Decodable Readers & Levelled Readers

As mentioned in an earlier post, kids in the beginning stages of reading, as well as older readers experiencing difficulty, benefit from decodable texts. These are books or passages that use almost only sounds and letters that have already been learned. Children rely on sounding out, or decoding, the words. There are usually pictures, but children are not encouraged to use them to help them figure out the words. Using decodables encourages kids to focus on all the sounds and letters in words, which helps them recognize words more and more efficiently each time they encounter them.

Because decodable texts start out with only a few sounds/letters, the first stories often sound pretty contrived, such as A cat on a mat. A cat has a map. For this reason, decodable readers sometimes have a bad rap. A popular alternative is levelled readers that start out with simple sentences and basic vocabulary, but don’t control the sounds/letters used, even in the earliest books. For example, an early levelled reader might contain the words night, eyes, and where, which are pretty complicated from a phonics point of view. The idea is that focusing on more interesting texts is more likely to engage young readers and make them want to read. Whether to focus on decodable or levelled texts has actually been a debate in education for years. I strongly advocate for the use of decodable texts in the early stages of reading development, for the following reasons:

  1. There’s no way around it: children must focus on decoding words in order to become good readers, though the amount of time spent on this will depend on the child. You can teach decoding with with word lists, but incorporating decodable readers allows kids to practice new phonics skills in the context of simple stories.
  2. Motivation is indeed a huge factor in teaching anyone to do anything, but there are multiple ways to engage young readers.  Show the value of a good book by reading to them; read non-fiction, classic fairy tales, hilarious modern story-books, and everything in between.
  3. Children are highly motivated by their successes! I am always overjoyed to see a child who had been struggling beam with pride when they read every word in a decodable reader. They’re really reading and they know it!
  4. The basic level of decodable texts won’t last forever.  Before long, you will be reading phrases like Jill went swimming in the big lake which is decodable fairly early on.  And not long after that, you can probably move away from decodables altogether.
  5. At the very early stages, levelled readers can also be pretty contrived!  Sometimes only a single word changes on each page, for example: I love pizza.  I love spaghetti.  I love sandwiches.  I love to eat.  Of course, I don’t object to some form of simplification… gotta start somewhere!. The point is that the criticism of decodables as unengaging seems unfair when early levelled readers can be pretty… unengaging. 
  6. And finally, most importantly: learning from levelled readers is extremely difficult for children who are experiencing reading difficulties.  Why??

To understand why levelled readers are problematic for children with reading difficulties, let’s talk about how levelled readers are supposed to work.  The idea is that children use multiple sources of information to figure out the words.  They look at the letters, try to sound out the words, look at the pictures, think about their knowledge on the topic, think about the context, and then try to put all that info together.  At face value, this sounds ok, but is hugely problematic for a child with reading difficulties. Even though they may get good at using all the clues to help them figure out the words at that moment, it doesn’t lead them to become better at recognizing words when those clues are not present.  Their learning-by-osmosis machine doesn’t work very well, at least not for reading.  Why?? Because in most cases, children who struggle to learn to read have unusual difficulties with foundational skills: phonological awareness, sound-letter correspondences, and learning phonics rules.  These are not explicitly addressed by levelled readers, or at least not with the required intensity to help someone with a reading difficulty.

Is it possible for some children to learn using only levelled readers?  Absolutely, but those are the children with naturally good foundational literacy skills; some children can master the foundation with pretty minimal focus on the nitty-gritty beyond the basic letter-sound correspondences.  And I will admit that there is an appeal to using books that can talk about any topic under the sun, rather than being constrained by a certain repertoire of sounds/letters.  I can understand why levelled readers are popular.

Unfortunately, though, it can be hard to know which children will have trouble.  While there are definitely signs of reading difficulties quite early on (especially if the school does early literacy screenings), sometimes they are subtle and don’t become obvious to until months or even years into literacy instruction.  Reading difficulties can be a complete surprise— there are lots and lots of kids who seem to do well with everything else but have a heck of a time learning to read and spell. Furthermore, even for kids who don’t have any trouble, incorporating decodable texts in the early stages is an efficient way to develop foundational literacy skills. This is a common theme: some practices are essential for some kids, beneficial to all kids, and harmful to no kids.  I would put decodable readers in that category.

So are kids with reading difficulties doomed to a life of boring decodable readers?  No.  Once children (with or without reading difficulties) are able to quickly recognize a decent number of words with ease, you can use pretty much any books you want.  Bust out those levelled readers (but by then you’ll be well past the repetitive, predictable levels).  And how do we get children with reading difficulties to the point where they recognize a decent number of words with ease?  It involves decodable texts, but also a lot more.  That’s a big topic for another day soon.

The point of this post is this: To parents who have really struggled with levelled readers at home, while wondering if it was actually helping your child improve his/her reading ability: I see you, I want to help, and I might start by shelving the levelled readers for a while. 

Looking for a list of decodable readers to try? I very much like the Bob Books series (sets 1-5, not the sight word sets), and the Ontario branch of the International Dyslexia Association has a great list.

Update: Flyleaf decodabe readers are FREE online until the end of the 2021 school year!

3 thoughts on “Decodable Readers & Levelled Readers

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