Teaching Reading / By Monique Nowers

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Decodables are books designed to facilitate the development of decoding skills in the early stages of learning to read. Many educators are talking about decodables, but there is a lot of misunderstanding and, dare I say, even misinformation out there as to what decodables are and how it is suggested they should be used. Hopefully this piece will shed some light, and by the end of it you will better understand:

  • why many think that decodables are important to the successful teaching of reading
  • how it is suggested that they should be used
  • whether children should only be allowed to read decodables
  • when to transition to regular books
  • whether books that claim to be ‘decodable’ are decodable
  • and, the main difference between UK and American publications at this time

Introduction & Definition

In a previous article I explained that English is a phonics-based writing system, in fact, I described it as an ‘alphabetic code’ and that assertion might have prompted someone to say…

“If that’s true, then surely it follows that all English books must be decodable?”

To which I would have to agree, because it’s true, all English books are decodable, but there’s an important caveat there if you think about it…anything that is “decodable” is only decodable if the person who’s meant to read it has first been taught all of the necessary code.

To think of it another way, remember being back in school when you may have shared coded notes with friends. The whole premise was that only the children with whom you had shared the code that you’d invented would be able to read your notes… and the same goes for anything that is decodable, anything written in code, needs someone who can read the code.

It’s the READERS

So, when we talk about “decodable” books, we’re not so much talking about the books, as we are talking about the readers of those books because whether a book is decodable is really defined by what the reader has been taught or even more precisely…what the reader has learned. It is what the reader knows that determines whether a book is decodable.

Scope & Sequence

If we then extend that thought, it follows that, for a series of books to be decodable, they or more precisely, how you use them, must match the scope and sequence of your phonics teaching and it may surprise you to learn that not all phonics programmes have the same scope or sequence.

The scope, or contents of a phonics programme consists largely of the direct teaching of what are called Grapho-Phonemic-Correspondences or GPCs. These are the bits of code; spellings that represent speech sounds. There are literally hundreds of GPCs in written English, ranging from the very commonly used to the totally obscure, however, it is generally agreed that there are around 70 very common GPCs and 176 common GPCs that the average child is likely to encounter. Programmes vary as to how many of these are directly taught.

Programme authors also need to determine the sequence in which the selected GPCs are taught. The guiding principle is to move from simple to complex. We start with simple sound-spelling relationships that are easy to learn and that lend themselves to building as many words as possible that are likely to be in a child’s oral language vocabulary. However, decoding isn’t just about knowing the sound-spelling relationships. It also requires a child to be able to blend one speech sound into another, so authors might also favour starting with sounds that are easier to blend for beginner readers. While authors will use the latest research and evidence to inform these judgements, there is always a subjective element to the final decision – the consequence being that different programmes will have different sequences of instruction. You need to be aware of these differences if you are to ensure that your pupils are only asked to read what they’ve been taught how to decode.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine children in two different schools being taught using different programmes. The first school starts by teaching the sounds represented by s,a,t,i,m, while the second school starts with s,a,t,p. Both are perfectly valid, and the differences are slight. However, at the end of that first phase of teaching, books that are decodable by children in the first school are not decodable, yet, to the children in the second, and indeed, vice versa. So, if you are a teacher in one of the schools who wants to use a set of books structured according to the programme used by the other, then you may need to make some adjustments which in practice means waiting until the children have been taught all the code they need in order to read the book.

What I hope you will also take from this is, while you might understandably choose to only use books that exactly match the programme that you use, you absolutely CAN use books written according to a different scope/sequence so long as you bear the main principle in mind and organise and issue those books according to your teaching sequence.

Why do many think that decodables are so important to the successful teaching of reading? 

First of all, we should note that phonics is far more than just learning the letter-sound relationships. It is also about being able to use that knowledge fluently while reading and writing and so it is vital to provide children with sufficient opportunity to practise using their newly gained knowledge. But why don’t we just teach children their phonics, practise within the lesson, and then let them read some regular books?

There are a several reasons why structured practice within the context of a decodable book is so powerful.

First of all, books are fabulous. This is where you must imagine you are a four- or 5-year-old in early education. Hopefully, from day one in school, books have become a joyous part of your school experience; your teacher will be reading enthralling stories from books, and the adults in your life will be sharing many more wonderful books with you.

