Decoding Instruction improves Reading Comprehension for Struggling Readers in Grade One


Reading instruction is often at the forefront of educational research, with research-based strategies being preferred (Browder et al., 2012; Fien et al., 2015). In 2000, the National Reading Panel outlined the science of reading instruction as “(a) vocabulary, (b) fluency, (c) comprehension, (d) phonemic awareness, and (e) phonics” (Browder et al., 2012, p. 237; National Reading Panel, 2000). In many ways, these components have always had their place in reading research, educational policies, and curriculums. However, while we have defined the components of sound reading instruction, there are still students who are failing to read at grade level and questions regarding successful reading programs for all learners. Chapman (2003) notes that “approximately 15-20% of children struggle with reading” for a variety of reasons (p. 108) and while this number varies based on population and location, it is evident that current literacy practices are not promoting success for all.

Theoretical Framework

One area of debate in the literature is whether beginning reading instruction should favor sight word or decoding strategies. Through a quantitative, linear design both a “psychological-cognitive” and “language literacy-oriented” research approach will be used to focus on word reading strategies as they relate to reading comprehension (Chapman, 2003, p. 95). Sight word reading may also be termed in the literature as visual accessing (Aaron et al., 1999; Ehri, 2005; Gough, 1993), cipher reading (Gough, 1993), and/or lexical recall of the words (Aaron et al., 1999; Ryder et al., 2007). Some researches define sight words as any word that has been repeatedly read and memorized (Ehri, 2005) and others suggest sight words are limited to irregular or high frequency words (Aaron et al., 1999). Decoding strategies are often labelled as codebreaking (Gough, 1993), phonological reading (Aaron et al., 1999; Ehri, 2005), and graphophonics and/or grapheme-phoneme blending and segmenting (Aaron et al., 1999; Ehri, 2005; Eldredge et al., 1990; Weiser et al., 2011).

For the purpose of this study, the operational definition for sight word reading will be adopted from Aaron et al. (1999): “sight word reading is accomplished by addressing the orthographic representation of words” (p. 91). Gough (1993) expands this definition; a sight word “is not ‘sounded out;’ it is not read ‘phonologically.’ Its recognition is ‘direct,’ unmediated by letter-sound correspondences… [but instead] by sight” (p. 181). Decoding strategies, in contrast, are defined as “assembling the word’s pronunciation” (Aaron et al., 1999, p. 91). For the purpose of this study, decoding strategies will be operationally defined as the use of graphophonic cues – mapping the phoneme (sound) onto the grapheme (spelled representation of the word) (Saskatchewan Curriculum, 2010) – through sounding out or blending.

Review of Literature

Within the research, decoding and sight word strategies have been found to be congruent. Aaron et al. (1999) used a sample of 167 children in Grades Two through Six and 75 college students. They looked at naming time of letters in comparison to words to determine if sight word or decoding strategies were being used. They found that a switch from decoding to sight word reading was made sometime in Grade Three or Four (Aaron et al., 1999). Not only were the strategies congruent but sight words were “built on foundations of decoding skills” (Aaron et al., 1999, p. 102-3). Aaron et al. (1999) note that “sight word reading appears to be carried out by processing all the constituent letters of the word in parallel, simultaneously… [it] relies heavily on proficient decoding” (p. 115; Eldredge et al., 1990). While beginning readers often learn their first words through “selective associations” (Gough, 1993, p. 181), such as environmental print or word visualization (Ehri, 2005), this is not considered to be sight word reading. Rather, Ehri identified four stages “pre-alphabetic (environmental print), partial alphabetic (first and final sound identification), full alphabetic (decoding all of the phonemes), and consolidated alphabetic (sight word memorization) (2005, p. 173-5) – with sight word recall following the decoding stage. Thus, it can be theorized that students will be successful sight word readers if they are already successful decoders (Aaron, 1999; Uhry et al., 1997).

