As you can see on the I Can Read Without You (ICRWY) Bookshelf page, explaining how I teach children to read (even though all are different) I first started to talking about decodable readers in Australia when supporting schools, using a Speech to Print Approach (the Speech Sound Pics Approach)
I spent a year in an Australian school that used no decodable readers, and mentored Shana and her grade 2 class for a year. This clip shows day 1, when Dandelion Readers from Phonics Books Ltd were introduced. Decodable readers were aligned to the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) phonics teaching order.
s a t p i n
m d g o c k ck e u r h b f l le ll ss
j v w x y z zz ch sh th ng ai ee igh oo eigh
ar or ow oi air ur er ay oy ou au ir ie ue ea ui ey ow wh ph ew oe ure are ear
a-e e-e i-e o-e u-e
These are the high frequency phoneme to grapheme combinations covered, however the students explore all spelling choices using the Spelling Clouds.
A Speech Sound Wall was introduced along with the SSP Strategies.
Spelling Cloud Poems were written for the children!
Why? To explore the 350+ combinations.
' Traditional phonics programs have been used to explicitly teach alphabetic coding skills to beginning readers. However, these programs generally suffer from two major shortcomings. First, they tend to be strongly teacher-centred and have curricula that are rigid, fixed, and lock-step, with the same skill-and-drill lesson given to every child in the same sequence. Such an approach to teaching beginning reading conflicts with the basic principles of differentiated instruction because it fails to recognize that the individual literary learning needs of children vary greatly depending on their specific levels of development across the set of reading component skills shown in Figure 1. (See link)
Second, most phonics programs incorrectly assume that children can only acquire knowledge of letter-sound patterns through direct instruction in which the teaching of letter-sound correspondences is explicit and systematic. The difficulty with this assumption, however, is that there are simply too many letter-sound relationships in English orthography for children to acquire by direct instruction, probably between 300 and 400 (Gough & Hillinger, 1980). Much, if not most, of what children learning to read in English come to know about its written orthography is acquired through implicit learning, especially knowledge of context sensitive letter-sound correspondences that depend on position-specific constraints or the presence of other letters (Bryant, 2002; Tunmer & Nicholson, 2011; Venezky, 1999). In contrast, letter-sound correspondences acquired by direct phonics instruction are fewer in number and are largely context free, involving one-to-one correspondences between single letters or digraphs and single phonemes.'
Teachers using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach use a range of decodable readers sold in Australia such as Pocket Rockets, Fitzroy and of course the decodable readers I write myself.
SSP Decodable Readers Guide
On a device? Download the Decodable Readers Guide here
Lara reading a decodable reader from Little Learners Love Literacy. Lara was in the ICRWY pilot project. The children were learning to read before starting school.
However, there are limitations to decodable readers.
This is why you will see SSP students using the ICRWY Bookshelf from 2021. We are using strategies that fully align with the Science of Reading.
Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert
First Published June 11, 2018 Research Article Find in PubMed
220.127.116.11. A role for “decodable” books?
Decodable books are texts written for children that consist primarily of words that they can read correctly using the grapheme-phoneme correspondences that they have learned (with the exception of a few unavoidable irregular words such as the and said). These kinds of books provide children with an opportunity to practice what they have been taught explicitly in the classroom and to allow them to experience success in reading independently very early in reading instruction, albeit with a rather restricted word set. These books also allow teachers to effectively structure and sequence children’s exposure to grapheme-phoneme correspondences in text. Evidence suggests that phonics teaching is more effective when children are given immediate opportunities to apply what they have learned to their reading (Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994); so, for these reasons, we believe that there is a good argument for using decodable readers in the very early stages of reading instruction.
