Decodable books are designed to support a Synthetic Phonics method of teaching reading. In Synthetic Phonics, letter sounds (phonemes) and the letters that represent them (graphemes) are taught explicitly and systematically. In decodable books, the text is controlled by and limited to the phonemes that have been taught to that point. For example, the first set of books may be based on children only needing to know the sounds for s a t p i n m d.
Only words using these sounds would be used in this set of books. In this way, children are able to practise their growing phonic knowledge by reading books and decoding words that they will easily be able to. The only exception to this would be the use of some high-frequency words that may not be easily decodable at that point. These words are referred to as common exception words or tricky words because they include a letter or combinations of letters that represent irregular sound patterns. Some examples of these words are: the, he, no, is, to.
The vocabulary used in the first set of books, based on a Whole Language (or balanced literacy) approach, is not controlled in this way. All 44 sounds of English and the letters that represent them can be used to a large extent. So, for example, the word ‘sky’ could be used. A simple word with only three letters, but not easily decodable unless you know that the letter y also makes the long /i/ sound. For beginning readers, the need to look for a picture clue, or to predict what the word may be from the context of the sentence, or from the letters at the start of the word (or all combinations) may be required. This is a challenge that all children may not be up to in the early stages of reading.
There are more similarities than differences between decodable and non-decodable books. The vocabulary control is the main difference. It is important to remember that all texts for beginning readers (whether decodable or not) do have controlled vocabulary. You wouldn’t see the word ‘psyche’ in any beginning reader text! Why? Because it is unlikely that a young child would have any understanding of the meaning of this word and it is a difficult word to decode with several challenges, e.g. silent p, y as long /i/ sound, ch as /k/ sound and e as long /e/ sound. So both types of texts have vocabulary control, but it is the type of vocabulary control that differentiates decodable text from whole-language texts.
With decodable text, children may still look to the picture for a clue and can still consider the context, but the key difference is that they do not need to rely on these other strategies as they have the tools to sound out every part of the words in front of them. They will be able to ‘attack’ the word confidently and successfully with the knowledge they already have about letters and their sounds.
Good decodable books still carry a story, they still require pre-reading discussion and predicting, they still introduce new vocabulary, they still have a good picture-to text match and they still require comprehension.
What they don’t rely on so much is the need for children to make guesses at unknown words because every word should be decodable based on the phonemes that they have learnt to that point. As a result, there should also be less reliance on picture clues or the need for the text to be repetitive in structure.
Comparisons between decodable and Whole Language beginning books
High-frequency words – in both books
Tricky high-frequency words – in both books
Careful introduction and reinforcement of high-frequency words – true for both books
Illustrations matching the text – true for both books
New vocabulary introduced – true for both books
Enjoyable and sensical story line – true for both books
Placement of line-breaks is important – true for both books
Simple sentence structures – important for both books
Controlled vocabulary – yes but different controls
Where do Whole Language books fit in with decodable books?
If your school decides to use decodable books as their main classroom learning to read texts for Foundation and Year 1, where do all your other texts fit into this? Do they still have a place even though they are constructed differently and don’t directly support the synthetic phonics program you are running? Of course they do.
We need to feed our children a rich and varied diet in food and this also applies to literacy! While decodable books may be the key instructional resource that you use for your guided reading, there is no reason why other books cannot be used in other parts of your literacy program alongside decodable books. Reading to and with students can include all texts. Teachers will still support children in experiencing and enjoying literacy in all its forms and will use opportunities to talk about story and structure. Teachers will still teach a range of reading strategies because they can be utilised by children while reading any text. If there is a phonics teaching focus at these times, then the opportunity would be used to reinforce the phonemes that the children have learnt to that point.
When children choose from the classroom library for independent reading, they should be able to choose from any text- decodable or not. They need to be able to decide for themselves what they are interested in reading, whether they can actually read the text easily or not at that point, that is free choice and it shouldn’t be restricted. Remember, most children will not look at a book and sort them as ‘decodable’ and ‘non-decodable’ in their heads and then make a choice. This differentiation will not come into play. Initially children will choose according to what sparks their interest and then after scanning the text themselves will make a decision – often choosing (quite accurately) what they think they can attempt with some success.
Where resources allow, it makes sense that the take-home reading books support the guided reading instructional texts, but this is not always possible.