In Freebody’s and Byrne’s (1988) study they compared sight word and decoding strategies through regular, irregular, and nonsense individually presented words on a sample of 90 Grade Two and 89 Grade Three students in regular classrooms. They found that, while some students utilized both strategies, “one fifth attained average scores on irregular words but substantially below-average scores on nonsense words [sight word readers]… and one seventh showed the opposite pattern – average or better nonsense-word scores but poor irregular-word performance [decoders]” (p. 441). On comprehension tests, the sight word readers performed better than the decoders in Grade Two (Freebody et al., 1988). However, by Grade Three the “failure to acquire and use efficient decoding skills” decreased reading fluency and thus, comprehension scores (Freebody et al., 1988, p. 441). Therefore, over time the use of decoding strategies surpassed the use of sight word strategies. This may be explained by Gough’s (1993) finding that relying on sight word strategies is impeded by memorization and novel words. Gough explains that “while i’s easy to find a cue to distinguish one word from a few others, with each additional word it becomes harder” and sight word strategies do not help with “recognition of new words: knowing that ELEPHANT is the long word, or CAMEL is the one with humps, cannot help the child decode HORSE” (1993, p. 188). A benefit of decoding instruction is that readers have a way to access words and texts that they have not previously encountered (Eldredge et al., 1990; Ryder et al., 2007).

However, various benefits of sight word strategies are apparent in the literature. Eldredge et al. (1990) note that sight word reading allows for less “nonsense errors” but “advocates of explicit phonics approaches believe that making nonsense errors is a stage that passes” (p. 202). Sight word knowledge allows for fluent reading and thus, higher comprehension scores and vocabulary growth (Aaron et al., 1999; Eldredge et al., 1990; Ryder, 2007). This may be because “if readers attempt to decode words… their attention is shifted from the text to the word itself to identify it, and this disrupts comprehension, at least momentarily” (Ehri, 2005; Aaron et al., 1999). Sight word reading is unobtrusive and efficient (Ehri, 2004). On the other hand, Eldredge et al. (1990) note that “improved decoding skills provide the possibility for readers to give more attention to text message, resulting in better reading comprehension” (p. 202). If students have learned specific sight words, they often have proficient accuracy scores during reading benchmark assessments, making a sight word approach appealing to educators reporting reading scores.

The purpose of this study is to extend the research with a focus on beginning readers who are struggling. A 1997 study by Uhri and Shepherd looked at teaching decoding strategies as a prelude to sight word strategies for struggling readers and they found positive gains in both non-word and sight word reading scores (Uhry et al., 1997). It is important to replicate this study for learners who are experiencing difficulties “with the automatic mapping between print and speech” (Ehri, 2005, p. 172) so that our reading instruction can benefit all learners. While one strategy may not be superior to the other, Aaron (1999) notes that “efforts to improve sight-word reading skills of poor decoders through whole word methods by using flash cards or computers may not be very successful” (p. 119). In addition, “if readers do not know short vowel spellings, or they do not know that ph symbolizes /f/, then when they encounter these letters in particular words, the letters will not become bonded to their phonemes in memory” and this explicit instruction needs to occur for successful long-term reading (Ehri, 2005, p. 172; Eldredge et al., 1990; Weiser et al., 2011). It is important to determine if we are emphasizing sight word reading approaches to score higher on comprehension measures today, but overlooking the importance of decoding on reading comprehension scores over time.

Purpose Statement

The purpose of this quasi-experimental study (Creswell, 2012; Jackson et al., 2007; McMillan et al., 2010; Neuman, 2006) is to test the theory of learning to read that compares decoding to sight word instruction for Grade One students who are struggling to read (reading A to C as per Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) formative benchmarking). The independent variables are decoding and sight word reading strategies (defined above). The dependent variable of reading comprehension will be assessed through the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, Third Edition (WJ-III) Broad Reading Passage Comprehension subtest. Reading comprehension will operationally be defined as being able to orally relate “the sequence (i.e., beginning, middle, and end), the key points (who, what, when, where, and why) and the problems and solution” (Saskatchewan Curriculum, 2010, p. 27) both implicitly and explicitly stated of what one reads.


Alternative Hypothesis: Grade One struggling readers in _______ school division who participate in decoding instruction will have greater reading comprehension scores than students who participate in sight word instruction.

Null Hypothesis: There is no difference between the treatment group (decoding instruction) and the control group (sight word instruction) in terms of reading comprehension for Grade One struggling readers in _______ school division.