Beyond the initial stages of reading, however, the case for decodable books weakens. First, evidence indicates that once children have learned a core set of grapheme-phoneme correspondences, they get no more opportunity to practice these in decodable books than they do in other books they might be reading (i.e., books not specifically written with decodability in mind). Solity and Vousden (2009) analyzed the vocabulary within three sets of books in the United Kingdom: two structured reading schemes consisting of specially written books for school children containing high-frequency and phonically regular words and one set of story books found in typical Year 1 and 2 classrooms (i.e., children ages 5–7). They found that the percentage of monosyllabic words within the books that would be decodable by children knowing 64 grapheme-phoneme correspondences was equal across the three sets (approximately 75%). A second issue with decodable books is that they are likely to be somewhat restricted in word choice and so may tend to be inferior to real books in (a) maintaining children’s interest and motivation to read and (b) in achieving the broader goals of building children’s vocabularies and knowledge. Solity and Vousden (2009) give the example of the words used in the book The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Sharratt & Tucker, 2004) with the analogous decodable reader Billy the Kid (Miskin, 2008). The only word used to describe the characters speaking to each other in Billy the Kid is said, which is repeated 11 times. In contrast, in the book The Three Billy Goats Gruff, the word said is also used 11 times, but eight other words and phrases are used to describe how the different characters speak (e.g., shouted out, grunted, replied, roared, snapped, and spluttered). As we discuss later in this review, exposure to complex words and nuanced meanings is important. Therefore, in our view, once children move beyond the very early stages of reading, the benefits of decodable readers are likely to be outweighed by their limitations. More research is needed to determine when this tipping point occurs.
This was a really good article in 2018. The current narrative is that these should be used and other 'readers' such as PM and F&P dropped ie that you either support decodable readers or books deemed be align with a 'whole word' approach, needing 'three cueing strategies'. Yet again, those with vested interests polarise the situation. Ironically, BOTH can play a role.
As I am showing within the I Can Read Without You (ICRWY) project, we can use BOTH reader types, according to the needs of the students.
The ongoing debate around whether schools should be supplied with decodable readers will reach a critical point this weekend when Victoria holds an election that could result in funding of $2.8m towards the controversial resource.
While supporters of decodable readers argue they allow children to practise their decoding skills in an enjoyable and motivating way, others claim the books can actually be harmful to children’s reading outcomes.
Diane Snowball is a literacy consultant and author who has been working in education for 52 years, teaching students and training teachers. She is a past president and honorary life member of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and has recently been awarded the status of ALEA principal fellow.
“The current debate about decodable readers is important because governments are making funding decisions about them and principals are wondering if they should buy them,” Snowball told The Educator.
“Unfortunately there are too many articles written by people who have a vested interest in the sales of decodable books so decision-makers need to be wary of claims about the necessity for such books.”
Snowball says that her 52 years of experience in successfully teaching students to read and helping thousands of teachers in the same goal, there has never been the need for decodable books.
“Also there are no research studies that indicate decodable texts are necessary for children to learn to read. None,” she said.
Snowball said it’s not enough to cite research about the improvement in accuracy and fluency because successful reading requires “much more than accurately saying words in a fluent manner”.
“Reading is first and foremost the construction of meaning, drawing on knowledge of the content, the syntax of English language, the vocabulary and phonics,” Snowball said.
“The supporters of decodable books sometimes write about the poor quality of what they refer to as ‘levelled predictable books’, as though they are the only alternative, but I think that many of those are not suitable for children learning to read either.”
Snowball said that while the teaching of phonics is important, she has found that with struggling readers it’s the only strategy they use to attempt an unfamiliar word.
“It would actually be easier for them to use phonics if they thought about the meaning first so they have some idea about what that word could be – what would make sense?” she said.
“So it’s very important that the book they are reading does make sense and that they are not given the impression that reading is just saying words.”
‘Funding for rich authentic literature needed’
Beverley Dadds, principal of Mornington Park Primary School in Victoria, leads a school with outstanding results in the students’ reading, regardless of students’ disadvantages.
This has been achieved by setting aside sufficient time every day for students to independently read quality literature while teachers confer with their students to find out their strengths and needs, which guides their teaching.
“It is essential that we provide children with authentic rich literature all of the time. Since moving away from leveled books we have noticed a more positive attitude to reading, increased confidence and increased comprehension,” Dadds told The Educator.
“Decoding using phonics is important, but we can help children to use that strategy without the reading of decodable books.”
