How to Teach Decoding Strategies to Struggling Readers

Some of our students are “naturally strategic” readers. You know who I mean – those kids who figure out (seemingly on their own) that they should break up a word into chunks, or start a sentence over if they get stuck.

But – as I’m sure you already know – this is definitely not true for all of our students. For some kids, using decoding strategies doesn’t come quite as naturally.

So what can we do to help these students? What teaching and learning experiences should we create in order to help them become more strategic? What do we do when reading strategies just doesn’t seem to stick?

That’s exactly what I’ll be talking about in today’s post: how to teach decoding strategies to struggling readers. I’ll share some ideas for teaching decoding strategies, provide free strategy menus and cards, and discuss how we can use text-based teaching conversations to support our students.

Independently applying reading strategies can be difficult for struggling readers. Read this post to learn effective teaching methods AND get decoding strategy freebies!Photo Credits:  Africa Studio, Shutterstock

How do we figure out what strategies to teach struggling decoders?

When we (as adult readers) encounter difficulty, we seamlessly apply a variety of strategies.

If I’m reading a text that is complex for me (like a medical research article or one of my husband’s computer networking books), I’m going to find words that I’ve never seen before – scientific words or jargon. These words are not in my sight word vocabulary and I can’t read them instantly.

So what do I do? I might look for a part of the word I know to figure out how to pronounce it, consult the glossary, Google the word, look at an image or diagram, and/or reread the paragraph it’s in.

All of this would probably take me no more than a minute.

Children also need to learn to try a variety of strategies when they encounter tricky words in texts. However, there’s many different strategies we could teach, so where do we start?

One great place to start is a child’s running record. To learn how to analyze a child’s running record and get a ton of helpful information about the student, please read this post.

After you spend just a few minutes analyzing a child’s running record data (as I describe in that post), the decoding strategies the child needs to learn should become clear to you.

Is a child making errors that cause the sentence to no longer make sense? Teach her to look at the picture and think about the meaning of the story.

Is the reader spending way too long trying to read a tricky word? Teach him to “give it a go” and return to the word later.

If your running record reveals that there are multiple opportunities for learning (aka many strategies the kiddo needs to master), try teaching a strategy that the child can “almost use.”

For example, let’s say that a child is frequently reading words incorrectly, but she’s using the picture so the miscues still make sense. But one time during the running record, she self-corrects a mistake by attending to the letters in the word.

Although the child isn’t using this strategy nearly often enough, it’s something that she is learning to do.

In this situation, I’d praise the reader and put what she did into words (“You looked at the letters and realized that what you said wasn’t right! You used the letter sounds to figure out what the word really said.”). Then I’d focus on that strategy for a week or two until she was using it more consistently.

It’s perfectly fine to choose a strategy that the child isn’t using at all. Sometimes doing so is inevitable. However, the reason I like to start with a strategy that the child can “almost use” is because this strategy is probably within her zone of proximal development. It’s not out of reach or too hard (because she has done it at least once), so she can likely master this strategy with some focused teaching.

For a list of decoding strategies that students may need to learn, please sign up to receive my Intervention Toolkit:

How should we teach decoding strategies?

Once we’ve looked over our observation notes and running record data, we have an idea about what strategies our students need to learn. So how do we teach those strategies?

First of all, I think that teaching strategies during whole group lessons is valuable. That way, you’re know that you’ve at least exposed students to a core of effective strategies. Although I know some teachers prefer to teach every skill in a small group, I do find value in whole class instruction. I feel that it saves me time because I’m not repeating the same lesson over and over again, multiple times.

That said, teaching strategies during small group time and/or individual reading conferences is extremely powerful. Our struggling readers are probably not going to be able to apply a strategy after a whole group lesson on it.

Our students who need extra support benefit from lots of modeling. In addition to doing shared reading with the entire class, you can also model strategy use through shared reading in a small group. Show students how you read aloud a text and use problem-solving strategies when you encounter a word that is “difficult” for you.

Here’s an example of how you would gradually release responsibility of a strategy during a shared reading lesson (this is the condensed version – you would do more modeling and provide more opportunities for guided practice than described here):

The text that you’re reading is The Butterfly Life Cycle (from my Take-Home Books Bundle):

Butterfly Life Cycle Book Page 1

Butterfly Life Cycle Book Page 2

I would have to enlarge this text so that the students could see the words as I read. Before we read, I explain to students that their job is to listen – not to shout out any of the words. I tell them that my purpose is to show them how I would use a decoding strategy when I find a word that is tricky for me to read.

As I read p. 3, I say, “The egg h-. Hmm. I don’t know what this word says. But I think I see a part that I know. The first part says “hatch.” Now what does the last part say?  -es.  Hatch-es. Hatches! I looked for a part of the word that I knew and I figured out that it says “hatches.”

After modeling once or twice more (modeling works better with a slightly longer text), I invite the children to join in on the last page.