The participants are three classrooms of Grade One students in an elementary school in ________ school division. Their ages range from six to seven years old and the students are of different sexes, races, and socio-economic classes. Thirty students (n=30) will be receiving reading intervention with a Student Support Teacher (n=1) due to being identified as struggling readers (reading A to C on F&P formative benchmarking). Students will take part in a one-on-one pretest where they read 20 irregular words, 20 regular words, and 20 nonsense words. Students who score less than 50% correctly will be randomly assigned to the control group, focusing on sight word instruction, or the treatment group, focusing on decoding instruction. Both groups will be taught by the same trained Student Support Teacher (n=1) during a different 30 minute period each day for twelve weeks (January to March). The timespan is short to avoid maturation and potential cross-over lessons from within the regular classroom setting. Students will take a posttest on irregular words, regular words, and nonsense words. Their reading comprehension will be benchmarked using the WJ-III.


An application to the ethics board at the University of Regina will be made to grant approval to ethically conduct this research. The school division, the specific elementary school, and the participants’ caregivers will receive a formal letter explaining the purpose and benefit of the research, as well as specific details about the timespan, activities, and the use of data, paying specific attention to student anonymity (Creswell, 2012). All levels will have consent forms to sign and return in order for the research to be conducted.


Treatment Group – Decoding Control Group – Sight Words
Grapheme-Phoneme Relationships (5 minutes) – teaching phonics
generalizations, blends, digraphs, letter
sounds, consonant-vowel-consonant
(CVC) words, and vowel teams through
the use of the Letterland program stories, songs, and actions and the Grade One
curricular list of phonics generalizations
(ee, sh, ch, ing, etc.), blends and
diagraphs (bl, br, th, wh, etc.), vowel
teams (ea, oa, oo, etc.), and the
alphabet (Saskatchewan Ministry of
Education, 2010, p. 35)
Sight Word Naming (5 minutes)
teaching sight word recognition through
the Edmark program (Browder, 2012), a ‘Sight Word of the Day’ song, and word
learning through flashcard strategies and visual word boxes
Grapheme-Phoneme Manipulation (10 minutes) – using manipulatives (ex. magnetic letters, blocks, wooden letters, etc.) to segment and blend the sounds in words
and using Elkonin boxes to make word
Sight Word Games (10 minutes) –
playing sight word games, such as
Concentration and Bingo, to practice the
sight words taught that day and
Guided Reading (10 minutes) – applying grapheme-phoneme blending in context
to an appropriately leveled text
(approximately F&P levels A to C) (Uhry
et al., 1997; Weiser et al., 2011)
Guided Reading (10 minutes) – applying sight word knowledge in context to an
appropriately leveled text (approximately F&P levels A to C) (Uhry et al., 1997;
Weiser et al., 2011)
Writing (5 minutes) – writing about what was read to encourage comprehension
and practice segmenting and blending of phoneme-graphemes through invented
spelling (Uhry et al., 1997; Weiser et al.,
Writing (5 minutes) – writing about what was read to encourage comprehension
and practice sight words learned through word wall and textual cues (Uhry et al.,
1997; Weiser et al., 2011, p. 172).

Data Collection and Instruments

The students will take part in a one-on-one pretest where they read 20 irregular words, 20 regular words, and 20 nonsense words aloud (Eldredge et al., 1990; Freebody et al., 1988; Jeynes, 2008). A regular word will be defined as a word where each letter represents a common phoneme, whereas an irregular word may have silent letters, digraphs, blends, and/or vowel teams present (Freebody et al., 1988). A nonsense word will follow the grapheme-phoneme patterns of the language but result in a meaningless word, such as ‘bif.’ The same posttest will be used to determine their decoding and/or sight word strategy use after the intervention. The words will be taken from the appendix of regular, nonsense, and irregular words from Freebody’s and Byrne’s (1988) study (p. 453), keeping the grade difference in mind. The Word Attack and Letter-Word Identification subtests from the WJ-III will also be used but only during the posttest to reduce the threat of testing impact on internal validity.

