Improving Word Recognition and Decoding Skills

Narrow post it notes, each with a single grapheme, are attached to the table, forming words clock and king

Using Assessment Data to Guide Word Recognition and Decoding Instruction

Early on in my teaching career, I completed a course in teaching learners to decode using phonics. This course taught all of the phonemes and graphemes along with their correspondences while providing cute activities with fun pictures for students to color. It was sold as the complete package for reading success. But, it did lack an important component—a meaningful assessment that could guide instruction. I did not realize the lack of assessment until a couple of years later when I was completing a master’s program in reading and literacy. During a course in early literacy, I was exposed to valid and reliable one-on-one assessments that provide meaningful data to guide instruction, including phonics screeners (e.g., CORE Phonics Survey, 95 Percent Group’s Phonics Continuum) and decoding measures (e.g., Test of Word Reading Efficiency) that can be used with a wide range of learners including those in Grades K-2 who require read aloud measures. I also explored silent reading measures, including computer-based assessments that measure word recognition and decoding skills (e.g., Capti Assess with ETS ReadBasix) that can be used in Grades 3 and up.

In my course of study, I learned that after administering a word recognition and decoding assessment, the next step is to analyze the results. In word recognition and decoding, determining which subskills (see our previous article, The Importance of Decoding and Word Recognition in Long-Term Reading Success, that details specific subskills) are strengths and those that require additional support is important. Based on the analysis of assessment results, teachers create instructional plans to help learners become skilled decoders and automatic word readers.

Analyzing the Results

Any sound assessment will provide meaningful actionable results. When analyzing the assessment results, you will want to look at what students were able to do and what they require additional support in according to the assessment. If students score low on the word recognition and decoding assessment, it is critical that they receive explicit instruction in decoding skills since researchers have found a connection between decoding skills and successful comprehension.

In one study, Wang and colleagues (2019) found a decoding threshold that is connected to reading comprehension, which is discussed in a previous article, A Critical Link Found between Decoding and Reading Comprehension. The research with over 40,000 students in grades 5-10 determined that when a reader scores below a certain threshold on the ETS ReadBasix assessment, there was no relation between decoding and reading comprehension, meaning an inability to effectively decode severely impedes comprehension. Conversely, researchers found that when a reader scored above the decoding threshold, there was a positive linear relation between decoding and reading comprehension, i.e. the stronger decoding skills are — the stronger comprehension skills will be. These findings are similar to those of other researchers, such as Perfetti and Hart (2001) and Shankweiler and colleagues (1999).

Thus, no matter what assessment is used for measuring word recognition and decoding, it is important to remember that skilled word recognition and decoding is a precursor to proficient reading comprehension and requires direct instruction to build the necessary reading skills that contribute to comprehension. If students demonstrate a need for decoding instruction by scoring low on the assessment, it is important that teachers create a plan for instruction that will help meet students’ needs.

Planning for Instruction

To plan for instruction, I suggest using the backward design process outlined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) in their book, Understanding by Design. The authors outline a 3-stage process to meet students’ instructional needs: 1. Identify desired results; 2. Determine acceptable evidence; and 3. Plan learning experiences and instruction.

1. Identify desired results. In this stage, educators determine which knowledge and skills students should gain. When the goal is to support readers in becoming skilled decoders with automatic word recognition, the required skills include:

  • Building phonological awareness, including blending and segmenting word parts and phonemes
  • Establishing the letter-sound correspondence
  • Analyzing mono- and multi-syllabic words based on syllable types and letter combinations
  • Developing automatic word recognition of sight words

2. Determine acceptable evidence. The next stage determines how educators will know when students have achieved the desired results. At this point, it is imperative to select the type of assessment that will be used. The assessment needs to be aligned to the desired results. So, in this instance, the assessment needs to measure phonological awareness, phonics skills, word analysis, and sight words.

3. Plan learning experience and instruction. In the final stage, educators create learning experiences that will equip students with the desired knowledge and skills. The amount of instructional intervention required for students varies; however, researchers suggest that elementary-aged students require at least 8-16 weeks with 30-120 minutes per day and that secondary students require more time in intensive intervention to make progress (Vaughn et al., 2012). Therefore, students will receive an intensive intervention that builds the sound-to-letter correspondence and utilizes word analysis to build automatic word recognition.

Since it is rare to have resources available to provide one-on-one instruction for 30 minutes, it is important to note that students can be grouped together based on their specific reading skill needs. For instance, if all students in a class or grade-level completed the same reading assessment that measured word recognition and decoding, you can analyze the results to determine groups of 3-5 students who will benefit from similar instruction. In small groups, increasing the time to 45 minutes may be helpful.

