Digital Age Teaching and Learning

Learning to Read – What Has to Happen in Their Heads?

Learning to Read – What Has to Happen in Their Heads?

“Sss…iiiii…..t….sss…iiiii…t…Sit!” Exclaimed the 4-year-old boy.  James was just beginning to blend letter sounds together to form words.  He began reading each word by haltingly sounding it out, saying each letter sound separately.  He would repeat the sounds over and over until understanding flashed over his face and he said the word all together.  Over the next few weeks, James practiced more and more, becoming better at deciphering words and quicker, too.

What was going on as he read? Two main skills or processes happen in reading and writing.  Below, see them explained:


Before he could read words, James practiced writing words.  This process of hearing or saying a word and transforming it into letters on a page is called encoding.  However, before children even know their letters and can transform a word into letters, they can practice hearing a word and break it down into its separate sounds.  For example, the child hears the word “cat” and can then break it down into the sounds “c” “aaa” “t”.  With practice, students can get pretty good at this and will understand that words are made of separate sounds.   After children are familiar with the letters of the alphabet, they can practice saying a word and writing it down.

Sometimes alphabet tiles can be used to help children in this process.  Instead of having to come up with the letter shape in their head and writing it down, the students can look at the tiles and choose the letters they need to write a word.  In this way, the choices can also be limited.  For example, a child may be given a set of letter tiles such as: s, a, m, t, h.  A set of picture cards are also given with pictures for: hat, mat, sat, ham, sam.  Then, the child can write out each word using the tiles.  Since the choices are narrowed down from the whole alphabet to just five letters, students experience greater success.  Slowly, students can be given more and more letters to work with until they are comfortable building words with the whole alphabet.


Decoding is the process most directly related to reading.  However, encoding is often easier to learn, and once mastered, can help support the process of decoding.  When decoding, the child sees the printed word and must remember the sound of each letter, just like James did when reading the word “sit”.  However, after the letter sounds have been said separately, the child must join them together to make a word.  This step is often known as blending.

Blending can be practiced as a separate skill.  For example, the teacher may say the sounds (not letter names) “d” “o” “g” and as her students to guess what word the sounds make when combined together.  With some practice, the ability to turn sounds into words can help speed up the reading process.

Beginning to read can be difficult – so it’s best to start with small, simple CVC words. This means that the words are made of a consonant, vowel and then another consonant.  For example: cat, sit, dog, fan, etc.  Students may be encouraged to read words one at a time.


Although for most adults reading may seem second-nature and natural, reading is actually a complex and involved process.  Encoding and decoding are just two of the most basic steps that occur on the road to reading.  Understanding these two processes can greatly help teachers support their students in learning to read.