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Discover the Benefits of Decodable Books by Grade (or Skill Level)

Decodable books benefit students by scaffolding their learned skills, but there is no tidy way to explain the “level of a student.”

Leveled reading, and the accompanying leveled readers, have provided teachers with an easy system to categorize the abilities of their students by saying things like, “He reads at Level D” or “Our kindergarteners should at least read through Level C by spring.” 

Unfortunately, leveled readers are not leveled by specific skills, nor are they even leveled in a way that can often be technically explained. A common leveling practice is by word count and word length, not whether the words can be decoded using the skills students have learned or built on the sight words that have already been mapped and practiced.


We need to rethink the way we define where early readers are in the scope of skills needed to be a proficient reader.


This removal of a uniform system to explain the progression of a student in a reading program can be off-putting for adults. But by learning a new way to explain where our children are in their reading journey, educators and parents can truly respect the skills being learned and the cognitive process by which students learn how to read.


In this article, I will explain how we can progress students through their learning experience in reading, even if they are not neatly placed in a level.


Decodable books by grade or skill level

We cannot ignore that there are a set of skills defined by standards that need to be learned during a certain grade level. We can, however, focus on the skills students need to get to the next steps in reading proficiency, instead of just grade level.


Decodable books help children learn by grade-level standards because they often help students practice the specific foundational skills in the constructed standards. Also, when students build on prior knowledge and practice to mastery with skills, they learn faster without gaps, and often, with confidence.


“Decodable book” is a very subjective term in the sense that what is decodable for one student may not be decodable for another. “Decodable” refers to having the phonics knowledge to decode a specific text.  


Also, language and decoding go hand-in-hand when it comes to reading. Students might be able to decode the words, but without the background knowledge to transfer the meaning, they are not reading but stringing together sounds.


Choosing decodable books to support your students’ reading level


There’s that word again: level. There are often connotations behind the word for educators who learned to teach reading by placing students in a subgroup of leveled readers. 


Now, knowing that students need phonological and sound-spelling skills not levels, many educators cringe at the idea of “reading levels.” However, we need to have a way to help students progress and track that progress for evaluation of our instruction. 


Let’s look at reading like a staircase that students need to climb to become proficient readers. So, for the sake of moving our kiddos up the stairs, we need to construct the stairs with skills, ensuring that there is a strong foundation and assessing for gaps, so that our students are successful.  


The difference between skill level and reading level is the respect for all the pieces needed to progress, instead of a publisher ranking based on word count and sentence length.


All students benefit from decodable books when learning phonics, but many require the included consistency of skill practice to fully transfer their learning to actual reading and reading comprehension. Some students will: 

      ◊ Absorb letter patterns and sound structures quickly, transferring knowledge to read for meaning

      ◊ Tackle uncontrolled text with more capability and be ready to move past decodable books for reading outside of the phonics                         connection

      ◊ Need many repetitions of practice, requiring the use of decodable books longer than their peers


The best general advice: Get a scope and sequence and find decodable books that align.


Every quality, explicit reading curriculum has a structured scope and sequence for instruction. Based on this information, educators can choose books that contain the skills that have been taught to students. By assessing children based on the scope and sequence, we can help them progress, without gaps, up the figurative stairs to becoming strong readers.


Reading expectations by grade or skill level 

If we do not level students, what expectations should we have for them based on grade?


Let’s be real here and say out loud that not all students will learn or read based on a set of standards laid out for all children their age. That being said, we still need to understand the expectations per grade to help students reach their potential or stay on track.


Remember, some children will arrive in school with a head start, and some will come without, which makes for an uneven playing field. Also, as we know from developmental studies, children might progress through these skills at different rates, which can be a major challenge for teachers.


In general, there is a set of foundational skills that need to be in place, and helping children gain all these abilities in the first years of education should be the goal. 


What happens during the first years of reading?

As it pertains to letter-sound knowledge, phonics, and beginning reading, kindergarten classrooms have a lot of ground to cover. Ideally, students will:

    ◊ Develop a strong sense of phonemic awareness

    ◊ Have knowledge and practice of all basic sound-spellings

    ◊ Gain automaticity with many high-frequency words

    ◊ Be able to blend words to read decodable text for their skill set


From kindergarten on, the progress and successes in reading will be based on the following elements:

    ◊ Instruction given

    ◊ Validity of assessments to identify needs

    ◊ Quality of the resources used

    ◊ Any difficulties or disabilities that may be uncovered

    ◊ Effectiveness of the teacher


These elements combine to make leveling difficult based on any simple equation, unlike leveled reading programs would like you to think.


How can students progress to proficiency?

I will reiterate that the most vital piece in ensuring students progress to proficiency and strong reading is that you find a scope and sequence and you stick to it


By focusing on the skill sets and language needs of K-2 students, schools can ensure that students are not shuttled across grade levels and into instruction that they are not yet ready for or that make them work below the skill sets they already have. Identify where kids are in your scope and sequence and meet those needs or fill in those gaps.


