The Importance of Decoding and Word Recognition in Long-Term Reading Success

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Word-Level Reading Skills Lay the Foundation for Skilled Reading

In reading development, there are early foundational skills that lay the foundation for later reading success. Developing these skills takes time, intentional practice, and feedback from a skilled teacher. Much like a coach teaches a basketball player how to dribble and shoot a basketball, a reading instructor teaches learners how to decode and build automatic word recognition. The importance of decoding cannot be overemphasized; Share (1997) described decoding as the critical word learning mechanism in alphabetic language. This is important because successful decoding leads to automatic word recognition. Therefore, knowing how to support readers in successful decoding is imperative to reading success.

If you have taught younger grades, such as first or second grade, you are probably familiar with what decoding and word recognition are and how to teach learners to decode and automatically recognize the words written on the page. However, if you are an upper elementary, middle, or high school teacher, you probably received little training in your teacher preparation program on supporting readers who are learning to decode and build automatic word recognition, yet you probably have had students who require support in building these skills.

As a former upper elementary and middle school teacher, I recall very little instruction in early literacy, but in the classroom, I needed the skills to teach middle grade learners how to successfully decode new, often multisyllabic, words while building their word recognition skills to become proficient readers. So, in this article, we cover what decoding and word recognition are and how to assess them. Then, be sure to return for the next article that discusses how to support learners in developing decoding and word recognition skills based on assessment results.

What is Decoding?

Put simply, decoding comprises the ability to “get words off the page.” Although decoding skills can be distilled into a simple explanation, the process of learning to decode is much more complex than the simple explanation conveys.

Decoding is a hallmark of skilled reading (Adams et al., 1997; Fletcher & Lyon, 1998; Rack et al., 1992; Share, 1995; Stanovich & Siegel, 1994; Vellutino et al., 1997) and is considered one of the most critical reading skills (Wang et al., 2019) because of its connection to comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Wang et al., 2019).

So, just what is decoding? According to Gough and Turner (1986), decoding is dependent on knowledge of letter-sound correspondence rules that lead to reading isolated words quickly and accurately. It is the sophisticated ability to translate words from print to speech and the “act of deciphering a new word by sounding it out” (Foorman et al., 2016, p. 38). While this may seem relatively simple to a skilled reader, decoding consists of sophisticated subskills that lead to later reading success (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Decoding Subskills

A precursor to reading the words on a page is the ability to hear individual sounds (i.e., phonemes) in words, to break apart those sounds into individual units, and then blend the sounds together to produce the sounds in a word (National Reading Panel, 2000). These skills are built through phonological awareness instruction that explicitly teaches learners how to segment and blend sounds at the word level, syllable level, onset and rime level, and finally, at the phoneme level (Blachman, 2000; Lane et al., 2001).

Building phonological awareness requires readers to recognize words at the sentence level, for instance, without reading a word on the page, a reader needs to know that the sentence “The doghouse is red.” is composed of four words that each have their own meaning. Then, learners move to the syllable level to recognize that doghouse is made up of two syllables: dog + house. Next, learners move to the onset and rime level where they learn to separate any sound that comes before the vowel (r in red) from the rime, which is the vowel and anything that comes after it (ed in red). Then, at the phoneme level, learners segment and blend the sounds with teacher support. The phoneme level is the final stage of developing phonological awareness where learners are first taught how to blend together individual phonemes, such as /r/ /e/ /d/ to produce /red/ before being asked to segment (break apart) the individual sounds in a word, since that is a more difficult skill. The process of building phonological awareness at each level is imperative to future reading success as measures of children’s phonological awareness, such as attending to and manipulating phonemes, is connected to long-term academic success (Adams, 1994).

As learners build their phonological awareness, they build letter-sound correspondence that is necessary for decoding success (National Reading Panel, 2000). Through systematic phonics instruction, learners gain the necessary skills to read and spell words (Harris & Hodges, 1995). Once readers have the ability to sound out words, with repetition, they start building automatic word recognition.

What is Word Recognition?

As readers become increasingly proficient decoders, automatic word recognition develops. Automatic word recognition is defined as the ability for a reader to decode text instantly without conscious effort (Kuhn et al., 2010; La Berge & Samuels, 1974; Logan, 1997). The skill of word recognition develops through repeated practice and exposure to text and words. Automatic word recognition is crucial for long-term reading success as it allows for fluent, accurate, and expressive reading (Wolf, 2018), and, more importantly, attention to be given to word meaning (Moats, 1998).

Considering the importance of successful decoding and automatic word recognition, it is crucial to assess students’ abilities to determine the areas that they may struggle with so teachers can provide targeted instruction that improves decoding and word recognition skills.

Assessing Decoding and Word Recognition Skills

The importance of assessing decoding and word recognition skills cannot be understated, especially for adolescent readers who are not proficient and are not likely receiving instruction focused on decoding and word recognition. Underdeveloped decoding and word recognition skills will impede reading comprehension until these early foundational skills are strengthened. In an earlier article, we discussed a Critical Link between Decoding and Reading Comprehension. The article highlights a recently discovered decoding threshold — students below the threshold are unlikely to improve their reading comprehension. Lower than expected decoding and word recognition skills are often an indicator of dyslexia (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2005). Thus, assessing students’ abilities to decode and automatically recognize words will help identify students who require additional instruction to build word-level skills, and, possibly, even require individualized education services.

When assessing students’ abilities to decode and automatically recognize words, they are often presented with a list of isolated words and asked to say the words aloud (Wren, 2004), without giving the meaning of the words, which occurs during vocabulary assessments. The words selected for the decoding task are expected to be in students’ oral vocabulary with a combination of phonetically regular (e.g., dog) and irregular words (e.g., one), along with nonsense words (e.g., gorf). In assessing word recognition, the list of isolated words is based on the expected words that students are supposed to read automatically given their current grade level (Christ & Cramer, 2011).

In primary grades, both decoding and word recognition are usually orally administered using one-on-one assessments, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) or the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE). However, when learners can independently decode, likely beginning in 3rd grade, decoding and word recognition tests can be administered silently using online assessments, such as ETS ReadBasix, that allow teachers to assess multiple students in parallel. ETS ReadBasix, asks students to recognize sight words and decode nonwords (Sabatini et al., 2019).

Often, assessments separate identifying letters and real words from producing possible pronunciations of nonwords. However, the ReadBasix approach uniquely combines assessing word recognition and decoding to measure multiple aspects of word knowledge: an understanding of letter-to-sound correspondence, knowledge of spelling patterns, and recognition of the visual representation of real words. To do this, ReadBasix asks students to decode three types of words: real words, nonwords, and pseudohomophones, which are nonwords that sound exactly like real English words when pronounced, for instance bloo. Measuring students’ knowledge in this manner allows one subtest to efficiently evaluate both word recognition and decoding simultaneously. You can find out more about how ReadBasix assesses word recognition and decoding here.


To ensure the foundation of reading is laid through strong decoding and word recognition, readers need to be skilled in decoding unfamiliar words with ease and accuracy. Therefore, educators of all grades need to have the tools that help identify gaps so that students’ decoding and word recognition abilities can be monitored until they demonstrate proficiency since these skills lead to long-term reading success.

We look forward to more conversations about the Science of Reading and how to best support reading comprehension. If you have a question about the Science of Reading or would like us to consider a specific topic, let us know here.

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NOTE: This and many other topics related to the Science of Reading are covered by the Professional Development training that is offered for the ETS ReadBasix assessment.


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