Librarians in school and public libraries are in a key position to help change the literacy world, by making decodable books with simplified spelling patterns available to beginning and struggling readers.

A book is decodable if you can read all or most of the words (at least 90-95%)

To a highly-skilled reader, every book is decodable, meaning they can get the words off the page without any effort. Less skilled readers struggle, especially with long words and less common spellings, so to improve their skills and enjoy reading, they need simplified texts which take these out, before moving on to harder texts.

Decodable books allow beginning and struggling readers to get the amount of practice they need, and to succeed at reading, rather than stumbling over so many words that they lose the meaning and it becomes a chore, and not at all enjoyable.

Decodability is thus actually a property of the interaction of a reader and a text. The litmus test for it is:

  • If a person can read 95% of the word, the book is suitable for independent reading,
  • If they can read 90% of the words, it’s suitable for supported reading aloud (much more effective for improving skills than silent reading),
  • If a person is stumbling over more than one in ten words, the book is unsuitable for them, full stop. They need to read easier books till they build the requisite skills.

I hope it goes without saying (but will say it anyway) that while they are learning to read simple decodable books, young children should still be able to enjoy high-quality children’s literature, by having other people read it to them.

Decodable books are a bit like the little push bikes that teach young children how to balance and steer on a bike, so that they can get ready to take their feet off the ground to push bike pedals. At the same time, they can still sit in child seats on their parents’ bikes, or on tag-alongs, and get a sense of the wonder and possibilities of cycling without all the dangers. Avoiding nasty and off-putting literacy-learning crashes is important, just like avoiding nasty bike crashes.

English has a deep orthography, with a lot of tricky spellings, particularly in high-frequency words, most of which have been in our language since Old English like the “ou” and “gh” in cough, the “oe” in “shoe”, the “e” in “pretty” and the “u” in busy.

We should not be surprised that so many kids who are exposed to a lot of such words (e.g. via high-frequency word lists), and encouraged to guess words from pictures in repetitive/predictable texts, get very confused and struggle with learning to read. But a lot of these difficulties are preventable, and librarians can help to prevent them by making books with hard words stripped out (decodables) available to all such learners, of whatever age.

Please, please, please, add some of the books from this list for a range of age/interest levels to your purchasing list this year, and direct learners who have difficulty independently reading regular books towards them. This will help them gain the skills and confidence they need to soon be able to get off their reading training bike, and able to read more of the rest of your books.

If I were a primary school or young children’s librarian, the books at the top of my shopping list would be the Pip and Tim books, larger format Pocket Rockets (not on their website at the time of writing but they can’t be far off), Flyleaf books, Dandelion books, Sounds-Write books and InitiaLit books. These help get kids off to a flying start with their reading, and thus give libraries new customers for life.

If I were buying books for struggling older children, teenagers and adults, I’d want the Catch-Up series from Phonic books, the Rip Rap books, some Barrington Stoke books, and a range of High Noon books including some nonfiction. These kinds of books can get struggling kids and teens actually reading while in the library, not graffitiing the furniture because they are bored, because there’s nothing interesting that they can actually read.