Instructional Planning Example

Let us say you analyze students’ data and find that your students require an intervention on foundational decoding skills, namely phonics instruction. It is likely that at least some of them fall below the decoding threshold, suggesting that those students lack the knowledge of sound-letter correspondence and have significant difficulty recognizing words that are relatively common in the English language. Students’ inadequate word recognition skills present a substantial barrier and significantly impact their ability to comprehend texts. It is important to note that readers must be able to decode a word and connect its pronunciation to meaning to add it to their sight word vocabulary.

If students lack knowledge of sound-letter correspondence, they need to be taught phonemic awareness, which is the ability to detect, identify, and manipulate phonemes in spoken words, or the understanding that spoken language can be broken into phonemes. Students also need to know that a phoneme is the smallest unit of spoken language that makes a difference in a word’s meaning. For example, the phonemes /s/ and /f/ are different and impact the meaning of the word sat compared to fat.

When planning learning experiences, you should begin with easier tasks and move to more difficult tasks to build the student’s phonemic awareness. A set of instructional learning experiences is outlined below.

  1. Initial learning experiences begin with rhyming activities that build phonological awareness, such as the activities found at Reading Rockets.
  2. Then, learning experiences move to blending and segmenting word parts and phonemes. For word-part blending and segmenting, compound words will be used, such as doghouse or toothbrush, with picture cards. And, for phoneme blending and segmenting, words that have two phonemes will be used, such as am or no, before moving to longer words. For more blending and segmenting activities, refer to Reading Rockets.
  3. Finally, learning experiences use picture cards to sort by the sound, such as this sort.

The next set of activities focus on building students’ phonics understanding. For these, you should use activities focused on phonics instruction to build the grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

  1. The first type of learning experience should follow an explicit and systematic phonics plan.
  2. While creating instructional activities, consider using manipulatives to teach the grapheme-phoneme correspondence (see, Elkonin boxes).

The third stage of activities builds students’ automatic word recognition. Activities include opportunities to work with larger units of language and irregular words, often called sight words.

  1. You should plan learning experiences focused on teaching larger units of language including word families and spelling patterns, including phonograms, and onsets and rimes.
  2. Finally, high frequency sight words should be taught to build automatic word recognition from the Fry Sight Word List and the Dolch Sight Word List.

What About Students Who Don’t Fall Below the Decoding Threshold?

Although the decoding threshold marks a need for intensive intervention in word recognition and decoding, students who demonstrate some command of decoding skills but are not yet proficient require a different set of learning experiences to increase their decoding skills and build automatic word recognition. This is important because students who have difficulty in accurately decoding words may become frustrated with their speed and start skipping words, which impacts comprehension. When students have to slow down and sound out words, it impedes their ability to comprehend the text due to interrupted attention given to the text (Arrington et al., 2014 [PACT]). Rather than focusing on the early literacy skills as previously mentioned, students who have some command of word recognition and decoding require different learning experiences that focus on word analysis.

  1. Learning experiences should include an effective form of word analysis skill instruction to explicitly learn the six syllable types. Resources include those from the Meadows Center, the University of Utah Reading Clinic, and Rewards.
  2. In building word recognition, students learn advanced word analysis skills, such as letter combinations (e.g., /ee/ as in the words meet, greet, and feet), advanced syllable types, such as vowel consonant e as in make and consonant -le as in stable. Advanced word analysis instructional materials can be found at the Meadows Center.

Final Thoughts

Once readers are able to effectively analyze words to sound out unknown words while building the number of automatic words, readers no longer require explicit instruction in word recognition and decoding. At this point, students will be ready for instruction in other foundational reading skills. Be sure to measure students’ skills after providing instructional intervention, or even midway, depending on the intervention length; use the same word recognition and decoding assessment for pre and post testing so that you can monitor students’ progress. If you don’t have a reliable assessment that measures word recognition and decoding along with other reading skills in Grades 3-12, look to the ReadBasix assessment to provide meaningful data that can guide learning experiences and instruction.

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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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.


  • Arrington, C. N., Kulesz, P. A., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., & Barnes, M. A. (2014). The contribution of attentional control and working memory to reading comprehension and decoding. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 325–346.
  • Perfetti, C. A., & Hart, L. (2001). The lexical basis of comprehension skill. In D. S. Gorfien (ed). On the consequences of meaning selection: Perspectives on resolving lexical ambiguity, pp. 67-86. American Psychological Association; Washington, DC.
  • Shankweiler, D., Lundquist, E., Katz, L., Stuebing, K. K., Fletcher, J., Brady, S., et al. (1999). Comprehension and decoding: Patterns of association in children with reading difficulties. Scientific Studies of Reading 31: 69–94.
  • Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Murray, C. S., & Roberts, G. (2012). Intensive interventions for students struggling in reading and mathematics. A practice guide. Center on Instruction.
  • Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O'reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387.
  • Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. ASCD.