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What is Decoding?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Decoding refers to the process of translating a printed word into a sound. First, please read the following words aloud: dog, table, jump. This is an example of decoding regular words, and is sometimes called word identification skill. Regular words are commonly used words, i.e., words frequently found in printed material. Second, please read the following words, aloud: blud, wight, frish. This is an example of decoding nonwords (or decoding pseudowords), and is sometimes called word attack skill. Pseudowords are pronounceable based on phonics rules but are not real words. A highly similar task involves asking students to read words that they have never seen before—i.e., unfamiliar words.

How can we tell if a student is proficient at decoding? The two most common tests of decoding skill are asking students to translate printed regular words into sounds (i.e., word identification skill) and asking students to translate printed pseudowords or printed unfamiliar words into sounds (i.e., word attack skill). We can measure the student's decoding accuracy—by counting the number of times the student makes the correct sound—or the student's decoding speed (also called efficiency)—by counting the number of correctly decoded words per minute. High proficiency is indicated by a high rate of accuracy and/or speed.

As you can see, decoding is a rather restricted process, for it involves being able to pronounce (or name) printed words rather than being able to explain what they mean. However, fostering skill in decoding is at the center of early reading instruction and represents one of the most important goals of academic instruction in the primary grades.

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