What are Decodable Books and Why to Use Them

What are decodable books?

A decodable book focuses on one new grapheme (sh or ă), spelling pattern (the drop e rule when adding a suffix), or morphological unit (prefix re-). It uses a controlled set of vocabulary with spelling patterns and morphological units that have already been explicitly taught to the student.  This way, students are encouraged to use the text to decode and not pictures or context clues. 

Why do we use decodable books?

Especially in the earlier stages of literacy instruction, decodable books require students to use their phonic decoding skills instead of guessing. While this reading approach has long been used for students with the Orton Gillingham approach and students with dyslexia, current research tells us that this is the correct reading approach for ALL students

“We TEACH reading in different ways; they LEARN to read proficiently in only one way. Teaching is what we do- learning is what their brains do.

Dr. David Kilpatrick

Reading decodable texts helps lead to orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is the long-term, efficient way that readers seemingly read “by sight.” But in fact, traditional readers do not use their visual memory at all for reading those words “by sight.” Instead, orthographic mapping builds the relationship between letters and sounds to bond the spellings and pronunciations of words in the most efficient manner. Once a word is correctly orthographically mapped, the reader does not have to laboriously decode it each time he encounters the word. Instead, the word becomes permanently stored (“mapped”) as a sight word for future, instant recognition. This improves fluency and allows the brain to focus its energy on comprehending the text…the ultimate goal of reading!

What is the difference between a decodable book and a leveled book?

Both types of books improve fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. At some point both types should be a part of a reader’s personal library. While a decodable book focuses on one phonic/spelling pattern, leveled books combine many phonetic patterns, sight words, and vocabulary. As the word knowledge, vocabulary, and sentence structure increase in difficulty, the level of the book increases. Depending on the difficulty of these components, publishers “level” the text accordingly. Some companies use letters A-Z and some use numbers to level, but they all increase in text difficulty. Leveled reading texts use the terms Independent, Instructional, and Frustration levels to assess a student’s reading ability within a level. 

For most students, the use of leveled readers is appropriate after the students have mastered many of the decodable reading strategies for orthographic mapping.  Students in kindergarten and first grade should first use decodable texts to practice their decoding skills.  Teachers can use leveled readers for read alouds during this time to build students’ oral language, comprehension, and vocabulary. But, over-relying on leveled readers at this young age for independent reading encourages the student to guess at words. We don’t want them to use memorization, pictures, or context clues to read. We want them to use all of the letters from left to right to attack each word.  This is the focus of decodable books and why they are so crucial in building a foundation for our students’ reading success.  

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