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Decodable Books – What’s the Point?

Beth holding dandelion readers and magic belt decodable books

What are Decodable Readers?

If your child is learning to read you may have heard the term “decodable readers”. The Ministry of Education is set to release a set of decodable readers shortly – much to the excitement of parents and professionals who advocate for a structured literacy approach.

Decodable readers are books which are written in a way that enables children to learn to read using small systematic pieces of our written code, so that they can become proficient readers of certain graphemes (a grapheme refers to the way we spell a sound, such as c, p, ch, igh etc) before being exposed to the entire range of English spellings.

For example, beginning readers may only be given a small set of sounds represented by single letters (an example of a beginning set may be s, a, t, p, i, n). From there the child will learn to read (and write!!!) words using these sounds e.g. sat, pit, pan, tip. Once the child has had some practice reading these words we can move to decodable books (note that the decodable books will match what they have learned, so they can read the entire book without guessing!) The book may have simple sentences such as “pin in a tin” or “Pat sat”.

As the child proceeds, more and more pieces of our written code will be provided in a systematic way – including teaching around multi-letter spellings for sounds such as “tch” “le” “er” “igh” “ou”. With this approach nothing is left to chance (because why take chances with such an important foundational skill?!)

Alison Clarke has made a fabulous video explaining the difference between our current books (levelled readers) and decodable readers which you can watch here

Are Decodable Books an Educational Fad?

Short answer – no.

There is around 30 years of research to support a structured literacy (systematic synthetic phonics) approach. Study after study after study backs this approach. But don’t take my word for it, I encourage you to do your own reading – see here for links to some relevant literature

Will the Ministry of Education Decodables Fix our Literacy Problems in New Zealand?

Decodable books do not pair with the general teaching methods used in New Zealand Primary Schools today (whole language approach and balanced literacy approaches). Decodable books are only decodable (and useful) if you have been explicitly taught to read the code that is contained in the book. This is why we need to advocate for support for teachers to gain access to the knowledge that will enable them to use the books effectively.

Decodable Books are Boring, What about Enjoyment of Reading and Comprehension?

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We absolutely need to foster comprehension and enjoyment of text! As a Speech Language Therapist, of course I understand the importance of fostering language skills, it’s a no-brainer! We can do this by reading to children. Please read your children fabulous stories, talk about the pictures on the page, and open up discussions about the text. This is a fabulous way to build many language skills.

However, encouraging children to read texts which contain words they cannot yet effectively decode, and promoting comprehension strategies such as looking at the picture and making a guess undermines how our brains learn to read. The rate of failure of this kind of approach is too high, and we have clear alternatives which are backed by a tonne of research.

There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words” Dr Anita Archer from her book Explicit Instruction

Isn’t English too Complicated for Phonics? Too Many Words Can’t be Decoded at all!

The English spelling system is VERY complicated. We have 44 sounds that we say in our language, with over 250 spellings.


There is so much more sense to it than we have been lead to believe.

For example: “was” is a common “sight word” (a word provided on a flashcard for a child to memorise, often thought to be stored visually) which is given because it has an “o” sound in the middle but is written with a letter a. However, if we take a moment to investigate this a little further, you will notice the letter a represents an “o” sound in many words including: salt, squab, wash, wasp, swan, wand and many more!

The sound is “o” and the letter a is an alternative way to spell it. In systematic synthetic phonics things like this are explicitly taught.

Here is a little explainer on why we teach this way, rather than expecting children to store “sight words” just by visual memorisation.

Next time you think you have discovered a word that is not decodable I encourage you to use Spelfabet’s online tool to see if there are any other words which match that spelling pattern. Honestly, as a historically “bad” speller, I use this all the time when I notice my own spelling errors, it is fascinating! I love encouraging this fascination with spelling in my students also – that way they become their own teachers.

See my blog on my own spelling misadventures here

Do we really need to Change the way Literacy is Taught?

Yes. We have a huge literacy problem in New Zealand. Too many children are being failed by the current approaches being used. We know that a structured literacy approach is crucial for a large proportion of children (more than half), and beneficial for all children. See Nancy Young’s reading ladder

Beneficial for all, harmful for none

Our literacy problem is not the fault of our teachers. They are doing the best they can with the information they currently have. We need to advocate for support for our teachers so that they have the knowledge and skills they need to implement a structured literacy approach.

Read more about our literacy achievement rates here

I understand that this blog will be an uncomfortable read for many. We must be radically open minded to the fact that there may be a better way to teach literacy than what is currently being provided in schools. As a country we must also “own up” to the fact that we have been (up until this point) teaching literacy using methods that fail a significant proportion of students. It is uncomfortable. It is a hard truth. It gives us a yucky feeling in our stomachs. But we must move forward, when we know better we can do better.

In a Nutshell

The decodable readers set to be released by the Ministry of Education are a fantastic step towards improving our huge literacy problem in New Zealand. However, we need to provide schools with the professional development needed to ensure the books are used in an effective way.

Free Resources (made by yours truly)

3 thoughts on “Decodable Books – What’s the Point?”

  1. Hi there, Thank you for this post. I am wondering if I can put it on the Phonic Books Blog. It is such a friendly and sympathetic explanation and spot on! Well done!
    Let me know,
    Tami Reis-Frankfort
    Phonic Books

    1. And Tami, sorry to threadjack, but just wanted to take this opportunity to thank YOU for your books. We in New Zealand have been behind the times for some decades but there is a groundswell happening and those in charge can no longer ignore the evidence. It’s really exciting. Thanks Beth for the blog, Julie Rowe.

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