Teaching decoding when nothing seems to work


All teachers have a general toolkit of ideas that works for majority of kids. But once in a while, you’ll encounter a kid who just can’t seem to make sense of reading. As a special ed teacher, I need to pinpoint strategies for the 5% of students who have needs that general education teachers can’t meet. That requires me to think outside the box. One of the reasons I wanted to start a blog is to share out ideas. If something worked for me, then it might also work for you. Learning is such a complex endeavor, and we could all use fresh ideas.

Back in September, I began my 9th year of teaching at a new school. My position is a mix of resource and inclusion, K-3rd grade. One of my new students, who I’ll call Andy, is a 3rd grader who was reading at kindergarten level. If you talk to him, you’d never guess that he couldn’t read in or at. In fact, when I assessed him, the only words he could read were a, I, and to. Andy is quite chatty and inquisitive. He loves reading on Raz-Kids, where he can listen to books and learn new things. He’s a wealth of knowledge about random facts. Despite being a quick thinker and having high comprehension and retention for random, interesting facts, Andy couldn’t remember sight words and he struggled with decoding. More specifically, he struggled to blend together individual sounds. He knew the sound to letter correspondence about 90% of the time, but couldn’t string together c-a-t to say cat.

I spoke to his previous resource teacher, his speech therapist, and the classroom teachers about past strategies and interventions. It seemed like they tried everything you would typically use, things that should have worked given enough practice. Yet none of these made the lightbulb in Andy’s head go off, no matter how much time he spent on it. By third grade, he’d spent a lot of time on the same cycle of failed strategies.

After a few weeks of little success, I tried to zero in on what it was about blending that Andy couldn’t do. Normally, kids blend the beginning sound with word families. B-at, c-at, r-at, s-at. Andy tried that, and you could pretty much hear the word if you were listening to him. But the problem was, he couldn’t hear the word in his own mind. To him, they were just disjointed sounds. Furthermore, it sounded more like buh-at, cuh-at, ruh-at, suh-at to him.

Realizing this, I put aside word families. Since he couldn’t blend beginning sounds, I wondered if he could blend beginning-middle sounds to end sounds. I made flashcards to teach him the beginning and middle sounds as blends. We began with cards like ba, ca, ma, pa, sa. Then I made sliders with these blends and he added on the end consonants. Ba-d, ba-g, ba-m, ba-t. Ca-b, ca-n, ca-p, ca-t. And so on. While he still struggled to remember the blends, he also started to read CVC words. Slowly, he started blending. For some reason, he could tack on the end consonant sound while he couldn’t blend the beginning consonant sound. With continued practice, his confidence rose, and he began proudly reading CVC words– something he was never able to do before. Along with improving his decoding and reading, he is also able to spell CVC words.

I believe the key to his progress is the simple strategy of what I call reverse word families. This triggered a change in his reading. Once Andy jumped past the blending roadblock, he was able to move forward in normal sequence of learning to read. As of two weeks ago, his sight word bank has increased to 20 words, which is a huge victory for him. If you are interested in the reverse word family flashcards and sliders, I added them to my TpT store.

Was this alone enough? Absolutely not. While it was a jumping point, I had to combine it with a multitude of other interventions. Here are the other main ways I support Andy’s reading:

  • Once a week, we cover a new Reading A-Z decodable book that has pre-primer and primer sight words and CVC words. We either focus on word families or comparing two short vowel sounds. We go through each page and highlight two groups of words. In the picture above, we identified all the short A words and short O words. I wrote them on chart paper, and later on the students are expected to highlight them in their own copies of the book. Throughout the week, the students read the book repeatedly. Andy liked to use the sliders I made him to read the words the first time through. After a while, he needed the sliders less often.
  • We use Words Their Way Word Sorts for Letter Name Alphabetic Spellers. We spend one day a week on these sorts. The normal routine is sorting on the desk, then writing the sort in their word study notebook. Then they practice spelling in various ways– on steps, on a curve, in colors, with a partner. I also have spelling practice worksheets in various levels that my students like. If you are interested, I have a freebie for sort #6.


  • As a morning warm up, I give my students something called Morning Message and DOL. The morning message is a “secret” sentence that the students must decipher using beginning sounds of pictures. In the DOL, right now I focus on basic sentence mechanics and spelling. We have a word wall that shows pre-primer, primer, and 1st grade Dolce words. When I write the DOL on the board, I underline the misspelled word wall words in red. My students know that means they have to find the word (I read the sentence aloud) on the wall and spell it correctly. I also put up pictures of CVC words from their Word Sorts and they should spell those correctly. They need to capitalize the beginning of the sentence and proper nouns. They should add punctuation. There’s a simple checklist on the bottom for them to use.

Mystery Message and DOL


  • I give them homework that goes along with what they have worked on in class for extra practice. Their homework always comes from my CVC Word Families No Prep Packets. Because the style and format is consistent throughout the packet, my students are familiar with it and can work on it independently at home.
  • Games, games, games! Reading doesn’t have to be boring! Using centers and games gives kids practice, and they don’t even realize it. The Land of Oz Board Game is a favorite among my students. They request it all the time. The best thing about this game is that you can vary the levels and target specific skills each student needs to practice, but they can all play together. I have students working on different word sorts and different vowel sounds. Whatever word sort they are on, I give them the cards for that vowel. I also have a couple of kids who are already fairly good at decoding CVC words, but they need more practice on sight words. I give them the Fry word cards. The cards go all the way to 5th grade level, so there’s something for everyone.

The Land of Oz Board Game

  • I took a suggestion from my principal and developed something I am calling Sound and Spell. I geared it toward my students and designed it to work in conjunction with Words Their Way. We just started it a week ago, so I am still testing and developing the system. However, I have seen great results so far and the students absolutely love it! I plan on writing a more detailed blog post after we use it more.
  • *UPDATE (1/21/15): Sound and Spell is complete! It’s been working quite well. Free sampler here and full product here.

While I love to create most of my own materials, I have found some great products at Teachers Pay Teachers that I use to support reading:

Materials from my TpT store, Ainslee Labs, that are mentioned in this blog post:

I’d love to hear from you if you try the reverse word families strategy!


Slide2  Logo  Slide1


  1. Hi Cindy,
    I love your DOL morning work, where the kids have to decode the picture with the correct sound to find the mystery sentence. I wondering where I can purchase it, I am not sure which link it was under on the website. If you could be reply back that would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Bridget! At the moment, I only have the freebie Morning Work. I don’t currently have the same group of students who need these, so I didn’t make more. However, if there is a demand for more from TpT users, I would create more just for the store. Thank you for letting me know you want these! I’ll add them to my list.

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