Why Are Decodable Books So Important for Beginning Readers?
The sheer volume of reading material targeting beginner readers makes it easy for teachers and parents to get lost. From leveled readers to predictable texts, there’s a lot to choose from.
But just because a book is being marketed to you doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your students. Just because a book has a stamp or sticker saying “beginning reader,” “level A,” or “getting started,” doesn’t mean the words can be read by beginning readers.
Research shows that sounding out words using phonics instruction drastically improves children’s reading and comprehension. Decodable books for beginners are the best resources to integrate phonics lessons with reading practice, and this post will explore exactly why decodable books can make such a big difference in young readers’ reading journey.
1. Build Strong Reading Foundations
Many leveled, patterned, and predictable texts teach students to guess unknown words based on context. As a result, students often end up memorizing the reading material being taught but can’t apply that knowledge to unfamiliar text.
Students need to be able to approach words with sound-spelling knowledge, not with the use of pictures or context to help them guess. For example, if a student can decode the word “cat,” they know that the sounds (phonemes) and their written symbol (grapheme) in that word are /k/ – c, /a/ – a, and /t/ – t. As students learn more sound-spellings and gain mastery of those already taught, students begin building the foundation for growth in reading.
It can be argued that the most notable teaching done in elementary school is teaching students HOW to learn. By giving students the tools to figure out words and approach text, we’re giving them the keys to learning, rather than just a handful of memorized words or strategies that might not work in all situations.
Example of scaffolding:
Step 1: CVC words, such as “sad”
I am sad.
Step 2: Adding blends that increase the length of a word, without changing the sounds needing to be learned, such as “sand”
Tim is sad in the sand.
Step 3: Adding in new sound-spellings like digraph combinations, such as in “shed”
I am sad that the sand next to the shed is wet.
Step 4: Adding in new rules, such as the long vowel switch when sneaky “e” is added to the end of a word, such as in the word “shade”
Let’s make a sandbox in the shade of the shed.
So, if students at a beginner reading level can decode simple words like “cat,” and we practice while gaining complexity in structure and phonics, they’ll have the base needed to tackle any text in the future. This type of incremental learning process, supported by decodable text, helps students become competent with what has been learned while gaining new pieces of the code.
2. Introduce Sight Words
“Sight words” has different definitions depending on the program or institution, but the most basic definition is that these are words recognized by sight and read automatically. The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to actually make all words automatic, but to do that, students need to map those words into their memory for easy retrieval.
Sight words can be high-frequency, meaning that they’re seen regularly or often within early text, but high-frequency words aren’t always sight words. Most often, sight words, as the term pertains to decodable books or programs, are words that have irregular spellings or cannot be decoded yet based on the skill level of the student. These tricky words need to be independently explained and introduced to help students read at an advanced level. As children learn more sight words, their reading fluency increases exponentially.
Basically, these words need to be explicitly taught, but for books to make sense, some words that cannot be decoded yet will still be included in most decodables. By explicitly teaching those words before reading, systematically adding them to books in small doses, and repeatedly practicing sight words in text (not isolation), students can effectively build a sight word vocabulary of automatic words.
It’s important to note that these words aren’t just memorized off a list but should be introduced to help students orthographically map the structure of each word.
3. Help Struggling Readers
Decodable books break down the complex process of reading into bite-sized steps that are easy to learn and practice. This is especially helpful for struggling readers since decodables provide students with an opportunity to apply the phonics lessons they’ve already learned in class, without running into too many obstacles.
The text is carefully controlled and designed to meet the student’s reading knowledge. Decodable books contain minimal words that children can’t independently decode. By removing the majority of obstacles often found in “early readers,” a purer practice of skills is provided in a decodable book.
That being said, educators do need to preview these books to ensure that meaning hasn’t been lost while making them decodable. Not all decodable books are created equally, and our struggling readers must have access to text that makes sense and carries an engaging storyline.
4. Give Students Confidence in Reading
Once students can sound out new words independently, they’ll start gaining confidence in their reading. With decodable books, students can experience reading success from the start, which develops a sense of self-belief that can create a foundation for future learning.
The structured literacy approach that promotes explicit teaching of grapheme-phoneme correlations and is based on the science of reading is not concerned with the acquisition of a few new words, but rather preparing beginner readers with essential sound-decoding tools. That means students can apply their learned skills to unfamiliar reading material and practice independent reading.
In short, if a child CAN read, they’ll feel safer and happier with the process, gaining confidence through success.
5. Improve Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension comes from being able to read with fluency and having a growing vocabulary of language comprehension. If a child reads with choppy decoding skills, this can hinder comprehension. If a child doesn’t have background knowledge or knowledge of the meaning of spoken words, that child won’t be able to attach meaning to a decoded word, rendering it simply a string of spoken sounds.
By ensuring that students can decode a book with ease and a scaffolded complexity of text, educators can use decodable books as a location to teach and practice actual comprehension of text being read BY the student. Rich read-alouds and discussions can help students gain language comprehension, but repeated practice of phonics to mastery within decodable books will increase automaticity, guaranteeing fluency. With fluency in decoding and background knowledge, students will be able to comprehend the text without facilitation from an educator.
6. Help Parents Support Their Child’s Reading Development
Parents who want to support their child’s learning with additional reading practice at home should definitely borrow or buy decodable books that correspond with classroom phonics lessons. This gives children a chance to practice their phonics skills through targeted reading practice.
Decodable books allow students to show parents and guardians what they’re learning in school. This provides a connection to the home, by informing loved ones of the skills being used and practiced, especially since those skills are more obvious and often labeled in a decodable book.
At the same time, students can also continue to practice sight words at home, being repeatedly exposed to and reminded of the structures of the sight words to help with orthographic mapping and automatic retrieval.
7. Teach Phonics in the Classroom
A phonics-based approach focuses on sound units as the building blocks of language. Teaching phonics helps children understand the relationship between written letters and their corresponding sounds.
Since decodable books are developed to follow scope and sequence, they can be easily integrated into classroom phonics lessons. Teachers can introduce or review phonics lessons and conduct small group instruction sessions with a decodable book for immediate practice, such as partner reading or whisper reading.
By conducting the paired phonics activity in class, teachers prepare students with the instructions they’ll need to sound out the text. This essential steppingstone helps support the students in their reading journey so they can practice their reading and decoding confidently.
Consider Using Decodable Books
Decodables let students use phonics skills and letter-sound relationships to read, teaching them that the relationship between phonics and reading is direct. These books are essential for beginning readers because they provide a strong foundation for using the alphabetic principle as the key strategy for reading.
By focusing on simple, easy-to-decode words, decodable books give children the skills and confidence they need to read more complex texts as they progress. So, whether you’re a teacher or a parent, consider incorporating decodable books into your child’s reading routine – you’ll be setting them up for success in school and beyond.