Dadds said the debate about decodable books is distracting for politicians and principals.
“I would prefer for the focus to be about factors that are really influencing children’s reading, such as the children’s lack of vocabulary knowledge when they begin school,” she said.
“Rather than funding decodable books, politicians should provide funding for rich authentic literature for parents and teachers in the early years to read aloud to their children.”
The ICRWY Project aims to ensure that every child reads for pleasure by 6.
In the early years we use decodable readers to explore how phonemes map to graphemes, taking a speech to print approach. This means going much further than the concepts covered within traditional phonics programs.
(Note that there are 4 options, however the /i/ phoneme that the e can represent (eg in the word w/i/ck/e/d) were not found within the book)
However we are now introducing children to the ICRWY Books as soon as they are reading Purple Code Level Decodable Readers.
We have ensured they have phonemic awareness, understand that phonemes map to graphemes, and have been decoding known graphemes with fluency and comprehension. They are ready to explore texts using the 350+ phoneme to grapheme combinations; we Code Map and Monster Map the books.
They can SEE how each word is segmented, and also use the Speech Sound Monsters to know how to pronounce each grapheme - the Speech Sound Monsters are an alternative to phonetic symbols.
The Written and Spoken Code. They are often different!
These Code Level readers are used to ensure that children are regularly blending the graphemes children are learning so that they develop fluency - and so less working memory is being used to work out each word, which frees up working memory so that the children can also focus on what the words mean.
The children will need to blend the mapped phonemes, and as they become more proficient they will be able to do this so quickly that they don't need to 'follow the sounds to say the words' (say the segmented sounds, and then blend) and you will also find that they do this so quickly that they can TRANSLATE into their 'speaking voice'. This can mean the speech sounds that mapped to the Sound Pics (graphemes) change.
I need you to understand this. It's ignored by the majority of phonics programs. The written code was not created to accommodate accents - and there is a history about how 'spelling' was created, to allow those who spoke English to be able to 'talk on paper'. They didn't do this with American or Aussie accents. Some of this code was later changed eg colour/ color, but the written code is still fairly consistent.
So the children may see the graphemes, and know the INTENDED associated speech sounds for that letter string within that particular word, according to 'phonics' but this can be DIFFERENT to the phoneme to grapheme mapping they use within their SPOKEN voices. A child from New Zealand might correctly 'sound out' the word 'chips' as ch/i/p/s - when decoding - but then SAY the word like 'chups'. That's fine, as long as they understand they have translated the written code to their spoken code.
I laugh with my Aussie parents when they insist they don't say 'ant' as 'airnt' but what's important is that we are talking about this. If we say the 'written/ phonics code' to say a/n/t and then don't use those sounds to say the word, that's fine - as long as everyone is conscious that this has happened.
The WRITTEN code is a universally recognised way to map phonemes to graphemes - the kids think of the Speech Sound King's phonemes (speech sounds) mapping - even though everyone in the class might NOT use those sounds when they speak. The written code and the spoken code can be different.
Children find this really easy to understand - they are learning to read and spell / to map/ using Miss Emma's 'sounds' - but will still read in their 'speaking voice'. What adults often find difficult to understand is that asking children to 'sound out' words is useful, but they must also CHECK the sounds used within the written code (use tophonetics.com or similar and search the British transcription) It is this investigative work that helps children to understand written code patterns more easily. If they say 'chups' then how are they going to spell the word, if they don't explore how the King says it? So we 'translate' the written code to spoken (reading) and the spoken code to written (spelling) The latter is much harder - but made easier by looking at Code Mapped words, and using Duck Hands, Lines and Numbers regularly. The Speedy Six Spelling activities are to ensure that that do this as quickly and easily as possible- and reach the 'Self-Teaching' phase asap. Unfortunately most phonics programs only cover a fraction of the phoneme to grapheme combinations in written English, let alone explore how this may NOT be the combinations the children use when speaking.
Aim to get them off 'decodable readers' before the middle of year 1 (and ideally before the end of prep)
Miss Emma X