Phonics & Decoding

What is phonics?

Phonics has to do with looking at the letters of a word, figuring out what sounds those letters make, and putting the sounds together to read the word. During phonics instruction we teach children the letter or letters that make each sound. Phonics instruction can also focus on patterns, such as the –ight pattern and all of the words that you can make from that pattern (flight, knight, light, might, night, plight, right, sight, and tight). Spelling is similar to phonics except that instead of reading, you are writing.

How do we know when a reader does or doesn't have difficulty with phonics?

Proficient Readers Struggling Readers
  • figure out and read most words correctly
  • encounter a hard word and:
    • don’t automatically skip it
    • don’t automatically ask for help with it
    • try to sound it out
    • look for a part of the word they recognize



Being proficient in phonics does not mean you understand what you read (comprehension), read quickly, or sound good while reading (fluency)

  • will often read a word incorrectly
  • may say the wrong vowel sound
  • get confused when they see two letters together (for example: ea, oa, th, sh, st, or bl)
  • get confused with common endings like ed, ing, er, est
  • encounter a hard word and:
    • often skip it
    • ask for help
    • do not know what to do
Students who struggle with phonics may still understand what they read or have good fluency while reading

Strategies and tools to help struggling readers with phonics:

Strategy Grades K-2 Grades 3-5 Grades 6-8 Grades 9-12
word family sorting X X    
sticky note word family books X X    
word ladders X      
word sorts X X X X
single-letter word building X X X  
predict-sample-confirm X X X X

Here are links to strategies that help with decoding and phonics and below are suggested ages/grade levels at which they will most likely be effective in tutoring:


Useful word attack and decoding strategies for tutors to use with learners. These include questions and verbal prompts for tutors to ask learners.

Word families are a useful teaching tool for helping learners decode words that have common spelling patterns. For example, the -an word family (can, man, fan, pan, etc.).

  • Word family sorts  are good for learning onsets and rimes (ex., pat/bat/sat/cat or fall/call/mall)  
  • Sticky note word family books are much like word family sorts except the sorts (sat/pat/cat/rat/fat/hat) are created as flip books using stacks of sticky notes.
  • Word ladders are a fun way to learn sound discrimination. As one example shows, you can teach letter sounds by changing a letter in a word (ex., pig to rig to rid to rib to rob to Bob).
  • Word sorts are as the name suggests ways of teaching letters and sounds by sorting them into groups (such as words that begin with S, M, or T).
  • Single-letter word building teach learners to build words that are spelled with two or more patterns.
  • Predict-sample-confirm helps children learn how to think through possible words they can use as they read.
  • List of 37 most common word families and words they make. These word families include: ack, ain, ake, ale, all, ame, an ank, ap, ash, at, ate, aw, ay, eat, ell, est, ice, ick, ide, ight, ill, in, ine, ing, ink, ip, it, ock, oke, op, ore, ot, uck, ug, ump, unk

These strategies can be used for one-on-one tutoring as well as in small groups.