Decodable Text Impacts More Than Decoding

There is a common problem in reading instruction: some people assume that phonetically-controlled texts for young readers are designed only to practice decoding, which is the application of letter-sound knowledge to pronounce written words. But solely focusing on decoding instruction does not ensure that children are learning to think about texts’ meaning.

Here is one solution: children require instruction in comprehension skills, such as the skill of inferencing, simultaneously as they learn to decode (sound out) texts.

Let’s take a deeper look at the ideas in play here.

Decoding and Comprehension

Decoding is the official term for what we discussed in our previous blog post: sounding out words to pronounce them based on the principles of phonics. More academically:

Decoding is the ability to apply your knowledge of letter-sound relationships, including knowledge of letter patterns, to correctly pronounce written words. Understanding these relationships gives children the ability to recognize familiar words quickly and to figure out words they haven't seen before. (Reading Rockets)

Comprehension, put simply, is a reader’s understanding of the meaning of what they read. To be able to understand and extract meaning from a text, readers must be able to first identify (decode) the words, then make connections to what they already know, and think deeply about the information on the page.

Why We Can’t Just Teach Decoding

The problem mentioned above, that some people favor decoding (sounding out based on phonics) early on when children are just learning to read to the exclusion of teaching comprehension, can have lasting effects.

If a child is only taught to decode words but not to use comprehension strategies to extract meaning from text, they will struggle to follow along with what is happening in a text. While they’ll be able to pronounce the words, they may not understand what the text is actually about. Students who rely solely on decoding do not comprehend the meaning of what they’ve read.

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

One of the most important pieces of all reading instruction is to become strong readers. From their very first interactions with texts, children must know that the goal of reading a text is to extract meaning. Foundational to this extraction of meaning, of course, is the ability to identify (sound out) words. But from there, immediately, students must be challenged to understand the word they’ve just read.

While being able to sound out a word is a fabulous skill, it is not the end of the process, rather the beginning. From there, students take the word, think deeply about it and how it relates to other words on the page, and figure out what information a text is trying to impart.

This deep thought is difficult work, but it is an essential component of early reading instruction. Children must know that written information is always meant to impart meaning.

Inferencing is a vital reading comprehension skill. To inference, students need to be able to sense and think deeply about implicit (not overtly stated) information. An excellent definition of inferencing can be found in Comprehension: Knowledge to Practice, by Margie Bussmann Gillis and Nancy Chapel Eberhardt:


Reading comprehension requires students to understand what is stated explicitly as well as what is implied. This implicit understanding, referred to as inference, is a complex skill that develops over time with experience and practice. Inferencing requires higher order thinking skills that may be difficult for some students; however, these skills can be taught through explicit instruction.


Here is a snapshot of what inferencing looks like, according to Gillis and Eberhardt:


Inferencing involves figuring something out or coming to a conclusion based on evidence. Evidence can be in the form of images or spoken or written words. To make an inference, information conveyed through the evidence activates prior background knowledge. For example, the image of a broken egg activates the viewer’s knowledge that something happened to crack the shell, such as the egg fell on the floor or it was cracked on the side of a dish as part of making a cake. Additional information in the picture or story often clarifies what actually happened. The ability to inference (i.e., gap-filling) is required to understand what we read. 


Another example comes from Daniel Willingham:


Other inferences require bridging information from long term memory, and these are still more challenging. For example, “Kevin said he was cold. Zeke gave him his coat.” Even if these two sentences are understood, each on its own, deeper comprehension entails making the (probably accurate) inference that Zeke gave Kevin the coat because Kevin said he was cold, which requires knowing that putting on a coat is something one does when cold. 


Inferential thinking is a complex skill, and requires instruction and practice. Once comfortable with making inferences, though, children are better prepared for complex thinking in every aspect of their lives.

How to Practice

When reading with your child, student, or other early reader, pause occasionally to ask a few questions that focus on inferencing, which are more “why” or “how” based questions. 

  • Can you tell me what’s going on in the story in your own words?

  • Why do you think that character did that? How does the character feel?

  • What information in the story led you to that idea?

To keep the conversation going, try asking:

  • What makes you think that?

Want to try it out? Click here for a fun 5-minute activity that will challenge your youngster to use the complex skill of inferencing.

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