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Bridging the Reading Gap

Decodable Books and Their Role in Early Literacy

Bridging the Reading Gap
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Decodable books play a crucial role in early reading education, allowing students to practice applying phonics skills and letter-sound correspondences they are explicitly taught. Designed to match students' current decoding abilities, they provide a scaffold for beginning readers who possess some letter-sound knowledge but are still developing automatic word recognition. 
 

The Role of Decodable Books in Phonics Instruction 

Decodable books are integral to phonics instruction. They provide structured opportunities for students to apply their phonics skills in context. Unlike other types of reading materials, decodable books are carefully crafted to include a high percentage of words that align with the phonics patterns students have learned. This alignment ensures students can practice decoding words independently, reinforcing their learning and building confidence.

“Many educators, like I did as a teacher, have had to create or supplement their curriculum because it lacked certain pieces,” says Robin Rubenstein, Director of Curriculum & Implementation at Lavinia Group. “Decodable texts are a missing link in a lot of curricula. Many programs focus on one aspect, like phonics or reading comprehension, or take a project-based learning approach. Students need practice with texts that align with their phonics skills. I noticed this with the students I was working with. Some phonics curricula only provide practice materials with a sentence or paragraph, and often without pictures or meaningful and engaging context that connects to other learning .”

“Some knowledge-building curriculums aren't explicitly connected to the science of reading, such as learning how to decode and spell,” cautions Rubenstein. Phonics instruction teaches the relationships between sounds and the letters that represent those sounds. These foundational skills allow students to decode new words and understand their meanings. 

Decodable books are specifically designed to support this process by containing words that follow the phonics rules students have been taught. Students not only need to practice phonics skills in isolation (such as reading individual words or engaging in phonics routines), they also need the opportunity to apply those skills in connected text to gain proficiency. 

Decodable books also play a significant role in differentiating instruction. Teachers can use these books during small group reading instruction to reinforce or reteach based on individual student need. This differentiation is essential in a classroom where students may have varying levels of phonics knowledge and reading proficiency. 

The systematic use of decodable books also supports cumulative learning. As students progress through a series of decodable texts, they build on their existing knowledge, gradually encountering more complex phonics patterns and word structures. This cumulative approach helps solidify their understanding of phonics and promotes the automatic recognition of words, a key factor in developing reading fluency.

Decodable books help students develop other critical literacy skills, too. As students become more proficient in decoding, they can focus more on comprehension and vocabulary development.

Decodable books aligned with educational standards and literacy goals make them a valuable resource in a comprehensive reading program. They provide a structured pathway for students to progress from phonemic awareness to fluent reading, integrating seamlessly with other components of literacy instruction such as shared reading and independent reading.

What Research Says About Decodable Books 

Research overwhelmingly supports the use and effectiveness of decodable books in early reading instruction.

A landmark 2005 study by Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, "Text Decodability and the First-Grade Reader," provides compelling evidence for the effectiveness of decodable texts. Mesmer's research found that first graders who used highly decodable texts were able to better apply their letter/sound knowledge compared to their peers who used fewer decodable texts. These students showed greater accuracy in their reading and were less reliant on external help. This study highlights the direct correlation between the use of decodable books and improved phonics application, validating the structured approach that decodable texts offer.

Another significant study "Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert" by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation further emphasizes the value of decodable books in early literacy development. This comprehensive review bridges the gap between scientific research on reading acquisition and practical educational practices. The authors explain that decodable books are particularly effective in the initial stages of reading instruction because they allow children to practice the phonics skills taught in the classroom. This practice leads to early successes in reading, fostering a sense of achievement and independence in young readers.

The evidence in these studies is not isolated. Numerous other research efforts corroborate the findings that decodable books play a vital role in early reading success. Other studies have shown when students read texts aligned with their phonics instruction, they experience less frustration and more enjoyment, which are critical factors in maintaining motivation and engagement in reading. These positive reading experiences are foundational for building long-term reading habits and literacy skills.

“Without decodable books, there is a missing link in teaching students how to use what they learn in phonics and decoding within connected texts. Students need practice with texts that align with their phonics skills rather than jumping right into grade-level texts, which usually require decoding skills far beyond what they've learned. These advanced texts often don't allow students to apply their phonics skills because what they are reading wasn’t written to explicitly practice the skills they were taught,” says Rubenstein who recommends schools have a dedicated 50 minute phonics instruction learning block and a 75-minute English Language Arts learning block for grades K-2. 

Research also indicates decodable books help close the reading achievement gap for students from diverse backgrounds. By providing accessible texts that match students' phonics knowledge, decodable books ensure all students, regardless of their starting point, have the opportunity to develop essential reading skills. 

“When literature children are reading feels relevant to them as students, students aren't just reading to practice a sound; they're reading for a meaningful purpose,” says Rubenstein. 

Educational leaders should also consider the broader implications of these research findings. Implementing decodable books in the classroom is not just about improving individual reading outcomes; it's about fostering a culture of literacy where every student has the tools and support needed to become a confident and competent reader.

Elements of a High-Quality Decodable Book  

“Many decodable texts on the market today lack an engaging storyline, and their presentation doesn’t make them seem like real books, some printed on flimsy paper without illustrations. If it doesn’t feel like a beautiful piece of literature or a book students would find exciting, it leads to teachers and students not valuing them in the same way. Decodable readers should truly feel like real books. They should resemble books you’d find at the library or on a shelf, inviting students to pick them up and read,” says Rubenstein.  

When selecting decodable books, choose readers that offer more than just alignment with phonics patterns. High-quality decodable books should integrate several key elements that enhance learning and engagement. 

  • Illustrations That Support the Text: Illustrations should provide visual context that aligns with the story, supporting the reader’s understanding without giving away too much information. Effective illustrations help students make connections between the text and the visuals, enhancing comprehension. 
  • Cultural and Linguistic Diversity: Including characters from various backgrounds makes the stories more relatable and enriches the reading experience. Culturally and linguistically diverse decodable books help students see themselves in the stories and learn about others, fostering inclusivity and empathy from an early age.
  • Clear and Consistent Layout: A clear, consistent layout with ample white space helps children focus on the text and illustrations. The physical design of the book should reduce visual clutter, making it easier for young readers to process information.
  • Interactive Elements: Questions and activities that encourage readers to apply what they have decoded enhance learning and make reading more active. These elements can reinforce phonics skills, comprehension, and critical thinking, providing a more engaging reading experience.
  • Alignment with Educational Standards: Decodable books should align with broader educational standards and structured literacy goals, supporting the development of various literacy skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension. This alignment ensures that decodable books contribute effectively to the overall educational framework.

Decodable books are essential tools for early readers, helping them practice phonics skills and develop independence in reading. Research supports their effectiveness in building foundational literacy skills and promoting reading success. To truly foster a love for reading, decodable books must also contain engaging narratives that resonate with young readers. By incorporating captivating stories and adhering to key elements of excellent decodable books, educational leaders can create a more enjoyable and effective learning experience for their students, setting the stage for lifelong literacy.

Read the next article in this series: Narrative-Driven Decodable Books, A Game Changer in Early Literacy Reading Education

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Bridging the Reading Gap

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