Cracking the Code: 9 Hands-On Strategies for Improving Decoding Skills

Even when students can decode words, that doesn’t always mean they understand the text on the page. In fact, as students get older, many may still not have the fluency and the instant recall they need to make progress and—more […]

Even when students can decode words, that doesn’t always mean they understand the text on the page. In fact, as students get older, many may still not have the fluency and the instant recall they need to make progress and—more importantly—enjoy reading.

When we can help kids add a visual component to their learning, we can help kids become more fluent readers. Here are nine classroom activities that can help struggling readers improve their decoding skills, use more imagery and become stronger readers.  
hide and seek words decoding activity

1.   Hide-and-Seek Words

What it teaches:

Letter recognition, letter sounds and sound blending
 

How to do it:

Kids love this activity that turns a guessing game into a reading game. For the beginning level, the teacher places a single letter into the mystery box. Children reach into the box and try to picture the unique letter in their mind. They feel the lines and curves and use those tactile clues to bring to mind an image of the letter, followed by its name.

To use this game with kids who are working on sounding out words, you can take things up a level. Select a list of words ahead of time and preview that list with your students. As you preview the words, ask each student to “see” the word in their head. Put the letters of each word into the box as a whole word and secure the letters (in order) to the bottom of the magic box with Velcro or magnets. First ask the student to discern the word in the box. Then remove the word and ask the student to try to recall the image he created when you reviewed the words as a group.

draw your words

2.   Draw Your Words

What it teaches:

Word patterns, spelling patterns
 

How to do it:

Any time you can work an image into reading instruction, your student has a better chance of retaining information. People remember pictures. When you are introducing new words to students, ask them to create an image that has meaning to them that goes with the word they’re learning. Even creating an image in their head has benefit, but asking them to draw an image around a word on paper can be more fun—and more valuable.

pool noodle words

Source: Common to the Core

3.   Pool Noodle Word Play

What it teaches:

Blending and segmenting words
 

How to do it:

How much fun is it to use pool noodles to teach the fundamental skills of blending and segmenting words? Blending and segmenting are foundational skills that lead to the full-on decoding of words. Write individual letters, or even multiple-letter word parts, on pool noodles. Ask kids to start with the pool noodle pieces spread out and to say the sound on each pool noodle piece. As your students slide the noodles closer together, they say the word sounds closer together, ending when they say a full word. You can find more information on how to create pool noodle words at the Common to the Core website. (Hint: It would be easy to add an imagery component to this activity by asking kids to create a meaningful picture in their head for each word they work with.)
bead slide reading activity

Source: Make Take Teach

4.   Build a Bead Slide

What it teaches:

Phonemic awareness, blending and segmenting words
 

How to do it:

Perfect for small-group instruction, a “bead slide” can make phonemic awareness more concrete for children who are learning to read—and it gives them something to do with their hands. As children move the beads from one end of the shoelace to the other, they practice phoneme segmentation, or breaking down words into the specific sounds that make up the words. You can make the slides for the children, or you can have them make their own bead slide. There’s a great video about how to use a bead slide on the Make, Take & Teach website.
window writing

Source: ModernPreschool

5.   Window Writing

What it teaches:

Motor-memory, blending, segmenting, phonological awareness
 

How to do it:

There’s a difference between putting little tiny letters together on paper and writing gigantic words with your whole arm. When you use those bigger muscles, your brain gets different messages. For many students, it means your brain gets better messages. Window writing can be a fun way for students to explore words and word parts. Some teachers pull out the shaving cream and ask students to write words on the windows. Others have kids write words in shaving cream right on students’ desks. (Bonus: Your classroom will smell super-clean after the activity. Be sure to pick a shaving cream scent you’re willing to live with for the rest of the day!)

Other teachers hand out Vis-à-Vis pens or dry-erase markers and have kids write directly on the windows. The kids love how rebellious this feels! The trick is for students to write their words large so that they can activate those larger muscle groups. (Hint: You can add an imagery component to this activity too. Simply do activity number 2 but with shaving cream instead!)
movin' and groovin' to learn to read

Source: First Grade Smiles

6.   Movin’ and Groovin’

What it teaches:

Fluency, motor memory, blending
 

How to do it:

When you can convince kids to get their whole body moving as you’re teaching something, you increase the chances that what you’re teaching is actually going to stick. Using multisensory strategies to teach decoding can be really fun for kids too. Ask children to write words that they are practicing in the air. They can “print” or “use cursive” if they’re old enough. Writing in the air engages those same big muscles as window writing and helps kids retain letter sounds and combinations. First Grade Smiles has a fantastic list of kinesthetic teaching activities you can use to get kids moving while you’re teaching specific reading strategies.
musical blending a musical chairs activity for teaching reading

Source: The First Grade Parade

7.   Game Time!

What it teaches:

Blending onsets/rimes
 

How to do it:

When you can make learning so much fun that the kids almost forget that it’s happening, you know you’re in good shape. Games are the perfect way to sneak in the learning. Whether it’s Sight Word Bingo or Musical Blending (The First Grade Parade’s take on Musical Chairs), kids love games—even if it means they have to work a little bit. For the Musical Blending Game, kids hold a card in their hands and walk in a circle around the pre-labeled plates. They stop when the music stops and try to make a word. Kids who can only blend a nonsense word are out. Kids who blend a real word keep playing. Extra tip: To bring imagery into this game, we recommend that students be asked to create (and possibly share) an image in their head for each real word that they blend.
use songs and singing to teach reading

8.   Sing It loud, Sing It Strong

What it teaches:

Everything
 

How to do it:

Put any concept to music, and kids are almost guaranteed better recall. It’s why we’ve been singing the alphabet song for generations. Movement and music together build pathways in the brain that are easier to follow. When you combine music and movement with the concept that you’re trying to teach, the concept can often coast along on those pathways that the music and movement helped to build. We’ve included some of our favorite songs and chants that help teach decoding concepts below and we challenge you to make up your own.

Sound Blending Song

Phonics Dance

Teach reading and decoding skills with flyswatters

Source: Third Grade Thinkers

9. Break Out the Fly Swatters to Break Up Long Words

What it teaches:

Segmenting, blending, syllabication
 

How to do it:

It’s a little-known truth that beginning readers love to play with fly swatters. When I had them in my classroom (clean ones, of course!), kids were always desperate to play with them. For this game, students “slap” out the syllables of each word that they read. For example: “laws” gets one slap. “Pres-i-dent” gets three slaps. While we think it’s pretty cute to swat the paper flies, you could also create a set of “swattable” cards that include pictures of the actual words that the kids are trying to decode. So “pres-i-dent” might have a picture of George Washington on the card. (Are you sensing a theme? Building imagery into an activity any way you can can make a difference for your kids who are struggling to remember those letter combinations and sounds.)  

  Did we miss something? What are your favorite strategies to teach decoding skills? Tell us in the comments. 

decoding skills

Posted by Karen Nelson

Karen is a Senior Editor at WeAreTeachers. She's also a former elementary school teacher who loves teaching with technology.

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