Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Logo
Mass Literacy

Phonics and Decoding Can Be an Underlying Cause of Difficulties With Fluent Word Reading

Difficulties with fluent word reading can stem from different underlying causes. Lack of knowledge of the sounds associated with letters and letter patterns will result in weak decoding which can contribute to difficulties with fluent word reading, and in turn, often cause problems with comprehension.

How Problems With Phonics and Decoding May Present

Children might display difficulty with:

  • discriminating letters from each other (e.g., b and d)
  • matching sounds with the corresponding letter(s) and letter patterns
  • spelling
  • sounding out words; may tend to guess at words based on first letter or pictures or may substitute a familiar word when encountering an unfamiliar word
  • reading fluently

Screening for Phonics and Decoding

Universal screening starting in Kindergarten should assess phonics and decoding skills, in order to identify children who are experiencing word reading problems due to deficits in phonics knowledge and may require instructional support to prevent future difficulties. For more information about universal screening and a list of Massachusetts-approved screening assessments, see Early Literacy Screening Assessments.

Underlying Causes of Difficulty With Phonics and Decoding

Possible underlying root cause(s) of difficulty with phonics and decoding include:

  • lack of explicit and systematic instruction and adequate practice with phonics and decoding
  • instruction that prioritizes alternative "cues" for reading words, such as predicting the word based on the first letter or the picture
  • a core weakness with orthographic processing (Moats & Tolman, 2019)
  • difficulty with phonological skills, which then impact decoding skill, stemming from either a lack of instruction and practice or a core phonological deficit (i.e., dyslexia)

For more information about early identification and continued access to evidence-based instruction as it relates to dyslexia, see the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines .

Beth Villani
"When you see students using strategies, such as guessing at words, trying to look at the picture and figure it out…they do become easily frustrated. I've seen students give up, I've seen students push away books and feel like they don't have the joy of reading because they don't understand the process of reading."

Beth Villani
Reading Specialist
Sweetsir School, Merrimac, MA

Preventing Problems With Phonics and Decoding

  • Many children who experience problems with phonics and decoding did not receive explicit instruction in the letter-sound correspondences of English. For many children, problems with phonics and decoding can be prevented with strong core instruction, that includes a pre-determined scope and sequence for teaching letters and spelling patterns, ample practice with each new spelling pattern, and opportunities to read newly learned patterns in decodable text.
  • Because phonics and decoding issues often stem from underlying difficulties with phonological skills, strong core instruction in phonological awareness can also prevent future problems with word reading.

Approaches to Intervention for Students Who Have Difficulty With Phonics and Decoding

Intervention is necessary when children do not make adequate progress with phonics and decoding skills even after receiving strong core instruction with opportunities to practice the phonics skills and decoding strategies they have been taught. It is important to determine whether a difficulty with phonics and decoding is stemming from an underlying problem with phonological skills before proceeding with intervention. Classroom-based intervention research has shown that effective interventions can lead nearly all children to develop proficient phonics and decoding (Gersten et al, 2017 , Denton, 2012).

For Additional Information

Scientific Information on Phonics, Decoding, and Encoding

Blachman, B. A., Schatschneider, C., Fletcher, J. M., Murray, M. S., Munger, K. A., & Vaughn, M. G. (2014). Intensive reading remediation in grade 2 or 3: Are there effects a decade later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 46–57.

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert . Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A., & Willows, D. M. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71, 393–447.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C., Dimino, J., …Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Foorman, B., Herrera, S., Dombek, J. (2018). The relative impact of aligning tier 2 intervention materials to classroom core reading materials in grades K–2. Elementary School Journal, 118(3), 477–504.

Gersten, R., Newman-Gonchar, R., Haymond, K., & Dimino, J. (2017). What is the evidence base for Response to Intervention in reading in grades 1–3? (REL 2016-129). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast.

Lovett, M.W., Frijters, J.C., Steinbach, K.A., Wolf, M., Sevcik, R.A., & Morris, R.D. (2017). Early intervention for children at risk for reading disability: The impact of grade at intervention and individual differences on intervention outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology. 106, 889–914.

Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2013). Two-year follow-up of a code-oriented intervention for lower-skilled first graders: The influence of language status and word reading skills on third-grade literacy outcomes. Reading & Writing, 26, 821–843.

Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Scammacca, N., Gatlin, B., Walker, M. A., & Capin, P. (2016). Meta-analyses of the effects of Tier 2 type reading interventions in grades K–3. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 5

Weiser, B., Mathes, P. (2011). Using encoding instruction to improve reading and spelling performances of elementary students at risk for literacy difficulties: A best evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 170–200.


Moats. L.C.& Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd edition). Voyager Sopris Learning.

Disclosure Statement: Reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Our office is not responsible for and does not in any way guarantee the accuracy of information in other sites accessible through links herein. DESE may supplement this list with other services and products that meet the specified criteria. For more information contact:

Last Updated: November 20, 2020

Contact Us

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
135 Santilli Highway, Everett, MA 02149

Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370


Disclaimer: A reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.