Reading comprehension will be assessed using the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, Third Edition (WJ-III) by Woodcock, McGrew, and Mather (2001). The test was normed on 8,800 cases and its “internal consistency reliabilities range from .76 to .97 with a median of .87″ (Thorndike and Thorndike-Christ, 2010, p. 393). Cizek (2003) notes that the test “meets professional standards of reliability and validity for [its] intended purposes” (n.p.). The test is based on the Cattell-Horn-Carrol model of intelligence and achievement, which is commonly used in school psychology (Schrank, 2010). It is appropriate for ages 2 through 90 (Thorndike & Thorndike-Christ, 2010). The test “takes about 50 to 60 minutes to administer” if using all eleven subtests (Thorndike and Thorndike-Christ, 2010, p. 431). For the purpose of this study, the testing time will be reduced due to only using three subtests, which will help with maturation.

Data Analysis

The Equal Variance one-tailed t-test will be used to “determine the difference between the means of the two groups” to ensure significance is based on the intervention rather than a sampling error (Mertler et al., 2010, p. 90). A repeated measure t-test will also be used to compare the results of the pre- and posttests for the same individuals (Mertler et al., 2010). The groups are equal and there is one independent and one dependent variable. Once the data is produced, it will be analyzed through the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) program (Creswell, 2012) in a spreadsheet format.

The p-value will be set with a <.05 level of statistical significance (Neuman, 2011). Thus, if the results are less than this, we will “reject the null hypothesis and call the findings significant” (Mertler et al., 2010, p. 93). A p-value of <.05 is common in educational psychology research and is deemed appropriate for this study to avoid a type 1 or type 2 error (Neuman, 2011).


Potential threats to internal and external validity are possible in all social research. Due the quasi-experimental nature of this study, the lack of random selection may cause an inequality between groups or selection bias from the onset (Creswell, 2012; Neuman, 2011). However, due to the ethical nature of research on students in premade classes, a true experiment with random sampling would not be applicable. Another internal threat may be testing effect since a pre- and posttest will be administered and students may remember items or simply improve their testing abilities (Creswell, 2012; Neuman, 2011). This can be solved with the Solomon-Four Group Design (Neuman, 2011). In this study, an additional posttest along with the original will be used. While we are using words from a previous research study and a standardized achievement test rather than the words taught in their classroom lessons, we cannot predetermine if students have been exposed to these words before and thus had a chance to learn them by sight. To ameliorate this, the criteria for inclusion is both struggling to read (reading F&P levels A to C) and 50% of the words stated incorrectly on the initial pretest. This should help eliminate ceiling scores. Students may also experience natural growth, testing boredom, or other natural causes that impact their results via maturation (Creswell, 2012; Neuman, 2011). A diffusion of treatment may occur if classroom instruction allows the treatment or control group to be exposed to the strategies of the other group (Neuman, 2011). The duration of the study is short so that classroom instruction will not interfere by teaching crossover items to students in the control and treatment groups and to avoid maturation. Furthermore, this study may lend itself better to a longitudinal study over a two to four year period so that the impacts of the instructional strategies can be observed overtime. A sample size of 30 was deemed acceptable as per Creswell’s (2012) recommendations for educational research. However, a larger sample size, or more importantly a more representative sample size (Neuman, 2011), may allow for more accurate generalizations.


The two overarching applications of this study for teachers will be clarity and training. Results of the study should assist teachers in planning for their classroom reading instruction (tier 1) and Student Support Teachers in planning specific reading interventions (tier 2) (Saskatchewan Provincial Reading Team, 2017). To the extent that the findings show that decoding should be emphasized for those beginning readers whom are struggling to read, teaching pedagogy may be shifted. Thus, the implication will be greater reading success for all students by “ameliorating early reading failure” (Weiser et al., 2011, p. 172) through a decoding approach. As Jeynes (2008) purported, “phonics instruction is a viable way of reducing the achievement gap” (p. 153); it is important to determine the best reading strategies through research and early intervention. This study should extend previous findings that all students “can learn decoding skills” (Browder, 2012, p. 243), albeit with explicit instruction and ample time. A change in pedagogy may also occur through teacher training in university education courses and/or professional development. The overall goal of the study is to provide concrete evidence towards a reading intervention strategy that will increase reading outcomes for all learners.

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