One way to do this in small groups is skills-based reading instruction.

What is skilled-based reading instruction?

Skills-based reading instruction is identifying needs among students, grouping students to meet those needs, and explicitly teaching the skills needed. 


The skills identified can range from the following:

    ◊ Comprehension of text for students who struggle with understanding the text they read on their own 

    ◊ Phonics structures that are not being retained

    ◊ Vocabulary acquisition for students who do not have much background knowledge

    ◊ Blending strategies for students that can isolate phonics but struggle to blend

Exploring decodable books by skill-level after a skills-based, small reading group

At which reading stage are decodable texts appropriate?

When asking what stage decodable books are appropriate, the short answer is “always.” We should always be looking for text that our students can actually read. If we are providing texts that are way above the skills of a student, but the student is required to read the words, we run the risk of denying them access to their education. If a student cannot read the material, their access to knowledge is denied.


Now, if we are talking about the controlled, systematic version of decodable books, these sources are best used in practice and for required reading as students are learning the structures. As kids begin to automatically transfer their learned skills to all text, through repeated reading practice of decodable text, we can introduce more uncontrolled text for required reading.


Just remember: Preview text and ensure your students will be able to access all the information included.


I’ll give you an example: My son was given a newsletter/magazine designed for students on a science topic. He only has the capability to read CVC words. The text was almost entirely above his abilities. If he is supposed to gain meaning and learn the material, how is he supposed to do that if he cannot read the resource?


Honestly, decodable just means that you have taught a child the skills to read the words without guessing or using pictures to infer the meaning. When we require a child to read, as educators, we need to ensure they can access the material within.

systematic decodable books

Find examples of systematic decodable books here.

What are the best decodable readers for kindergarten and pre-K?

For those in the very first stages of reading books, such as in pre-K or kindergarten, educators can provide decodable books that have:

    ◊ Shorter sentences and simple structures to allow kids to make meaning, even if their reading is choppy in fluency to start

    ◊ Engaging pictures that do not specifically allow for guessing the words

    ◊ Extremely high decodability, using few irregular words or words that have higher-level phonics


Educators need to ensure that students have had the phonemic awareness instruction and phonics knowledge to access the decodable books. 


Students are ready to read decodable books that are geared towards the beginning stages if they can:

    ◊ Understand the words we speak are made of sounds

    ◊ Isolate and blend sounds

    ◊ Recognize some of the corresponding basic spellings


As previously stated though, students will have varying abilities based on their experiences before entering school or the obstacles they might have outside of the classroom walls. Assessing students and identifying their strengths and their needs is essential to place them in the scope and sequence of your decodable book series.


Take a peek at the I Am Ready series for beginning readers, which is based on knowledge of basic sound-spellings and few “sticky words.”

What are the best decodable readers for 1st grade?

Through kindergarten and 1st grade, educators know there is usually a large spectrum of abilities. Although whole class lessons and a systematic, explicit instruction are  essential for all students, kids will still have distinctive needs and assorted gaps in their mastered skills.


Due to this range, schools should develop decodable libraries with a range of decodable books, allowing educators to utilize different books for different skills-based reading groups. If teachers only have access to specific sets, they might not have books that fit the range of needs in their classes.


As an example, first graders might be practicing skills based on the standards laid out for the grade, but teachers might need access to books to support students who have not yet mastered the kindergarten standards to automaticity. 


What are the best decodable readers for 2nd grade?

I have said it before, and I will say it again, the best decodable readers are those that fit the skill needs of students.  


That being said, many 2nd graders are working on deeper comprehension, more complex vocabulary, and more intricate syntax structures. Books should incorporate these constructs, while continuing to be mostly decodable as far as the included words and phonics structures. 


Educators should preview books before lessons and identify specific words to discuss with students or map for support. By modeling more difficult words and the strategies for approaching new vocabulary, for decoding and for comprehension, educators are coaching students through the processes they will need when attempting all text. This allows students to transfer their skills to all books.

2nd grade decodable reader


I wish I could give a definitive answer for where all students should be by a certain age or grade. I wish I could make the already convoluted and demanding job for teachers easier by giving a simple answer. This is not possible though, because children, their assorted developmental paces, their varying home lives, and their separate strengths in acquisition of skills, makes defining a level unrealistic.


The most definitive answer that can be given about how to choose a decodable book that will benefit and support a student is to find the scope and sequence for a series and assess where the student falls among the skills needed for the set. 


Find decodable books that help children practice the structures in your instructional scope and sequence without introducing too many other unknown phonics structures or irregular words.  Show students how to love reading by letting them be successful and attempt new words safely and with confidence!


Oh, and find some books with a sense of humor! When children giggle, we can instill the love for reading done by themselves, encouraging them to innately want to read!

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