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A Guide to Decodable Readers for Elementary Education

For many early readers, learning to read is not so simple. Struggling to sound out and comprehend words in a text can leave them confused and frustrated. Decodable books give early readers a place to practice their phonics skills easily and successfully by focusing on just a few speech sounds and letter-sound combinations at one time. 

I have developed this guide to help educational professionals – from teachers to superintendents – better understand what decodable books are and how they can improve children’s reading skills. Additionally, this guide will help teachers and other educators learn how to select and use decodable books to boost new readers’ skills and confidence.

A Guide to Decodable Readers for Elementary Education

What is a Decodable Book?

Decodable books are books that contain words mostly composed of letter-sound correspondences that students have already learned during instruction. At the beginning of the scope and sequence of skills, the sentences are often simple to allow students to comprehend every text they read. Decodables enable learners to decode words more easily, accurately, and without all the obstacles.

Practicing reading real words in context rather than memorizing words using tools like sight word lists or flashcards helps young readers master phonics. This increases fluency and accuracy, which helps students comprehend more complex texts.

What is a decodable book

What are Decodable Chapter Books?

Like all decodable texts, decodable chapter books differ from traditional storybooks and leveled texts. They focus on helping children master:

Decodable chapter books help children advance their reading skills quickly by introducing more challenging words and concepts as the reader progresses through the book. 

Often, these books are a way to reach older readers who still need the skill practice provided by decodable text, while not making them feel as though they are reading a childish book. These books allow them to practice like their peers while removing the higher-level phonics skills that they still need to learn or master. 

Do Decodable Readers Really Work?

The science behind decodable books requires more research to become highly evidence-based. However, a recent study found that phonics is the most reliable way to teach students how to decode words. In connection, children were more likely to apply their phonics knowledge more easily, read more accurately, and need less assistance when reading decodable books. 

Decodable texts are highly effective practice for early or struggling readers who are learning to sound out words. In one peer-reviewed study, it was found that students’ reading strategies were highly influenced by the type of text used for practice. This means that if the text is decodable, students are more likely to use sound-symbol relationships to read the words. If the books are not decodable, students are more prone to guessing or trying to predict the words in the text.

Wiley Blevins explained that “Students progress at a much faster rate in phonics when the bulk of instructional time is spent on applying the skills to authentic reading and writing experiences.” Other tools can be used to apply phonics to authentic reading such as blending lines, decodable sentences, and decodable passages, but the value of children feeling successful at reading an actual book often points towards decodable books as the strongest source of connection.

With the growing availability of decodable books, the possibilities for use are increasing, since many of the books now provide complete storylines and opportunities for comprehension practice and vocabulary acquisition. Although true decodable books have a specific place and practice for students, all books become “decodable” as students amass sound-spelling knowledge.

Can a Book Be "Fully Decodable"?

There is no such thing as a “fully decodable book.” The English language has over 44 unique speech sounds, or phonemes, and over 170,000 words currently in use. The speech sounds used in just the 100 most used English words are quite varied.

If books were “fully decodable,” there would not be a possibility of the story making sense. Some irregular words or words with phonics that have yet to be learned will always have to be included. However, texts should be as decodable as possible for early learners, without losing their meaning.

Decodability is measured as a percentage, based on the number of words and phonics combinations a student of that skill level has been taught. It depends on the scope and sequence with which phonics has been taught to the reader. The more decodable words a text contains for a specific student and their learned skills, the higher the decodability percentage. However, as reading ability improves and students are introduced to more phonetically complex texts, decodability decreases, and teachers may need to provide additional instruction to help students comprehend a text.

Decodability is not always consistent throughout a text. To ensure a student receives a text with high decodability, educators often choose to assign decodable books, rather than using more familiar books that might require students to read undefined words with unfamiliar letter-sound combinations.  

How to Select High-Quality Decodable Books

Here are some tips when selecting a decodable book:

How to Teach Using a Decodable Book

While decodable books are a very effective tool, it is important to remember that they are just one tool that educators should use to help students become successful readers. Here are some ways you can teach using decodable books effectively:

How to Use Decodable Book Sets for Young Readers

Decodable book sets introduce children to the basics of reading, so they become more confident and successful readers. These sets are made up of stories that only focus on a few sound-spellings at a time, allowing young learners to gain mastery over those sounds before moving on to the next book in the set.  

Decodable book sets are also effective starter kits for decodable libraries, which are collections of books that students can choose from containing the skills they are practicing to master. If a child has learned all basic letter sound-spellings, short vowels, and early blending, the section of the decodable library would be the CVC sets. A child can then have the option to choose their own book and still be able to read the words in that book.

Express Readers offers many types of book sets. These sets are categorized by grade level and skill level. Parents and educators should choose decodable books based on skill level to ensure their student receives the most successful reading instruction possible.

Below we have a list of highly recommended book sets to choose from:

The Many Benefits of Using Decodable Books

Decodable books, book sets, readers, and other texts can help students:

Should Parents Use Decodable Books to Teach Reading?

Parents, teachers, and educators all play a role in teaching children how to read, whether it is by allowing safe spaces to practice, encouragement when mistakes are made, or just a listening ear. By using decodable books both at school and home, educators and parents can reinforce a child’s reading education as a team, promoting the same strategies and consistent practice sources.

