Decodables - they're a thing, right?

By Sarah Handscomb

Educator Sarah Handscomb discusses her experience of the transformative power of Systematic Synthetic Phonics instruction

Much of my time working in reading intervention has been supporting students, frequently teaching mainstream education to boys in middle and upper primary years, and teaching disengaged students in special educational settings. Virtually every student had internalised feelings of worthlessness, and regarded themselves as being unintelligent because they couldn’t read. Often they would close the door into the classroom so that others wouldn’t hear their first tentative steps in learning to read.

The other side of this coin is – and here’s the thing – this is all largely preventable. A major UK review (The Rose Report, 2006) concluded in favour of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) as having the strongest evidence base for early reading instruction, an outcome that resulted in the mandated teaching of SSP and the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check in England. Decodable readers have an important role to play in effective evidence-based instruction for all students. There is not a moment to lose!

Over the years, similar observations from parents have highlighted the transformation that takes place as their children learn to read after getting access to decodable texts that they can read for themselves.

The science of reading

High-quality Systematic Synthetic Phonics instruction is underpinned by the cognitive science of how children learn to read and spell. The role of the teacher is to explicitly ‘unlock’ the code in a logical and sequential way. Children need lots of practice to apply their developing knowledge and code-breaking skills.

Decodable readers have a critical role to play in supporting children to learn to read from a Science of Reading approach. As Professor Pamela Snow (La Trobe University) describes it:

"By contrast, the peer-reviewed, highly regarded, and widely accepted cognitive-science-based Simple View of Reading holds that decoding is a far more specific skill that refers to the reader’s ability to use phonics knowledge to derive        phonemes (sounds) from graphemes (letters and letter combinations that represent them). In the case of decodable readers, this skill refers to the early novice period, but decoding is a skill that continues to be important across the lifespan." - The Snow Report, Friday 2 November, 2018

Phonics knowledge

The English alphabetic code is complex, although surprisingly logical. Letters are visual representations of the sounds we hear. Our written English code has evolved with increasing complexity for the 44 phonemes (sounds) in our spoken language. Experts suggest that there are up to 300 spellings of the 44 sounds.

For example, consider the sound /ee/ – there are 10 different spellings, as found in keep, seat, me, funny, key, eve, chief, receive, variation, people. There are many words that beginner readers need to be able to read that have the alternative spellings for sounds (complex code) in them. High-quality SSP phonics instruction will explicitly teach code knowledge from simple to complex, and provide students with plenty of exposure to decodable texts, to enable them to practise their skills at reading and spelling.

Considerations for selection of decodable readers

To maximise reading instruction, it is essential that decodable readers follow a clearly defined scope and sequence that supports sequential reading. Teachers need to be aware that different series of decodable readers may follow a different sequence of instruction. The risk of not following a logical and systematic sequence is that children can become confused and frustrated, which can lead to disengagement from reading. Prevention is better than cure.

Here are some additional considerations:

  • Are the letter–sound correspondences clearly and logically mapped to a scope and sequence from simple to complex – for example, starting with short, single-syllable 3-sound consonant, vowel, consonant (CVC) words?
  • Do the decodable readers being used in the room and/or sent home for home reading match up with the explicit teaching of code knowledge covered in the classroom?
  • What is the amount of text on a page?
  • How many alternative spellings of the graphemes are there in the reader?
  • Are there a few high-frequency words (words that appear frequently in the language) included for children to learn, but that children have not yet been taught to decode, such as ‘the’, ‘is’ ‘was’?
  • Are the take-home readers able to be decoded by students?
  • Have parents been fully informed about ways to help their child? These suggestions include encouraging them to read a wide variety of texts with their child to develop vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension skills.

Decodable texts in the classroom

Knowing where your students are on their reading journey is an important consideration and allows the teacher to match the decodable reader to each student’s current skill level. This will support students to develop automaticity in reading. Decodable texts can be used with:

  • choral reading
  • speed reading
  • sound search
  • partner search
  • partner reading
  • comprehension tasks teaching about concepts of print and grammar
  • teaching syntax, to support teaching of comprehension skills
  • dictation of sentences
  • assessment of spelling
  • assessment of comprehension
  • assessment of fluency (timed).

There is an increasing range of materials available from publishers to meet the increasing demand for a range of decodable readers, both fiction and non-fiction. There are also commercial schemes making some materials free to support schools and parents during remote learning.

Learning to read is a complex task, and is not innate – unlike speaking, which we are wired to do. The use of decodable readers is an important aspect of reading instruction for all students, for a short period of time, while they are developing their understanding of how the alphabetic code works and practising their skills at decoding. Similarly to learning any new task, as students develop their knowledge and skills at reading, they require less scaffolding for learning from teachers and are able to manage increasingly complex text. They need to be supported with the appropriate resources at the right time to support them to become fluent and confident readers.

Further reading and viewing suggestions

  • The Literacy Hub: an Australian resource for school leaders, teachers and families 
  • Five from Five
  • Five from Five: decodable readers - This page also contains a useful video on the use of decodable, predictable and authentic texts in early reading instruction: Decodables, predictables and authentic texts: a presentation, by Dr Tanya Serry, La Trobe University Science of Learning and Reading (SOLAR) Lab
  • James Lyra ‘Decodable readers, systematicity and practice’, guest post in The Literacy Blog (March 2018), John Walker
  • Rose, J 2006, Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Bristol: Department for Education and Skills.

Decodable reader (phonic readers/books) suggestions

Sarah Handscomb

Educator and Literacy Coach

Sarah is an experienced educator, within mainstream and special education settings. She is passionate about supporting teachers with evidence-informed literacy approaches, such as Systematic Synthetic Phonics and aligning these to classroom practice, to enable students to develop command of their language.