Decoding and comprehension: the two components of learning how to read

academics High School reading comprehension
By Shira

Reading is a fundamental mode of communication and therefore a prerequisite of active participation in today’s world. There are two components to reading: decoding and comprehension. Decoding refers to understanding the relationship between letters and sounds, otherwise known as phonics; comprehension refers to a student’s ability to make sense of what they are reading. 

Unfortunately, learning to read is not always instinctual and can be very challenging for some students, particularly those diagnosed with dyslexia. For these students, “breaking the code” (e.g. understanding the relationship between letters and sounds) may feel like an impossible endeavor. If they are not offered effective, research-backed instruction, struggling readers learn to avoid reading and develop an antipathy to it. Thankfully, there are proven instructional techniques that improve reading skills over time. With explicit, methodical, and structured instruction that focuses on breaking down and articulating the rules of the English language, even struggling readers can master the skill of decoding.

Other students may struggle more with reading comprehension and have little-to-no difficulty with decoding, though it is entirely possible that a student who has a hard time decoding will also struggle with comprehension. And just as there are techniques to teach decoding, there are strategies to improve overall comprehension. Hopefully, as mastery increases in both skills, students will also gain an appreciation and love of reading; at the very least, they will be able to successfully read for meaning and communication, enabling them to enjoy productive and rewarding roles in society. 

In addition to explicit instruction, whether in decoding, comprehension, or both, struggling readers should always be exposed to high-quality books, magazines, newspapers, and other content that sparks their interest. It is essential to offer students fiction, as well as non-fiction. Graphic novels are often superb ways to get non-readers interested in books. 

Learning to read is not necessarily easy, but it is essential. With hard work and the right kind of instruction, reading difficulties can be overcome. Every student will approach reading based on their unique brain wiring, so every student’s pathway to reading mastery will be unique, but no matter what, every student can learn to read.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT GMAT strategy GRE physics chemistry math biology graduate admissions ACT law school admissions test anxiety interview prep language learning academic advice MBA admissions premed personal statements homework help career advice AP exams creative writing MD study schedules Common Application summer activities test prep history computer science philosophy organic chemistry secondary applications supplements economics PSAT admissions coaching grammar mathematics research law statistics & probability psychology 1L ESL CARS SSAT covid-19 dental admissions legal studies logic games reading comprehension USMLE engineering Spanish calculus parents Latin verbal reasoning DAT PhD admissions case coaching excel mentorship political science AMCAS French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity chinese medical school Anki DO English literature Social Advocacy admissions advice algebra astrophysics biochemistry business classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics mental health presentations quantitative reasoning skills study abroad time management work and activities IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs STEM adjusting to college algorithms art history artificial intelligence athletics business skills careers cold emails data science functions gap year international students internships letters of recommendation logic mechanical engineering poetry resume science social sciences software engineering tech industry technical interviews trigonometry 2L 3L AAMC Academic Interest DMD EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Sentence Correction Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Zoom acids and bases amino acids analysis essay architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dental school dimensional analysis distance learning electric engineering electricity and magnetism enrichment escape velocity european history executive function finance first generation student freewriting fun facts genomics graphing harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law induction infinite information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern investing investment banking lab reports linear algebra linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis music music theory neurology neuroscience office hours operating systems organization pedagogy phrase structure rules plagiarism potential energy pre-dental proofs pseudocode psych/soc qualifying exams quantum mechanics relativity