Step-by-Step Decoding: When Kids Get Stuck on a Word

I had a student my first year teaching who had a habit of waiting for help before making any attempts on his own. 

He would start a sentence, get to a tricky word. . . and just stop. 

As I sat by him one day while he read, he got stuck on a word and looked up at me.

I ignored his subtle request for help and kept looking at the book.

When he saw I wasn’t going to help him, he tried and. . . got it right!

So, he looked at me for confirmation.

Then, I made a mistake. 

I nodded.

I didn’t realize at the time, but I took away a great opportunity with that nod. It was a chance for him to check his own reading.

It’s a common mistake that parents and teachers make, albeit with the best intentions! 

Of course, it wasn’t the end of the world and sometimes we do need to give the word. But, if we want our students to independently problem-solve when they get stuck on a word, we have to give them the tools and the opportunity to do so. 

Decoding is Hard

We all have kids who get stuck on words when they’re reading. It’s a normal stage in reading and some kids learn how to decode words faster than others.

It can be tempting to just give a student the word they are struggling with, but this can actually be counterproductive. Here is my step-by-step method of helping kids when they get stuck on a word.

What do you do when your students get stuck on a word when reading? Read this step-by-step guide to helping your students with decoding! Includes tips for helping kindergarten and first-graders become independent problem-solvers, trying different reading strategies and self-monitoring.

1. Wait

When you call on a student to answer a question, you wouldn’t answer it for them, right? Just like we give wait time during whole-group instruction, when your student is “stuck” and just stops reading, resist the urge to give him/her the word. A little struggle is fine and even beneficial. If you just read the word for them, they won’t gain confidence or independence and will wait for you each time. I recommend waiting at least 5 seconds before prompting.

2. Don’t Confirm or Deny

When they do make an attempt to read the word, don’t confirm or deny their accuracy. This might seem unusual, but it’s important to give them an opportunity to check themselves. They will naturally look at you for approval, or even ask you outright if they read it accurately. If you nod or shake your head, you take away the opportunity to self-monitor.

Instead, tell them, “It might be,” and encourage them to ask themselves whether it makes sense.

Your student may make a mistake and realize it. Praise this awareness! Then, ask what they can do about it and try to get them to troubleshoot.

If they make a mistake and just keep reading, don’t stop them right away. Wait until they finish the sentence, then ask them if it made sense. Remind them to perform “comprehension check-ins” and stop if the text isn’t making sense. Ask them to reread and see if they can find their error.

Sometimes, the sentence does make sense even with their error. For ex, if the word home is read as house, it might still make sense. In this case, let them know they made a mistake and challenge them to find it on their own. Who doesn’t love an I Spy challenge?

3. Use an Anchor Chart or Bookmark

If students need help, instead of telling them how to decode the word, ask them what (phonics-based) strategy they can try. (No guessing or using picture clues).

Encourage them to look at an anchor chart or bookmark (you can grab the free one below) and choose a strategy. Asking them to do this work themselves is hard but pays off! You won’t always be there to tell them the word, or to prompt a strategy. They need to learn how to figure it out themselves, so pull back as much as you can and only help after they’ve tried on their own. SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM TO GET THIS FREEBIE.

4. Prompt a Phonics Skill

If your student has tried strategies but is still stuck, rather than give them the word, give them the phonics skill that would help. For example, if they are stuck on the word skate, remind them of the vce rule (in a word that ends with 1 vowel, 1 consonant, and the letter e, the vowel will make its long sound) and that the a will make its long sound. Then, have them blend the sounds again. If the word is stomped, remind them to look for endings (suffixes). Help them cover the –ed ending and read the base word, then add the suffix.

5. Praise and Teach

Praise any attempts they made at decoding themselves. Did they have any letter sounds correct? Did they try a strategy? If they weren’t accurate, teach them what they can do. Did they need to try an alternate sound? Did they miss a digraph or forget to divide the word into syllables?

If they read the word correctly after a few attempts, reinforce the phonics pattern they struggled with. “Yes, that’s right. Remember sh makes the /sh/ sound,” for example.

If the word has a phonics skill that is new to them, point it out. “That was tricky. Now that you know it says (phone, for example), which letters are making the /f/ sound? Yes, we haven’t covered that yet, but ph does make the /f/ sound.” Simple, quick, and effective! You don’t have to go into a whole lesson on that phonics skill but knowing there’s a reason for the spelling will help students start to orthographically map it. Orthographic mapping is the process our brain uses to match and remember sounds to letter representations.

For Students Who Need More Help When Stuck on a Word

Some students need more practice than others, just like anything else. If you have students who are struggling and need more support when they get stuck on a word, here are some activities you can do to help them along.

