What Are Decodable Books and Why Are They Important?

Kindergarten child using finger to guide reading

Decodable books play an important role in phonics instruction and building confidence in young readers. Learn more about decodable books, how they differ from predictable texts, and how to select high-quality texts that align with the scope and sequence of your phonics program.

Decodable books are simple books that are written for the beginning reader and contain the specific grapheme–phoneme correspondences students have learned. This provides learners with the opportunity to use their developing segmenting and blending skills to read words in order to develop automaticity, or the ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly, and experience independent reading success.

Decodable books encourage children to sound out words using decoding strategies rather than guessing from pictures or predicting from other cues. They can be introduced once beginning readers have learned some simple grapheme–phoneme correspondences and can blend from left to right.

All books and text are ‘decodable’ in the sense that they can be read, but only if the reader has sufficient reading ability for the complexity of the text. For beginning readers, the only books that are truly decodable are those that contain the alphabetic code they have learned.

The type of reading material we first give to students sets their ‘reading reflex’ — the habit of using knowledge of letter–sound relationships as the first strategy for reading unfamiliar words. Decodable readers that enable students to ‘sound out,’ rather than guess, unknown words develop this reflex and lead to more successful independent reading. Mesmer (2005) found that children were more likely to apply their phonics knowledge, read more accurately, and needed less assistance when reading decodable books.

Of course, decodable texts are not the only texts to be included in the beginning reader’s diet. Teachers and parents should read high quality children’s literature that contains more complex vocabulary and sentence structures with students every day. This gives children the opportunity to hear good reading models, as well as develop the vocabulary and syntax that will support their reading development.

About decodable books

Decodable books are sequential in nature and build phonic knowledge gradually, allowing students the opportunity to practice grapheme–phoneme correspondences and quickly build their confidence and ability to read connected text. Decodable readers, unlike predictable or repetitive ‘leveled’ texts, minimize the inclusion of grapheme–phoneme correspondences or high-frequency words children have not been taught. Leveled texts are organized according to formulas that been found to be mostly ineffective at predicting ease of readability (Begeny & Greene, 2014).

Beginning decodable books contain words that are simple in structure such as VC and CVC words, and progressively introduce words with more complex structures. Providing children with opportunities to read successfully and relatively independently as soon as they can is highly motivating for beginning readers.

Simple text and full-color illustrations from a decodable reader about a teddy bear

A sample page from Red Ted from the InitiaLit readers series.

Some students will move through the sequence of decodable books quickly whereas other students, such as those who are at risk of reading difficulties, will take longer to develop automaticity and fluency with simple text. Once the alphabetic principle is secure and children have acquired a sufficient level of phonics to independently and successfully decode unfamiliar words, other books can be introduced for reading practice (Explainer: what’s the difference between decodable and predictable books, and when should they be used?).

Cheatham and Allor (2012) examined seven high-quality peer-reviewed studies and found decodability to be a “critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly in regard to accuracy.” They also highlighted the need for students to apply phonics skills in connected text and found that decodable text positively impacts early reading progress.

Decodable books are sometimes criticized for having a limited vocabulary and simple storyline. This is sometimes true, as it is equally true of predictable or ‘leveled’ texts. However, comparisons of decodable and other leveled texts (Dixon, 2016) show that some decodable books have more vocabulary variety.

The purpose of decodable readers is to develop phonological decoding skills, and this is the focus of the text construction. As children master more of the alphabetic code and progress through a series of decodable books, the vocabulary and story structure become more sophisticated.

The simplicity of the text in decodable books has been found to be motivating for students, and to encourage them to read more widely. In a study by Capper (2013), children reported enjoying reading decodable books and saw them “as a source of exciting stories which developed their reading confidence through practicing their skills”.

Decodable vs. predictable text

Decodable texts are different to predictable or repetitive texts. Predictable texts are early readers that contain repetitive words and sentences. Predictable texts have their foundations in the three cueing systems model of reading. The three cueing model has significant disadvantages for weak or at risk readers.

Predictable texts have been designed so that beginning readers have to rely heavily on contextual guessing to read many of the words that are on the page. They contain more complex words with grapheme–phoneme correspondences that the students have not been taught.

Watch: What’s wrong with predictable or repetitive texts?

