not write vowels, she realized that she needed to adjust her teaching methods.

Consonants. Decoding requires more than just learning simple letter-sound correspondence (phonemic awareness). Most consonants have only one sound, however, "c, g, s, w, and y" have more than one sound. Readers need to know which sound is indicated for the word. In addition, consonant combinations have their own decoding patterns.

Consonant clusters (digraphs, blends) are two or more letters combined to produce a common sound/s. Consonant digraphs can express a new unique sound (ch, sh, th, ng) or contain one silent consonant which is no longer pronounced (kn, wr, ck). Beginning and final blends contain two or three consonants that are frequently combined (dr, sp, cl, spr, nd, st). Each consonant has an individual sound which are "blended" together.  Consonant Clusters Set)

Word Family. Word families (sent, went, tent) are used to reinforce previous learned vowel patterns, final blends, and spelling patterns. Word families can also be helpful for decoding a new word with the same pattern or similar sound. (Word Family Set)

Word Patterns. As beginning readers progress, word patterns or syllable types are introduced. These are: closed (CVC - hat), open (CV - no), silent e (VCe - like), vowel team (CVVC - meet), r vowels (VR - her), and -Cle (-Cle - apple). For multilingual students, many teachers separate vowel team syllables (pain) from vowel digraph syllables (book) creating a seventh syllable type. For advanced students, include prefixes and suffixes as an eighth syllable type (8 Syllables Chart).

Blend the Sounds. After readers learn consonant sounds, vowel sounds. and combination sounds, they must  practice blending these sounds to pronounce words. Multilingual students whose first language is alphabetic will learn this skill easily. Those from syllabic (Japanese) or glyph (Chinese) languages may find blending to be a new concept.

Divide Syllables. After mastering decoding one-syllable words and learning word patterns, a reader needs to learn how to divide syllables to decode multisyllable words.  If you begin syllable division with twin letters, students can quickly read common words like little, happy, and summer (Syllable Division Chart). The concepts of root words, syllable patterns, and prefixes / suffixes are also introduced in this phase.

Root Words. The ability to recognize a root word in a multi-syllable word is an important skill. By practicing root word identification, the student will be able to separate the other word components.

Syllable Division Patterns. Recognizing different syllable patterns helps readers to divide multisyllable words. (Syllable Division Patterns)

Twin Letters - piz-za, ap-ple, yel-low
VC-CV - pen-cil, num-ber, Mon-day
V-CV - pa-per, ba-by, o-pen
VC-V - sev-en, vis-it, nev-er
-Cle - ta-ble, cir-cle, pur-ple
V-V - qui-et, li-on, sci-ence
VCC-CV - sand-wich, pump-kin, Eng-lish
VC-CCV - chil-dren, hun-dred, sub-tract


Prefix & Suffix. English contains numerous prefixes and suffixes. Often students are taught eight common prefixes: re-, un-, pre-, mis-, dis-, non-, in-/im-, and over-.  Prefixes can change word meanings in many ways (happy-unhappy, eat-overeat). (Prefix Set)

Likewise, students are usually taught eight common suffixes: -ful, -less, -ness, -er, -est, -ly, -able, and -ment, Suffixes can change a word to a different part of speech (help V, helpful adj.). Other suffixes can affect the syntax (help-present tense, helped-past tense). (Suffix Set)

Test Decoding Skills. Many multilingual students have memorized whole words and are excellent at guessing words from pictures and context. A student may appear to be decoding while actually using memorized words or guessing words. When asked to read a single word alone out of context, they are unable to decode the isolated word. Decoding is a skill that all readers must use to become proficient at reading unfamiliar words. Giving a short test with unfamiliar decodable words is a good way to determine a student's actual decoding ability.

Once a native speaker has decoded a new word, they often know the meaning of the word because of their large vocabulary, whereas a multilingual learner with a limited vocabulary usually doesn't know the meaning of the word. Determining meaning of a word using context, is a different and higher level reading skill. This is covered in the New Words blog.

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