A decodable book is a book for a beginning or struggling reader which contains words she or he can sound out.
In practice this means it contains sound-letter relationships and word types its reader has been taught. It doesn’t include patterns not yet taught.
Decodability thus describes how well a book/text matches its reader’s decoding skills. It gives us a proper, objective way of identifying a just-right book, by ensuring lesson-to-text match.
English has very complex sound-letter relationships, with 44 sounds each represented by 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters (e.g. the “I” sound in “hi“, “pie“, “bright” and “height”), several ways to spell most sounds, and many spellings representing more than one sound (e.g. the “ou” in “out”, “soup”, “young” and “cough”).
Beginners and strugglers obviously can’t learn all this at once.
By giving them decodable books containing the spelling patterns they’ve been taught, we:
- Encourage and assist them to practise what they’ve learnt in class,
- Maximise their chances of reading success, and
- Encourage the habits of strong readers (accurate word reading) not the habits of weak readers (guessing words from pictures, context, sentence structure or first letters).
Decodable books avoid the confusing but all-too-common situation of children being taught “a” as in “cat” in class, but then encouraged to read books containing words in which “a” is not as in “cat”, like “table”, “want”, “all” and “any”.
The predictable/repetitive texts typically given to young school children are full of difficult spelling patterns that no teacher in their right mind would introduce to absolute beginners. I loathe such books, they’re pedagogically indefensible, and dead boring.
Teaching little kids phonics then giving them books they can’t decode is a bit like telling them about just-right-sized no-pedals balance bikes, then sending them off to practise balancing on a random selection of bikes of all shapes and sizes. It’s just asking for crashes.
Basic, intermediate/extended and advanced code
Each decodable book series follows a phonics teaching sequence, so it’s important to use books which match the phonics sequence being taught (or adjust your teaching sequence to match the decodable books you prefer).
At first, beginners and strugglers should only be expected to manage two and three-sound words containing the spellings they’ve been taught (e.g. am, at, it, sit, pip, Tim, Sam, sat, fan, fat, cat, mat, pat, sip, map). It’s difficult, but not impossible, to write enjoyable books containing such a limited range of words, but illustrations can add humour and help flesh out the story.
Add one sound for each of the rest of the alphabet, and teach kids to blend and segment slightly longer words, and longer, more interesting sentences become decodable, about fun things like going camping: ‘”It sags a bit. Fit the pegs on the ends and the tent can lift up”.
Teach the consonant digraphs sh, ch, th, ff, ss, ll, zz, ng and ck, and now your learner can read books with sentences like, “The chicks fluff up and sing a song. Mum brings back lunch, yum!”, or “The pink rock was snug in the clam shell”.
Most decodable book series also teach a small number of high-frequency words with harder spellings at each stage (e.g. “the”, “is”, “my”, “I”, “was”, “to”), as such words are often needed for stories to make sense. These words are still composed of sounds, and most only contain one sound spelt in an unfamiliar or funny way, so they can usually still be partially sounded out.
After introducing this “Basic code”, decodable book series usually introduce the “Extended code” or intermediate-difficulty spellings. The main focus here is the way our 20 vowel sounds are spelt, e.g. the spellings of the sound “ay” in the words “make”, “wait”, “day”, “paper”, “they”, “eight” and “break”.
Studying vowel spellings provides plenty of opportunity to also learn about homophones (e.g. paw, poor, pour, pore) as well as our less-common homographs (e.g. I dove into the pool, a turtle dove).
Not all decodable book series include an “Advanced Code” stage, which usually tackles less-common consonant spellings, prefixes and suffixes, managing the unstressed vowel and multi-syllable words.
In my experience, by this stage many younger learners are already reading lots of mainstream books and instantly recognising hundreds of words. However, they often still have difficulties with spelling, and need to practise particular patterns, so books that focus their attention on these patterns are still useful learning tools.
Click here for my list of all the designed-to-be-decodable books I know about. Please let me know of any good ones I haven’t yet discovered and included.
Aren’t these books boring?
I’ve just spent thousands of dollars on decodable books to lend my clients (mostly Phonic Books Catch-Up Readers) because I’ve found that most children LOVE them. I usually lend them a whole set, and tell them very seriously that I expect them to read one book every week.
One of their parents is often on the phone before the next session saying they’ve read the whole lot, and can they please return them and borrow another set pretty please? Which is not surprising really, when you think about it. These are kids who think they are never going to be able to read, then someone lends them books they can read.
One criticism often levelled at decodable books is that they’re not quality children’s literature, Which is true. So what?
Children’s balance bikes don’t really provide a quality cycling experience, but they’re a safe and effective way to teach a key sub-skill of successful cycling, so we use them.
Until such time as children have learnt enough skills to read quality children’s literature themselves, adults can and should read it to them.
Featured graphic is from https://pixabay.com/en/girl-person-reader-book-blonde-148866, thanks to the lovely people who make such images free for others to use.