When your child is first learning to read, you’ll likely be on the lookout for engaging, age-appropriate reading materials to practice with.
Decodable books are a type of reading material that allows young or struggling readers to hone their phonics skills by exposing them to a selection of letter-sound correspondences that they’ve already learned through explicit teaching.
“No matter what, you have to meet a student where their skills are at,” says Laura Appleton-Smith, founder of Flyleaf Publishing, a press that specializes in decodable books. “Decodable texts are decodable because the reader has been taught with the letter-sound correspondence that allows them to understand the speech sound that the letter or letters in combination make.”
As children practice associating the symbols of the alphabet with their corresponding sounds, they gradually learn to decode the patterns used to write words.
When used properly, decodable books are the best way for readers to practice their phonics skills, says Linda Farrell, one of the founding partners of Readsters, a company that provides consulting services on research-based reading instruction.
If you have a child who’s beginning to read, here’s what to know about decodable books and how to incorporate them into your child’s reading list.
What Are Decodable Books?
Decodable books aim to develop the skill of decoding, or the process by which readers use their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to recognize words. Readers with strong decoding skills can effortlessly identify a word’s pronunciation.
At first, readers must strengthen this skill by sounding out each individual letter, says Louisa Moats, a researcher and expert in literacy education. “Reading doesn’t take place by laborious sounding out — laborious sounding out is a stepping stone to being able to read words as wholes,” she says.
Farrell adds that it’s particularly important that they do so without using any context clues, such as pictures.
Decodable books give students the opportunity to recognize and practice the letter and sound pairings they’ve been explicitly taught, either through classroom or at-home instruction. Usually, these texts come as part of a series of books that grow more complex as the reader progresses — for example, early books in a given series might focus on short words consisting of a consonant-vowel-consonant sequences, like “bed” and “tap,” while later books will include a richer variety of sounds and letters.
Unlike other texts designed for early readers, such as leveled books, decodable books try to avoid letter-sound pairings that are unfamiliar to the reader. Appleton-Smith and Farrell both note, however, that it’s impossible to avoid certain words, particularly high-frequency words that aren’t always spelled the way they’re pronounced. (For instance, “said” and “who” are common but irregularly spelled.)
Moats says it’s important to make sure that children have already been taught the letters and sounds in a given decodable text before having them practice reading with it. A child who’s only learned to read short “a” and a handful of consonants will not be able to decode words like “boat” or “drawing,” for instance.
Just because the vocabulary and sentence structure are simple doesn’t mean the stories themselves have to be boring, Appleton-Smith says. When writing a decodable text, Appleton-Smith says she follows the same narrative arc and structure that an author would for any other children’s story.
How to Use Decodable Books
Decodable books aren’t meant to be the only literature in a child’s reading routine. Farrell says you should also continue to read other, richer and more complex children’s books with your child, while using decodable books to have them practice what they already know.
And Moats adds that decodable books are not particularly useful on their own — they’re a supplement, not a substitute, for formal reading instruction.
“If parents are eager to buy decodable books thinking that just having their kids practice those is going to do the job of teaching them to read, that’s a little bit misleading,” Moats says.
She encourages parents to check in with their child’s teacher to understand what phonics skills are being taught. That way, you can get a better idea of which decodable books are right for your child at their current stage in learning how to read.
You don’t necessarily have to wait on your child to learn these things in class either — Appleton-Smith says her books also come alongside instructional information that allows parents to help train their children with a brief lesson before diving into the actual story. And after the child finishes reading the story aloud, Farrell encourages parents to talk with their child about the book and engage in conversation, to help the child feel engaged in the reading process.
“The most important thing a parent can do is give their children wonderful experiences with good stories and develop conversation around those stories,” Farrell says.
A List of Decodable Books
If you’re looking for the right decodable books to share with your young reader, here’s a brief list of resources to get you started:
— The Sizzy Books Fun Phonic series features several free decodable books that can be downloaded online.
— Flyleaf Publishing’s Emergent Reader Series is geared toward students from pre-K through first grade, but can also be used with older students who are struggling to develop decoding skills.
— Continental Press’ Early Phonics Readers series is focused on teaching short vowel sounds to children from pre-K to first grade.
— Jolly Learning publishes several decodable readers in its Jolly Phonics catalog.
— The Supercharged Readers series published by Sopris West consists of decodable chapter books for children in first and second grade, or for older children in need of intervention.
— The Phonic Readers from the Australian nonprofit Specific Learning Difficulties South Australia are geared toward Aboriginal students and available online for free.
— Though they’re not quite decodable, the team behind Readsters recommends High Noon Sound Out Chapter Books for older struggling readers to sharpen their decoding skills.
— All About Learning Press publishes multiple series of decodable books for children of various age groups.
More from U.S. News