The Big Five: Phonics-Phonic Decoding


Phonics-Phonic Decoding Part 7


The National Reading Panel report stated: “The process of decoding words never read before involves transforming graphemes (A grapheme refers to a letter or letters used to represent a single phoneme or sound) into phonemes and then blending the phonemes to form words with recognizable meanings. The PA (Phonological awareness) skill centrally involved in (phonic) decoding is blending.” (NICHD, 2000, pp. 2-11. 


In my previous two blogs on the topic of phonics (letters and sounds, and teaching letters and sounds), I discussed the necessity of teaching letter sound knowledge and how I go about doing that. Next, I want to discuss phonic decoding and how important the skills of phonological blending and letter sound knowledge are to the process of phonic decoding. 


Phonic decoding allows a student to identify unfamiliar words, also termed “word identification.” During phonic decoding a student is identifying the individual letters and relating the correct phoneme to each letter. Successful blending of those phonemes or sounds allows the student to identify the word. Identification does not require a recall from memory. 


This is different from word recognition which comes about as a result of a process called orthographic mapping, a process that leads to the permanent storage of words. Orthographic mapping requires immediate recall from memory of a whole word, something that identification does not require. I will discuss the process of orthographic mapping in my next blog, for now it is important to understand that both phonic decoding and orthographic mapping are essential for a student to be able to build their sight word vocabulary, and thus to be able to read fluently.


The two skills that are essential for phonic decoding are phonological blending (a linguistic skill) and letter-sound knowledge (an academic skill.) I have dealt with letter-sound knowledge in my previous two blogs (see links above,) in this blog, I will be dealing with phonological blending. 


Phonological blending is the ability to identify a word after hearing each part of the word separately. This might mean blending syllables, onsets and rimes, or phonemes. It is the process that makes it possible to decode unfamiliar words. 


Once a student has identified all the phonemes associated with the letters in a word, they must be able to correctly blend them to identify the word. Even if a child can correctly identify all the sounds in a word, if they cannot pronounce the word, they have a phonological blending problem. In other words, despite hearing the parts of a word in isolation, they cannot blend them to make a word, and this undermines phonic decoding.


Phonological blending is also referred to as phonological synthesis, which means “bringing sounds together.” It is important to be aware that students can have good blending skills, but still be poor readers if their more advanced phonemic awareness skills are weak. This then hampers their orthographic mapping skills and hinders development of their sight word vocabulary. Reading can only really develop once phonological blending and phonological analysis skills are mastered. 


Readers don’t actually need to be able to pronounce words completely, or accurately, to be able to identify them, as long as they are close enough phonetically. This was something David Share discovered in 1995 and this skill is known as the set of variability. Students with better oral vocabularies can find it easier to determine words based on only partial or even inaccurate phonic decoding. This also helps us understand students that are compensating readers, as this set of variability can allow them to produce what appears to be a reasonable reading performance. Their performance on untimed word identification tests can actually overestimate their reading ability, leading to this deficit being overlooked. 


All skilled readers develop phonic decoding skills which allow them to identify new words they encounter. This works well for phonically regular words, but it can also be helpful when learning irregular words. As long as an irregular word is within a student’s listening vocabulary, phonic decoding, with help from the set of variability and sentence context, can facilitate identification of many unfamiliar irregular words. David Kilpatrick tells us, in his book “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties,” that research by McGeown, Medford, and Moxon (2013) showed “Those approaching irregular words phonically were more successful at reading them correctly than those who used the more “visual” approach.”


David Kilpatrick goes on to say:


 ”A growing amount of research suggests that for typically developing readers, phonic decoding may be the gateway to sight-word learning. By itself, phonic decoding is not capable of producing sight-word memory, yet it appears to provide the opportunity for such learning.” 


This research undertaken by David Share, from which he developed “The Self-Teaching Hypothesis,” has in turn been further developed and tested. This hypothesis also reinforced earlier research that has shown how normally developing readers learn new sight words in just one to four exposures. This helps us understand how a child can develop such a large sight word vocabulary on their own, and also why a student’s sight word vocabulary grows slowly if they require many exposures to a word before it becomes permanently stored. My next blog on orthographic mapping will further explain where the “Self-Teaching Hypothesis” is incomplete because it doesn’t explain the process by which children build this large sight vocabulary, and how more recent research has explained this process.


As we have already established, phonological blending is essential for sounding out words. It is a requirement of phonic decoding. It is likely that most poor readers will eventually develop blending skills, but they will struggle with weak phoneme analysis skills. These skills are necessary for orthographic mapping and word recognition; they are skills that allow words to be stored long term for easy recall. 


It is important that a blending task should never be the only assessment of phonological awareness. Note that if a student does well on a blending task, but poorly on phoneme analysis tasks, they still have poor phonological awareness. Difficulties with blending and analysis suggest more serious phonological difficulties.  


When assessing a student’s phonological blending skills, I use the Michigan Literacy Progress Profile (MLPP) onset-rime and phoneme blending assessment. This is an untimed assessment, so listen carefully for automatic and immediate responses, to be sure a student doesn’t have a phonological blending issue. Alongside of this I assess a student’s letter and sound knowledge. My previous blog included links to available assessments of letter and sound knowledge. In terms of instruction, for a student who appears to be having any kind of difficulty with phonological blending, I will be working on improving their letter sound knowledge as well as working on the basic phonological awareness tasks that involve rhyme; then I work up from that point. This blog lists and defines those tasks. Some students will just require some minimum review at this basic level, and can quickly move into using a curriculum such as David Kilpatrick’s “Equipped for Reading Success.” In this curriculum David Kilpatrick also describes how irregular words, which I referred to earlier, should be taught with an emphasis on the irregular part of the word, and at the same time, discussion of the regular parts.


In my previous blog I referred to the visual and auditory drills which both help reinforce a student’s letter and sound knowledge. Next, the blending drill is introduced, where a student now has the opportunity to practice their letter-sound knowledge to identify nonsense and real words. For students with phonological blending issues, we start slowly; just using a few letters, such as the group {i, t, p, n, s} to make vowel consonant (VC) words such as “it,” “in,” and the nonsense word “ip.” The student is asked to blend them. 


When a student becomes more familiar with the VC words, which I refer to as rimes, we start to introduce the initial consonant or onsets to these rimes. The student is now asked to blend the onset and the rime to create a word.


Alongside of the phonic decoding, their orthographic mapping skills are built to allow them to remember the small VC words (rimes) before adding the initial consonant (onset) before the rime. I have found this makes blending easier for students that struggle in this area. The Orton-Gillingham Academy Level 1 Basic Language Course explains in much greater detail how to use the blending drill in your classroom, tutoring practice, or with your own child. This drill can be used as a means of ongoing monitoring of a student’s letter and sound knowledge and phonological blending, allowing the student to identify unfamiliar words.  It also provides an informal way you can monitor their phonic decoding. 


Sources for Additional Reading and Watching:


1. Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick 

2. Equipped for Reading Success by David A. Kilpatrick, Ph.D

3. Webinar: Recent Advances in Understanding Word-Level Reading Problems: Implications for Assessment and Effective Intervention by David Kilpatrick.




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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