Speech and language pathologist Alison Clarke explains the problems with repetitive text and how they compare to decodable texts. To adults, predictable texts look very simple, but let’s take a look at them from a child’s perspective. (From Spelfabet)

Comparing decodable text to predictable text

This example of a decodable book uses single grapheme–phoneme correspondences that all represent common single phonemes. The words used are predominantly regular three letter CVC words with simple vowel phonemes.

The predictable text, which is aimed at children with similar reading experience, uses more complex vowel phonemes such as /ea/, the vowel-r phoneme /ir/ as in dirty, the split-vowel digraph /i-e/, and ‘y’ representing a vowel as in happy or dirty.

The decodable text uses single letter grapheme–phoneme correspondences that all represent one phoneme, but the predictable text uses digraphs such as /ck/, /wh/, the L-controlled vowel sound for ‘a’ as in smalland the letter ‘s’ that represents two phonemes — /s/ as in silly and /z/ as in is and dogs.

The decodable text uses single syllable words of no more than three letters, but the predictable text uses several two-syllable words made up of up to five letters.

Both decodable and predictable texts often contain a number of words that cannot be decoded easily at the early stages of reading, but are needed to be able to create meaningful sentences. Words such as said, was, or the are often included and introduced to beginning readers to be learned as whole words or ‘sight words’. However, decodable books are careful to limit the number of these words so that children are not relying on guessing as their primary strategy.

Decodable Text Predictable Text

The Hen, the Dog and the Pig

The hen, the dog and the pig sat in the mud.

The hen and the dog did a jig in the mud.

The dog and the hen had fun.

The pig got mud on his hat.

The pig got mad at the dog and the hen.

Dogs

This is a big dog.

This is a small dog.

This is a black dog.

This is a white dog.

This is a clean dog.

This is a dirty dog.

This is a sad dog.

This is a happy dog.

Vowels: short-vowel phonemes e, o, i, a, u

Grapheme–phoneme correspondences: h, n, d, g, p, s, m, t, j, f

Three-letter words

Single-syllable words

1-, 2-, and 3-letter words with simple CVC structure

Vowels: long- and short-vowel phonemes

Grapheme–phoneme correspondences: b, g, d, p, c, h, s, m, l, t, ck, wh, ea, ir, i-e, 

L-controlled vowel sound for ‘a’ as in small

‘s’ representing /z/ as in is

‘y’ representing /ē/ as in happy

Split-vowel digraphs

One- and two-syllable words

1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words with more complex structures such as CCVC, V-Ce

Selecting high-quality decodable books

Here are things to look for when selecting decodable books for use in your school’s reading program:

  • The sequence of grapheme–phoneme correspondences through the series of books is clearly outlined and this must be matched to the scope and sequence implemented in phonics instruction in the school.

  • The target grapheme–phoneme correspondences (GPC) should appear often throughout the text. Some poor quality decodable books have very few examples of the target GPC.

  • Text that is continuous and includes correct grammar and punctuation.

  • Early readers should contain only one sentence to a page and then progress to more text as the readers gain more experience.

  • Any ‘tricky’ words are noted for teachers so they can be discussed with beginning readers prior to reading the text to minimize potential confusion.

  • Use of tricky words is minimized so that the primary strategy is decoding using phonic knowledge rather than guessing words in context.

Learn more

Watch: Decodables, Predictables, and Authentic Texts

In this presentation by Dr. Tanya Serry of La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia), you’ll learn about the why, when, how, and why not of using these different types of texts with students who are learning to read.

References

Begeny, J.C. and Greene, D.J. (2014) Can Readability Formulas Be Used to Successfully Gauge Difficulty of Reading Materials? Psychology in the Schools, 51: 198-215. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21740

Capper, E. Children’s perceptions of wider reading: to what extent do 7- and 8-year-old children read beyond the scheme books? Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education
Volume 41 (2013) Issue 1. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2012.710104

Cheatham, J.P., Allor, J.H. (2012) The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: a review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25, 2223–2246 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-011-9355-2

Dixon, B. (2016) What happened to the ‘D’ word? LDA Bulletin, Volume 48, No. 3, 28-29. Spring 2016.

Mesmer, H.A.E. (2005) Text Decodability and the First-grade Reader, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 21:1, 61-86 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1080/10573560590523667

About the author

Thank you to Five From Five for permission to publish this article on Reading Rockets. Five From Five is a project based in Australia whose mission is to provide effective, evidence-based reading instruction, by providing free resources to teachers, principals and parents and advocating for evidence-based policy with politicians and policy makers.

Five From Five (2022)

Reprints

You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.

Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo