How do decodable reading books differ from ‘Whole Language’ reading books? Print

How do decodable reading books differ from 'Whole Language' reading books?

Decodable reading books are specifically designed for early readers. They provide reading material which enables students to apply their alphabet sound skills, their early phonic knowledge, phonemic blending and decoding skills. The decodable reading material gradually increases in length and complexity and also gradually introduces high frequency words.

Decodable texts are an integral part of a Structured Synthetic Phonics approach (SSP) to reading instruction. Research is clear, SSP is the gold standard and most effective method for teaching reading. It focuses on teaching letter-sound correspondences (i.e. phonic concepts) in a defined and sequential sequence. To practice their newly acquired phonic skills, children require practice and this is where decodable texts are essential. Decodable texts provide children with opportunities to apply what they have learned in SSP to reading text which is matched to their current decoding skills. 

Decodable texts provide scaffolding which enables successful decoding of print. This means a child is successful in reading and this positive experience enhances progress. 

“Collectively, the results indicate that decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly with regard to accuracy.” (Cheatham and Allor, 2012). Source: Dyslexia SA. 

In contrast, ‘Whole Language’ reading books are levelled readers based on word frequency and language complexity with no consideration of sound-letter (i.e. phonic) structure of words. The readers are within a ‘Whole Language’ approach to reading which relies on picture cues, saying first sounds, and guessing the word that fits best. A ‘Whole Language’ approach prioritises meaning but draws heavily on memory, guessing and predictions. 

The ‘Whole Language’ approach has been discredited by research as being an inadequate approach to reading. There is no sequential decoding skills and features such as guessing and predicting do not assist children in being able to read with accuracy in the long term. Using predictable texts is no longer advisable as they are not evidence-based.

“Contextual guessing strategies are supported by the cueing systems model of word recognition which has no basis in reading science. According to this theory, students are said to use graphophonic cues, semantic or meaning cues, and syntax or contextual cues to recognize words. In practice, the emphasis is on anything but the links between speech sounds and spelling. Unfortunately, balanced literacy students are learning strategies that poor readers rely on, not what good readers know” (Moats, L. 2007). Source: Dyslexia SA.

When to use decodable readers?

Emerging and early readers typically experience more success when presented with decodable reading material. In addition, gains are maximised further when this reading material is connected to Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) instruction. In this way, the reading material facilitates a medium to rehearse and apply the areas being instructed within the classroom; phonemic blending ability, alphabet sounds, phonic sounds, decoding, sight words and fluent reading.

PLD advocates that not only will reading gains be maximised, but that the process of learning to read is made more enjoyable for students, teachers and parents when decodable readers are utilised.

Typically decodable readers are a short-term support for most readers. Decodable readers provide a scaffold for children to practice and apply their building knowledge of phonic concepts within connected reading. The ultimate goal of decodable readers is independent word attack skills and fluent reading. Decodable texts are never recommended as a long-term resource for students.

“Decodable text may be best thought of as a form of scaffolding that can be gradually phased out as students develop the ability to read more complex words, and teachers may purposefully incorporate non-decodable texts … when they are appropriate to promote generalization of skills to more authentic reading experiences.” (Denton, C. & Al Otaiba, S. 2011). Source: 

What to look for when choosing decodable readers?

Gains are maximised when reading material is connected to a structured synthetic phonics program, so it is important that when choosing decodable readers you consider the following:

  • The sequence in which the phonemes are introduced is clearly shown
  • High frequency words are phased in gradually
  • Text is well spaced, of an appropriate size and easy to read
  • Text uses standard Australian English
  • The sentences are not repetitive
  • All words can be sounded or read by the young child with the exception of some of the high frequency words

PLD’s decodable early reading material

PLD offers 8 decodable reading book sets listed on our website with sample pages from every single book included so you can flick through to see what they look like and consider whether they will meet your needs. Simply click the product cover image or the ‘eye’ icon underneath it to check them out yourself.

Home Reading Sets – comprised of between 10 and 30 titles

Fiction Shared Reading Sets – 10 titles, with 6 copies of each title

Non Fiction Shared Reading Sets – 10 titles, with 6 copies of each title

For more information on these cost-effective book sets, please view the flyer. Alternatively, click on the images above to view sample pages of each set online. For more information on PLD’s decodable readers, read more HERE.

Using different types of books in the classroom.

Decodable books do not replace children’s literature. However, it is important to consider separately the decoding, comprehension and language demands. For good literature that can be utilised to boost comprehension skills, take a look at the PLD Comprehension Questions series

Where to after decodable reading books? What next?

Once children are independently reading words (i.e. without relying on sounding out each word or guessing words), they can transition to books based on language complexity.

There is no evidence that decodables are necessary beyond the beginning stages of reading development. Once a child has sufficient letter-sound knowledge and is decoding independently (i.e. without sounding out words either aloud or in their head), it is time to introduce real books with increased language structure and variety of vocabulary.

There will always be students who require decodable reading material for a lengthier period of time, but typically decodable texts are only required for the short term, to quickly and efficiently establish early reading ability. After the initial years of reading acquisition, you are looking for content-rich reading material.

At PLD we recommend the use of the following screen, which has been comprehensively revised for 2020, to determine the type of reading material and the level of decodable reading material. The phasing out of decodables is recommended as soon as students are able to read up to Exercise 7 with a high level of accuracy and with the ability to read the majority of the words within the screen in an automatic whole word manner (despite at times reverting to decoding when the word is not familiar).

Over time students will be able to select their own novels or reading material. In the meantime, once they no longer require decodables and until this independent reading phase occurs, students will benefit from set reading series.

Search for a more generalised reading series, which is rich in content and engaging for the students. You are seeking for the text (or words) to be accessible to your students but now that they can ‘crack the code’ you are searching for more sophisticated reading material, which will ideally hook the students into reading and which will further develop their comprehension skills.

We hope you enjoyed this blog. At PLD we are always available to help you achieve the best possible literacy outcomes for your students. If you have any questions about PLD’s decodable readers or anything else we do here at PLD get in touch with us through our chat icon in the bottom right of the screen or to [email protected].

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