So, just imagine when you, as an excited early reader, are given your own book to read and, using what you’ve been taught, you find that you can actually read it by yourself. Just imagine the affirmative power of that! Because I must tell you something, children know when they are not really reading, they know when they are guessing what the print means, or when they are reciting from memory. And while reciting, for example, absolutely has its rightful place in a child’s education, the feeling of being able to independently read your own book, using the knowledge and skills that you have been taught is uniquely empowering and exhilarating.

Which is a critical point, that is the child using what they have been taught and being successful at it. It is crucial that our young learners are set up for success. Success, as you will likely know from personal experience, is incredibly empowering and motivating, which leads us to the next great reason we use decodable books…

What we need to happen is that the child, or indeed any learner reader, establishes decoding as their primary word-identification strategy, and this will only happen if they achieve success in doing so. If we give children books that are beyond their current ability to decode then they have no other option but to guess at words they cannot read. Doing this is akin to directly teaching them phonics in the lesson but then indirectly telling them that what they have learned doesn’t work, or worse, that they are no good at using it. It’s no wonder that, faced with undecipherable text, guessing becomes the strategy of choice for our most vulnerable learners. And as any specialist reading tutor can tell you, one of the greatest impediments to making progress in reading is the failure to establish this decoding habit not least because every guess is a lost opportunity to practise decoding and improve fluency.

Setting up for success is the primary reason decodables are so important but the other great advantage of any well-written series of decodable books is their cumulative nature. In the phonics lesson, you are usually focussed on the new code to be taught. However, in their decodable book, the children don’t just practise the most recently learned code but revisit and build on everything that has come before. The quality of a decodable book series will depend not only on the talent of the author but also how skilfully the books build on several strands of increasingly complex content:

  • At the GPC level this means that at first, children will only be introduced to single letters representing a single sound but as they progress they will learn that some spellings, which could now comprise more than one letter, might represent several different sounds and vice versa, that sounds are often represented by different spellings.
  • A beginner reader is also a beginner blender of sounds. Decoding requires you to identify the sound being represented and to then blend that into the next sound. This can be hard at first, especially when even the code knowledge is new, so the first words a child is asked to read should have a very simple VC or CVC structure. As decoding skills develop, more complex, harder to pronounce words can be introduced and at some point multisyllable words will also appear. A good progression might be:
  1. CVC – for example, ‘sit’ or ‘top’
  2. CVCC – final consonant clusters (e.g. lamp) are easier for beginners
  3. CCVC – e.g. frog – initial consonant clusters are harder
  4. CCVCC – e.g. stamp
  • You will also notice the number of words on a page increasing. At first, our beginner readers might only be reading one or two words on a page, but this will soon expand to simple phrases and sentences, and then onto ever more complex sentence structures, mirroring perhaps what is being learned in grammar, writing and other literacy related lessons.
  • One would also expect to see elements of morphology being introduced in a thoughtful and structured way. Morphology refers to the smallest units of meaning within words for example, prefixes, suffixes, root words, and so on, and an understanding of morphology is important for reading, writing and vocabulary. One of the first elements that might be introduced are -ed past participle verb endings – they are always spelled the same, with an -e and d, but have 3 different pronunciations. For example, ‘wanted’ (/id/), played (/d/) and stopped (/t/).
  • The last, but certainly not the least strand I’ll expand on here, is that each decodable book will likely also introduce or revise a limited number of ‘common exception words’. These are words that we use a lot, are very helpful to include in our writing, but that may contain GPCs that are rare or simply haven’t been taught yet. Obvious examples include ‘the’, ‘said’, ‘was’, ‘I’, and so on. Some programmes refer to such words as ‘tricky’ words although I know many dislike this ‘characterisation’ as these words are often very easy to decode. What makes them tricky is simply that, to enable more interesting reading and writing, they are being introduced out of the code teaching sequence. A typical example is the word ‘like’ which is often introduced early. It might seem tricky to children who haven’t yet learned about e-controlled vowels, but once they have learned this, ‘like’ and all other words that share this sound-spelling pattern become easily decodable.

We always need to be mindful of what each book is demanding of its readers and decodable authors need to be judicious in choosing which exception words to include and when.

Only decodables?

Next, we should deal with an issue around which there is the most misinformation. Does the assertion that the use of decodables is important to children’s reading development mean that children should only be allowed access to decodable books?  

