A Parent's Guide to Decodable Books

Posted by Catherine Young Morris on

Image Credit: istock/tolgart

A recent conversation I had with Kathryn Garforth of the Right to Read Initiative got me thinking (again) about what parents need to know about text selection for their beginning readers. There is a lot of opaque terminology floating around that can be difficult to make sense of as an outsider to the world of literacy education. I hope this Guide for Parents will help you navigate some of the language or issues you may have come across.


Is Decoding the same thing as Reading?

First of all, people tend to use the term reading in a general sense. Researchers, on the other hand, have some more precise terminology for the various dimensions of reading. I won’t go into too much detail on all of those in this post, but suffice it to say that word learning involves connecting sound, meaning, and spelling. When we read and write, we are applying both our understanding of the written language system, along with our understanding of the spoken language system.

Decoding skills refer to those skills that involve connecting sound and spelling to read a word, which may be known or unknown. The meaning component, of course, is essential for comprehension, along with other skills related to how all those individual words are coordinated to make meaning in a given language.

Proficient Reading (reading with fluency and understanding) requires the successful coordination of both decoding and language skills.


What are Decodable Books / Texts?

Decodable texts are controlled texts that limit the use of certain spelling patterns (grapheme-phoneme correspondences) to allow children to practice reading with texts designed according to what they have already learned about the written language system, without encountering too many writing conventions that they have not been taught yet. When selecting a decodable text, make sure to look at the front or back matter to find out what spelling (or phonics) pattern(s) are being targeted in the text.

Decodable texts are but one tool for supporting children’s reading development. They are handy to have around if you want to give a child practice, or review, with a specific spelling pattern. They also tend to be used more at the early stages of reading development, because they are more relevant to the instructional needs at those early stages.


Should I only use decodable text with my child?

The use of decodable text is supported by educator experience and the common sense rationale that we can better ensure children have sufficient practice with the skills they are currently learning when we are able to give them texts to read that provide practice with those skills. The analogy I often use is that of giving a child addition questions when they are learning addition, rather than asking them to solve multiplication problems.


Why is everyone so worried about pictures and word guessing?

We’ve learned that there are certain things that are not helpful when it comes to texts for beginning readers. Namely, we don’t want to encourage a reliance on guessing strategies like picture cues, or text predictability. These are the strategies of non-readers, and can create the illusion of reading, rather than helping a child practice, master and develop their word reading skills (decoding skills). Learning to read is hard work, and if it’s easy to guess, you can bet a child will… until they simply can’t anymore.

Popular levelled text series have taken the approach of designing illustrations and text structures so that guessing is easy, especially at the earliest text levels. This parent-made video does a great job of showing what this looks like in practice, and some of the issues with it. Educators now know that this is a bad idea, and are trying to get away from this model. Libraries and schools, however, are packed full of these types of books, which makes them hard to avoid.

As a parent, an easy thing you can do when listening to your child read is to cover the picture page, and then let your child look at the picture after they have read the text as a reward. Some decodable texts can also have text features that support guessing, so watch out for this.


Are some people against pictures entirely?

Novelists maybe? I’ve seen a few claims floating around about an anti-illustration early literacy crowd, but I have not seen any evidence of their actual existence. I think this is coming out of that history of texts being intentionally designed to enable picture guessing (see above). When teaching reading, we want children to focus on the letters on the page and how they combine to form words. This is how words are most effectively mapped to memory.

You don’t want the pictures to tell the story in a book for a beginning reader, you want the words to, which goes against the grain of how much children’s literature is designed. Pictures can be helpful to support vocabulary development, especially for second language speakers, but so can oral language, artifacts, and real-word experiences. They can also provide a mental break, additional information, or a bit of fun. We just want to make sure they don’t take the place of reading practice, and for your highly distractable readers, we don’t want them to draw too much attention away from the work of learning to read.


How much independent reading should a beginning reader be doing?

A lot of people’s expectations of what early reading looks like are still based on messages they received from disproven approaches. One of these carryovers is that people got very used to having children leaf through books independently, whether or not they were reading, and calling it reading; this is not reading or decoding. If there’s only one thing you get out of this post, I hope it is this:

Don’t feel like you need to rush your child into independent reading. Encourage them to apply the skills they have learned, with as much support as they need, until they eventually don’t need it anymore.

The highest value reading practice early on will be monitored, which simply means that someone is following along with the beginner and giving them feedback and assistance as needed in an encouraging way. Feedback is fundamental to the learning process. Successful attempts and errors are all a part of the learning process. In the beginning stages you can start small with writing and reading words and simple sentences together during everyday activities aloud or on paper.   


What do people mean about "just right" reading levels?

This terminology has been used hand-in-hand with levelled texts, rather than decodable texts. There are different book levelling systems out there, and in some cases a preview of the text may be more informative than the description of the levelling system itself. In reality, there are a lot more factors at play that influence a child’s ability to read and comprehend a text. There isn’t a perfect levelling formula out there, and there can be unintended consequences to arbitrarily limiting children’s access to written content, especially at later stages of reading development. Selecting a variety of texts is a great idea. But if all you have is a phone book, start with a phone book (it will be great for practicing alphabetic order too).


What should I look for in a "scope and sequence"?

If you’ve heard about decodable books or structured literacy at all, you may have heard that it’s important for decodable books to have a well-defined scope and sequence. This refers to the order in which different written language features (primarily spelling or phonics patterns are introduced).

It’s important to keep in mind that both instruction and text exposure are at the heart of the process of learning to read. Decodable texts, almost by definition, should follow a scope and sequence of reading skills, controlling the text so that spellings and writing conventions are introduced gradually across a series of texts. As a general rule, one to five additional spelling patterns may be introduced at a time.

While there are some general guidelines that most sequences follow (e.g. single syllable prior to multi-syllabic words; single letter sound correspondences prior to two letter-sound (digraph) correspondences; short vowels prior to long vowels), there is insufficient evidence of a universally “correct” scope and sequence. What there is strong evidence for, is the need for an instructional sequence to ensure skills are taught. Dr. Timonthy Shannahan provides a nice summary of the matter

It's easy to get tangled in the scope and sequence weeds, but it is not the text that teaches.

Decodable texts are selected to provide practice with taught skills, and they do not need to be used to the exclusion of all other texts. Communication with your child’s teacher can be really helpful here. If you are unclear on what your child is learning, you can try a few words with target skills from a decodable text with them to see if they’ve learned them or not, and then adjust your book selection accordingly. You can also look at their writing to spot specific sound-spelling correspondences that may be helpful for them to practice with.


How do I know what skills a text targets?

Most decodable texts will highlight the key skills they practice in the front or back matter, and will usually have a series guide that outlines the order that skills are introduced in. That said, you should still be prepared to find some words, even in decodable texts, that have unusual or untaught pronunciations. These words are usually selected because they are used very often and play an important role in language, or the book's subject matter. While some texts may limit the use of these outlier words more than others, it is generally accepted that you want to include at least some of these.  

For example, it is very difficult to avoid using the words the or you in English, so you can expect these to be introduced very early. Some guidelines exist that suggest a certain percentage of decodable words, but we really don’t know what the optimal level of decodability is with that level of precision. There’s no reason you should feel locked into a single series either. Some children need more practice than others and will respond to certain types of text better than others.


Learning to read is a challenging process that takes time, while also being incredibly rewarding. Follow your child’s lead and remind them often that a little bit of practice goes a very long way!