Oral DECODING (Blending)

Some kids have a hard time blending the sounds, even if they have good awareness of letter sounds. If kids can say the sounds in map but when they blend it, they say mat or lap; if they change or omit any sounds when blending, try more oral blending activities. This is one of the best phonemic awareness activities you can do to help your kids get ready for decoding. A few ways to incorporate this easily into your day:

  • Play “code words”: This is just a fun name for oral blending. Start with 2-sound words: knee, my, at. Make each sound separately and have kids blend to say the code word. Increase the number of sounds as students progress. You can pick a topic to choose words from too, such as body parts or animals. If kids still have difficulty, separate words into syllables to make it easier: cup-cake, then gradually transition to individual sounds, or phonemes.
  • Play at different times of the day: lining up, transitioning between subjects, cleaning up…at snack time, I’d look at the kids’ snacks and give the “code word” for different snacks. Kids figured out which student had the code snack.
  • Incorporate it into your lessons. For example, during morning meeting, you might say, “Good morning, children! Today we will go to the /j//i/m/” and have them tell you where. During math, you might say, “Take out your math book and turn to page /t//e//n/.”
  • Use their names! Most kids love being the “star” and if you say the sounds for one student’s name and they have to figure out who, they will all be asking to do their name too!

There are many other phonemic awareness activities you can do, but blending will get the most “bang out of your buck”. I like to call it oral decoding because that’s essentially what kids are doing! They are taking sounds and blending them together to make words.

Continuous Blending

Certain letters are easier to extend than others. The sounds for letters F, L, M, N, R, and S (as well as all vowels) can be held for a while. Other letters make 1 discrete sound, like /b/ and /g/. If you have students who are having difficulty with decoding simple cvc words accurately, teach them “continuous blending” starting with the former letters.

To do this, use words that start with the “continuous letters”. Teach students to extend the letter sounds until they begin the next sound. A slide is helpful for this. Let’s say the word was map. Slide a magnetic letter m down the slide as you make the /mmmmmmmm/ sound. When it reaches the a at the bottom, add that sound and extend: /mmmmmmaaaaaaaaa/ Slide it over until it reaches the p and complete the word, then say it quickly.

If your kids struggle with blending sounds, this word slide activity is a great multisensory way to help them learn to hear and blend sounds accurately. Perfect for helping your kindergarten and first-grade students with decoding.

More Multisensory Ideas

Kids love touching and moving things little counters and this is a great way to practice blending. You can use anything from tiny microcars, to transparent bingo chips, or even mini-erasers. Have students look at a word and say each sound as they move the counter under the letters, then blend.

These cards are in my Guided Reading Warm-ups Levels AA-D and AA-J bundles.

Preview Vocabulary

Many kids might not have the background knowledge necessary for comprehension of the text. Go over any words that may be unknown and that are essential to comprehend the text. When they encounter these words in the text, knowing what they mean will help them be able to self-monitor their decoding.

Talk About the Tricky Parts

Once a student fixes their error or you help them decode a new word, be sure to go over the parts of the word to help them understand and orthographically map the spelling. Sometimes kids will encounter words they can’t decode because they haven’t yet learned the phonics skills needed to decode them. See #5 above for an example of how you can approach this.

Connect Writing to Reading

Don’t forget to practice the opposite of blending to connect reading to writing. Segmenting is harder than blending, but you can incorporate it into games to make it fun, too! To help kids stretch out words to hear more sounds, you can read my blog post about helping emergent writers here.

It’s important to note that if a child struggles on every sentence, the text may not be appropriate for the child. We want to use text that is within the student’s zone of proximal development- not too easy and not too hard.


We all want our students to decode accurately and have the ability to self-monitor, so stepping back to let them problem-solve is essential. But of course, there are times when giving the word is necessary. We don’t want our kids to get completely frustrated and avoid reading altogether. As their teacher, you know your students best and can likely tell if they are trying their best or relying on you providing the word. Just give them a little wait time, then nudge them in the right direction, letting them do most of the work.

Modeling is also key! When kids see you work through a difficult word, it helps them know what to do in that situation. Read more about Teaching Decoding Strategies here.

Hopefully, this post was helpful! I’d love to hear your comments, feedback, or any questions you still have! Don’t forget to grab your free bookmarks below!

2 responses to “Step-by-Step Decoding: When Kids Get Stuck on a Word”

  1. Beth Avatar

    Excellent advice.
    I needed reminding to not confirm or deny a student’s attempt at decoding.
    Thank you.

    1. Brenda Avatar

      Thanks, Beth! I still catch myself sometimes. We want to reassure and encourage them, but helping them gain independence is essential!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggested Posts

View site