Well, the answer to that is the most emphatic NO possible. Your classroom, or your home if you can, should be humming with stories and rich language and lots and lots of glorious books that you read aloud to and share with your pupils. And children should have ready access to those books. So if, for example, you are reading The Gruffalo to the class and a child wants to ‘read’ the book for themselves, which, if you’ve been doing it justice, they might even be able to recite a lot of, of course you should let them do that, that’s wonderful.

The point about decodables, is that, in the early stages of learning to read, children should only be expected to INDEPENDENTLY read, books that they can decode.

In the meantime, children should have access to and be sharing all manner of interesting books with the adults (and children) around them. They should be read to, A LOT, and they should read with more able readers as much as possible.

As a practical example, children could take two books home from school, one that the teacher is confident that they can accurately decode for themselves and can proudly read out loud to their parent or carer, and another to share or simply have read to them.

This is crucial, not only because we want children to be as excited about books as possible but also because books have a richness of vocabulary and language use that is often missing from more day-to-day verbal interactions. In fact, it should go without saying by now that all phonics teaching should be embedded in classrooms that are bursting with stories, experiences, and all manner of oral language enrichment. As any phonics advocate will tell you, this too, is vital to successful reading development, however, so is learning your phonics, practising your phonics, and becoming an independent user of phonic knowledge.

So which books should you buy?

Let’s imagine that we are going shopping for decodable books – what do we need to be aware of? In the UK we are in a fortunate position. The teaching of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) has been prominent since the mid 2000s, at which point there were already some well-established programmes available. Since then, many other excellent programmes have been developed and even the government published its own phonics programme framework. The point being, that publishers wishing to cater to the growing demand for decodables had many good and reputable programmes to align their books with. The result is that if you look at any educational book supplier’s catalogue, or go onto any bookseller’s website, you will find a wide choice of books which clearly set out the programme and progression they were written to follow and so, most of the books we might buy here in the UK, either as teachers or as parents or tutors, are likely to be pretty good.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell, the situation in the US is very different. Please, my American friends, don’t be offended at what I have to say here, there absolutely are some great decodable books available in the United States (not least the American English versions from some UK-based publishers) but the market there has been flooded with some truly dreadful offerings. Some of these seem genuine attempts at writing what they think a decodable is at least, however, it is clear that many have merely added a few phonic flourishes and then rebranded their balanced-literacy levelled readers. Sadly, this includes many from prominent education publishers.

Ignoring the worst examples for the moment, most of the American decodables that I have seen, do not follow a progression as I would understand it. Instead, they often have a themed or ‘focus’ approach. For example, a set might be said to focus on what many call ‘short vowel sounds’ while another set focusses on ‘long vowels’ or ‘magic E’. While some of these books might be useful in certain limited situations, they lack the multi-layered progression that I have described well-written decodables as having.

Additionally, there often appears to be no thought given as to what code or common exception words the children need to have been taught before they read the books. This is easy to spot because such books list neither the code assumed, nor the exception words included. However, even when these are listed there may be problems; one “decodable” book I’ve seen, which is aimed at very early readers, does list all the words it deems to be “challenging” (although it omits to mention the code knowledge necessary) with the instruction that these words should be learned, by sight, before reading the book. These include:

again, around, birthday, colourful, flies, growls, missed, orange, outside, pretend, purple, rainbow, real, school, spell, treat, waits, yellow

I hope you can understand just how ridiculous this list is and how badly such a book fails to meet the definition of a decodable book for early learners.

By the way, in case my British and other readers are feeling too comfortable, a note of caution…we have started to see some American publishers of such misbranded ‘decodables’ targeting UK schools with British English versions of their books.  Some of them look great on the surface but when you scratch underneath you can see how poor they are. Sadly, as ever, it will be your most vulnerable readers who are most adversely affected by such poor material. So, if you are planning to buy a set of decodables, find out what scope & sequence they’ve been written to match and consider how well they satisfy the criteria set out above. And if you are not sure, get some advice. Books are expensive so you really want to choose well. Twitter might be a good place to ask.

How to use in the classroom

Let’s now assume that you’ve bought some fabulous decodables – I am going to briefly mention how you might use them.