If a child is effectively learning to read in school, a parent will not have to teach using a decodable book, but by continuing practice at home, the mastery of instruction will come more readily. Also, some students may even experience less stress and frustration when practicing their reading skills at home, making the process more enjoyable. Parents or family members can reinforce what their young readers have learned in school by using decodable books at home, while providing encouragement and positive reinforcement for a child’s reading gains.

Parents are still strongly encouraged to read to their child as a way to continue developing background knowledge and comprehension skills, alongside allowing children to practice their own reading and decoding skills in decodable text.

What is the Difference Between Decodable Texts, Decodable Readers, and Decodable Books?

The short answer is that these are all variations of the same thing. Let us break each down to understand these differences in greater detail. 

Decodable Texts

Generally, any texts with words that a reader can read and sound out are considered decodable texts. This includes decodable readers, decodable passages, and decodable books. Decodable texts are composed of words that contain only the sounds and letters that have been taught up to that point in the instructional program.

Decodable texts are typically used in early literacy instruction to help children learn how to read and understand written language. Regular practice with decodable texts can help students become proficient readers and practice the skills that will help them read more complex material in the future.

Decodable Readers and Decodable Books

There is no difference between decodable readers and decodable books. Both readers and books contain words that can be decoded using phonics rules, allowing children to practice reading in a controlled environment. 

It is also important to note that the goal is to make all text eventually decodable for a reader.  When new words are introduced, if a student has the sound-spelling skills, the words can be decoded. Just don’t forget that just because text is decodable does not mean a person will be able to understand the content. Remember that although decoding is essential to the mechanics of reading, knowledge and vocabulary are crucial in order  to make sense of decoded words.  

Here Are a Few Great Examples of Decodable Book Sets

The collections of decodable books are growing, and with a scope and sequence in mind, educators can find quality decodable books from multiple authors and publishers. There are lists of decodable text sources given on sites such as The Reading League and IDA Ontario

Obviously, some sources will be higher-quality than others, so make sure to look carefully.  You can even get free samples from companies upon request, so make sure to ask!

There are other great sources of decodable texts, many of which are freely available online. You can find blending lines on multiple sites and decodable passages on Lexile Hub for Decodable Books.  No matter what you choose, just look carefully at the words included, identify the irregular spellings for children, and ensure you are finding decodable resources that align to your scope and sequence!

What is the Role of Predictable or Patterned Text within Decodable Readers?

Some early decodable readers may contain patterned text or repetition of words, but it is usually at the initial stages due to the limited availability of decodable words. In the case of decodable books, the words are not closely linked to a picture, requiring students to decode the differing word. Here is an example from the I Am Ready Express Readers decodable book set of how decodable text might have patterned text without being predictable:

Read on to understand more about predictable text and how it differs from decodable text.

What are Predictable Texts?

Predictable texts are often a version of leveled readers, not decodable books. They were developed to assist early readers in memorizing words and predicting, or guessing, words based on the context. By providing pictures to help guess unknown words, students can predict what words are in the text, rather than decoding or sounding them out. The books usually feature a repeated sentence on each page in which one word has been modified, and each sentence is paired with an image that provides a hint regarding the unknown word

Predictable texts push students to guess words based on clues about what comes next, repeating words and phrases throughout the work. Once young readers recognize the pattern, they start to anticipate what will come next, removing the need for reading the actual text.

For example, a predictable book may read as follows, with each sentence on a different page accompanied by a relevant image:

What is the Difference Between Decodable and Predictable Text?

Decodable texts are passages or books with which a child can use the knowledge of sound structures, learned phonics, and background knowledge to read. They are passages or books that do not require actual word strategies, but guessing based on what comes next or the picture provided. 

By learning to focus on decoding words themselves through the use of decodable books, rather than relying on patterns and pictures for context in predictable text, students attend to the actual text and words in the book. Students can also practice the reading skills and phonics structures that are learned during instruction.  

At What Point Does a Child No Longer Require Decodable Books?

Simply put: There is no exact or research-based answer. It depends on the needs of the student. Each child’s acquisition of skills and mastery of concepts is different. Students will reach a point at which they no longer need to use defined decodable books once they learned most of the sound-spellings. 

Educators use decodable books because they:

Generally, once your student has mastered phonics skills and can read 80-90% of the words in a text with accuracy and comprehension, they are ready to move on to more complex texts. As children progress in their reading ability, they will be able to read more complex stories that are not already broken down into smaller words and sounds or controlled based on specific phonics rules. 

When students are ready for increased complexity in text, they will show increased accuracy with learned skills. Educators can also begin to provide less controlled text for students if they preview and map words that cannot be decoded by the student yet. 

If educators preview higher-level phonics or words with irregular patterns with students, they can model the strategies that will help students identify, map, and retain new words for themselves as they become proficient readers.

Are There Alternatives to Decodable Readers?

The simple answer is “no.” Decodable passages and disconnected decodable sentences can be used to practice phonics and sound structures in context, but there is no alternative for a book with this type of practice. There are, however, multiple ways to USE decodable books. Here are just a few:

To Sum Up

So, there you have it. This guide includes all the information you need to get started with decodable books. Decodable books are an essential part of any early reading curriculum. They provide readers with opportunities to practice their phonics knowledge in a controlled – but authentic – space and help them learn to love reading through consistent success. 

Visit our website to learn more about our curriculum, download free resources, and shop books.

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