Decodable readers are a type of phonics-based text designed to help kids learn to read. They are effective because they gradually introduce the most common phonics sounds.
Some educators have been using decodable readers for a long time. Others have heard about the science of reading. The reading research supports systematic phonics instruction or introducing one phonics sound at a time. Educators who are aware of the science may wonder when to use decodable readers and when to use other types of texts.
Reading Elephant decodable readers start simple and gradually become more complex. Each series introduces a new phonics sound.
What are decodable readers?
Decodable readers gradually introduce the most common phonics sounds. There are about 44 phonetic units in English. After kids learn alphabet sounds (b as in bear, c as in cat… etc.) kids can start reading cvc (consonant-vowel-consonant) short a words like cat, mat, Sam.
Thus, the first decodable reader a child reads includes short a sentences like: “Sam ran to the cat.” Since the child has learned all the phonics sounds in the sentence, he can read “Sam ran to the cat” successfully.
Decodable readers introduce phonics sounds step-by-step or at least they should (surprisingly many don’t). But here’s a sample of how the phonics repertoire slowly increases through a decodable reader series:
- Introduce short a: Sam ran to the cat.
- Introduce short i: Sam and Tim sat on a big mat.
- Introduce short o: Sam, Tim and Tom can hop and jam.
- Introduce short u: Tom the pup had a big mat. He ran to it. He had a nap. ZZZzzz…
As you can see in the above text, in a decodable reader series, the child slowly learns new phonics sounds.
In contrast, other early reading books include a mix of random phonics sounds.
Since the child may not know all the phonics sounds in other early reading books, he’s not set up for success. Other early reading books include a haphazard assortment of word types. The child never gets a chance to master any of the phonics sounds. As a result, he may develop low reading confidence and identify with being a poor reader.
Some early reading books try to circumnavigate this problem by creating guessable text. By repeating the same phrase “Bob ran through the field. Bob ran through the forest. Bob ran through the garden… etc.” the child always knows what comes next. For the words that aren’t repeated (ex. field, forest, garden) there’s a picture to help him guess. But do these guessable, predictable texts actually develop reading skills?
Surprisingly, these texts not only don’t develop reading skills, but they instill poor reading habits: they create poor readers. The mere exposure to text is not beneficial enough to counter the negative effects of these guessable books.
Guessable books also make kids think reading is a guessing game. Predictable texts don’t encourage kids to decode sound-by-sound. Thus, kids never develop foundational reading skills in decoding and phonics.
Decodable readers don’t use guessable text. They don’t need to. Since decodables only use phonics sounds the child already knows, he can read words sound-by-sound.
With decodable readers, the child can master phonics sounds, practice, learn to blend a bit faster, and finally become a fluent, accurate reader.
My main criticism of decodable readers is that they don’t include the most common sight words. Many decodables can improve by gradually introducing sight words like, “again, people and different.”
With Reading Elephant decodable readers, I set out on a mission to gradually introduce phonics sounds as well as sight words.
That way, when kids are in 1st or 2nd grade and they are ready to transition off of decodable readers, they have some familiarity with and can read the 100 or so most common sight words.
What do you think? Should decodable readers slowly introduce sight words like would, could, kind and another? Would that change the definition of decodable readers? If so, how? Leave your thoughts in the comments.