As I read p. 7, I say, “A beautiful butterfly comes out. It f-. Hmmm. I don’t know what that word says. Can you help me find a part that you know?” Students might point out the fl- beginning, the -ie middle, and/or the -es ending to help you read the word.

At the end of the lesson, I would encourage students to apply this strategy during independent reading. I’d also make sure to follow up this lesson with more modeling and guided practice. I would also check to see if these students are actually using the strategy on their own.

In addition to providing lots of modeling and guided practice, I also like to use visuals to support my strategy teaching. Sometimes, I use individual strategy cards to help a child focus on just one strategy at a time:

Grab these reading strategy cards for FREE! (Perfect for beginning or struggling readers)

Spanish Reading Strategy Pop Up Card

Reading menus can also be helpful – just keep them in front of each student during guided reading, and they can refer to them as needed! If you want a child to focus on a particular strategy, place a small sticky note on that part of the reading strategy menu.

Get these reading strategy menus for FREE! They're great for guided reading and/or supporting struggling readers.

You can get 12 different reading strategy cards and a reading strategy menu as part of the Intervention Toolkit when you sign up here:

If you need more reading strategy visuals, my reading workshop toolkits include over 90 strategies (for decoding, fluency, and comprehension) in the form of posters and strategy cards. You can check them out here:

Start Here - K:1 Toolkit.001

Cover Image

Teaching decoding strategies is important for struggling readers, but it’s not enough. As literacy gurus Pinnell and Fountas state in When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works (2009), “Lessons in phonics or reading strategies will not be sufficient to help readers who struggle” (p. 323).

In addition to teaching strategies, we also need to use “text-based teaching conversations” to help our students internalize and apply effective reading strategies.

How can we use text-based teaching conversations to support struggling decoders?

First of all, what is a “text-based teaching conversation”? Well, honestly I kind of made up that term (in this context, anyway), but what I mean is a brief, focused conversation with a child about a specific text – a conversation that helps the reader develop positive reading behaviors.

Here’s an example. Let’s imagine that a group of children are reading the butterfly text (from the previous section) during guided reading. I have them all whisper read at their own pace. When I want a child to read aloud to me, I tap the table in front of her and she reads just loudly enough so that I can hear.

Student:  One day, the caterpillar hangs from a tree.

Teacher:  You said, “One day, the caterpillar hangs from a tree.” (Points to “twig” – the word the student misread as “tree.”) What letter would you expect tree to end with?

Student: E.

Teacher:  That word doesn’t end with “e,” so it doesn’t match what you said. Try it again.

Student:  …the caterpillar hangs from a tw-i-g. Twig.

Teacher:  You made your reading match the letters in the word.

In this conversation, the teacher is encouraging the child to make the print match what she reads, as well as read all parts of the word.

This is just one example, but during a teaching conversation, you may do one or several of the following things:

  • Restate what the child read: You said, “One day the caterpillar hangs from a tree.”  This gives the child another chance to hear any miscues, since she may have been very focused on the act of decoding the print and failed to self-monitor for that reason.
  • Summarize what strategy a child used: You made your reading match the letters in the word. Putting a child’s strategy use into words helps provide clarity and encourages her to use that strategy again in the future.
  • Briefly teach a strategy
  • Prompt the child to use a strategy
  • Tell the student a tricky word, if necessary

In general, you want to keep the conversation brief and very focused. You don’t want the reader to slow down so much that she forgets what she is reading! Pick just one source of information or cue (i.e. “Think about what would make sense”) that would be most helpful in helping a reader problem-solve the tricky word.

Having quality teaching conversations takes practice! It’s hard to quickly pinpoint the strategy that would be most effective, as well as to keep the conversation brief. Fountas’ and Pinnells’ prompting guides can be super helpful with this practice.


When we teach reading strategies to struggling readers, it’s helpful to do the following:

  • Determine which strategies would be most beneficial to the reader at his current stage of development
  • Teach relevant strategies through whole group and small group instruction
  • Use visuals to support strategy instruction
  • Make time for teaching conversations to move the reader forward

What would you add to this list? What has been most effective for your struggling readers? Please comment below!

Update: My series on supporting struggling readers is now complete! You can find the rest of the posts here:

What Causes Decoding Difficulties in Beginning Readers, and What Can Teachers Do About It?

How To Analyze Running Records (And Get a Ton of Valuable Information About Your Beginning Readers!)

Phonological Awareness Interventions for Struggling Readers

Phonics Interventions for Struggling Readers in K-2

How To Give Struggling Readers More Practice Time Through Volume Reading


Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2009). When readers struggle: Teaching that works. Heinemann.

*The authors of this text are in no way affiliated with this blog – I am referencing their work as a means of explaining and supporting the ideas I set forth in this post.*

Disclosure: An Amazon affiliate link is included in this post.