What is a decodable book?

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.

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13 thoughts on “What is a decodable book?

  1. Pingback: What is a decodable book | Spelfabet – The Literacy Echo Chamber

  2. Roma

    Hi there
    I am the creator of I See, I Spell, I Learn and just saw your post on decodable readers, and wanted to let you know how I appreciate you posting on this subject! I created a whole set of readers that goes up in reading levels – and all the books are decodable and based on simple phonics, allowing beginners readers the opportunity to feel successful as they venture into reading!

    Here’s a link if you’re interested. Would love to be added to your list

    Here are some more
    https://www.iseeispellilearn.com/phonicsreaders.html

    Reply
      1. Roma

        Hi Andrea,
        We actually lost our home and everything we own (including business inventory) in the Santa Rosa Fires (in California) a few months ago. So right now they are only on Kindle. However we have just collected the books reprinted these as bundles by level, (10 books in a bundle, with Levels A, B and C ) and they will be available for purchase on our website http://www.iSeeiSpelliLearn.com by Friday this week. They will also be on Amazon US but that will take a couple weeks.
        Thanks,
        Roma
        I See, I Spell, I Learn

        Reply
        1. alison Post author

          Oh Roma, I’m so sorry to hear about your home, that’s terrible, getting your life back together after a fire like that is very hard. I watched a massive bushfire that took several lives go right past our house when I was a teenager, our place and the dairy were OK, but so many of our neighbours were devastated. Take good care of yourself. Alison

          Reply
          1. Roma

            Yes we’ve just finally moved into another new place 8 months after being displaced and wow – the amount of shopping that had to be done took my breath away! We accumulate over a lifetime, never really all at once, so this was certainly a novel experience. But in the end, there’s a lot of gratitude that our lives were spared…

            Thank you for your kind words.
            Roma

  3. Jasmine Shannon

    Hi Alison,
    Over 300 teachers in the NT have now been trained in Read Write Inc. It is a synthetic phonics program that is completely set around decodable texts. The children learn a suite of sounds, learn to blend and segment them, then apply this knowledge to the decodable text at their ‘level’. They then do further reading, writing, spelling, grammar activities about this text over the course of three or five days. This is the most contextualized program I have seen on the market thus far. By the end of this year, we are hoping to have trained at least 500 teachers in the NT and be in at least 60+ schools here.

    Reply
  4. Sarah Kane-Lewis

    Hi Alison,
    Would you be able to provide me with links to wear I can access decodable books for adolescents. I work with students who use AAC and after emailing you a few years ago, I purchased the ALL program by Janice LIght. I’m looking for emergent text with some fun age appropriate illustrations.

    Kind regards,

    Sarah

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Sarah, great to hear from you, is Janice Light’s program any good? I hope so! The Phonic Books Catch-up readers are the ones I use a lot, titles like Magic Belt, Alba and Titan’s Gauntlets. Just google them. I think the cheapest supplier in Australia may be Kids Like Us in Beaumaris but they don’t hold a lot of stock so you might have to wait for what you order. The Dockside readers are I think also worth considering but they don’t start as low. Hope that helps. Alison

      Reply
      1. alison Post author

        Hi Jasmine, I already had Fresh Start listed in my resource list as a program for catch-up learners, and RWI was also in the decodables list, but I’ve added Fresh Start in an extra link. Thanks for the suggestion! Alison

        Reply

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