First of all, new code should not be introduced via the decodables; they are for consolidating knowledge and cumulative practice. In fact, children should ideally be given books that lag, at least a little, behind what they have been taught and you should be confident that your pupils are comfortable with their new knowledge before they are asked to independently read a book that includes it.

In many schools, phonics is taught in a whole-class setting and all children are given the same decodable book to take home. However, as with any subject, some children will find learning to decode harder than others. If you want to issue the same book to everyone you should then support such children by making time for them to practise reading their decodable with a teacher or teaching assistant before they take it home. But remember, if a child cannot independently decode a book, then that book, by definition, is not decodable, and some children will very likely benefit from being given books from an earlier level.

When teaching one to one, you have a lot more flexibility. For example, you could flip everything and use the decodable books to structure your teaching rather than the other way around. So, if you have sourced a great series of well-written, high-interest books for example, you can match your teaching to the sequence of the books. Just keep the basic principles in mind and always make sure that you have pre-taught all of the code necessary to read each book to ensure that the child can be successful.

Transition to ‘regular’ books

We’ve covered what decodables are and how to use them, but that leaves the big question of when to transition on to so-called ‘regular’ books, by which I mean books written to entertain or educate without regard to any constraints other than, perhaps, a target age or interest group.

I rather like the saying that decodable books are a bridge to reading, not the destination – which I think is a great way of illustrating where decodables sit in the big picture of learning to read. However, I would personally extend this metaphor because the destination, of course, remembering what I said at the beginning of this episode, is to make ALL books decodable to the children that we teach, which is important to bear in mind when we think about the transition to regular books.

Wind or wind?

In reality, this is much less of an issue than I sometimes see it depicted as. Remember that a well-designed series of decodables will have been increasing in complexity from the beginning. While they might do this in small steps, good phonics programs progress quickly, and very soon, children will be making innumerable decisions as they read as to which of a number of possible sounds a spelling might represent; is it tear or tear, wind or wind  for example.  Thus, although they may not have been taught to use pictures and context to guess the identity of words they will be adept at using contextual clues to choose the correct sound for each spelling, and it is this that English writing demands. In other words, the more adept children become at decoding, the more regular books become decodable to them.

Tear or tear?

Some children will be ready to move on very quickly indeed – these are the children to whom phonics comes easily. They rapidly become fluent and can recognise and assimilate new code almost effortlessly. They have achieved the goal of making all books decodable. That said, they will still benefit from (not be harmed or held back by) having a decodable book from a well-structured series to read because it will help consolidate the code, morphological and grammar knowledge needed for good spelling and writing. However, they will also need to be independently reading plenty of other reading material.

Be careful though; there will be children who appear to be good readers, indeed they may even have started school labelled as ‘readers’, who in reality have inadequate decoding skills for long-term success. Typically, these children have memorised some high frequency ‘sight words’ and are successful predictors when ‘reading’ books that are designed to support this. You need to know your individual pupils well enough to identify such children because their progression will be harmed if guessing is inadvertently encouraged by side-lining decodables too early in favour of so-called ‘real’ books. Keep in mind that many of the other reading books that schools have, by which I mainly mean books from other types of reading schemes (the sort of ‘banded’ books that so many schools have), are just as ‘contrived’ as some people accuse decodables as being. Because, in the same way that decodables are designed to ensure the child meets success in decoding, these other books are designed to encourage, support and embed guessing. The point being that the child who becomes a successful guesser within the confines of such easily predictable books has nowhere to transition to – regular books just aren’t written like that.

So, transition isn’t a set-piece or fixed point. Over time, as decoding skills and habits are established, and children become more fluent, they will be able to independently read more of the regular books, or comics or magazines etc. that they might encounter. If a child appears to be struggling to transition to regular books then the problem isn’t the ‘transition’, the problem is that the child isn’t decoding well enough yet and needs more time and support in doing so. Again however, this does not mean limiting their access to other books, it just means we shouldn’t be expecting them to independently read them yet.

Ok, you might be relieved to know that that’s it. I do hope that you feel that you’ve learned something, but if you only remember a couple of over-arching principle it’s that, when we talk about “decodable” books, we are really talking about the readers of those books and of course, that our objective is to make all books decodable to all children.

I would be delighted to answer any questions you might have, Twitter is probably the best place where I can be found as @govtutor but you can also email me at monique@howtoteachreading.org.uk