When Are Leveled Books Also Decodable Books?

When Are Leveled Books Also Decodable Books?

There have been many recent articles of late regarding the push for using decodable texts for reading instruction. Many districts are requiring a shift away from leveled readers toward decodable books.

But what makes a book “decodable”? 

Many books that are labeled “decodable” follow a scope and sequence for introducing letters and sounds. Commonly, the sequence involves teaching consonant sounds, short vowels, digraphs, blends, long vowels, and vowel teams. Most of the words in a given decodable book feature sounds that have been previously introduced. These texts are, of course, leveled in their own way. Simply put, books with short-vowel words are easier to read than books with vowel-team words.

Many books that are considered “leveled” are also sequenced by decoding challenges. The only difference is that they are not written around a particular sound. Rather, leveled books, like many of those published by Pioneer Valley Books, are written with a careful sequence of sight words, decodable words, and interesting vocabulary that is supported by the pictures or the context of the story. 

Here is an example from Jasper the Fat Cat at Level C.

Jasper the Cat page image

On this page, is, a, cat, and fat are all decodable words, and here is a sight word used in many Level C texts from Pioneer Valley Books. The book features a cat named Jasper, which is a character that shows up in many of our books. But a decodable book would never name a cat Jasper. In a decodable book, Jasper’s name might be Sam or Pat. Yet in my experience, most young readers will recognize the name Jasper once they are familiar with the character. The recognizable illustration of the character makes the word “Jasper” accessible to young readers.

Along with opportunities for students to practice decoding skills, it is important for students to develop vocabulary. This is something leveled books often do that decodable books do not. Vocabulary plays an important role in comprehension.

Here is an example from Monarch Butterflies at Level D.

Butterfly page image

On this page, there are lots of decodable words: is, an, it, has, six, legs, and wings. But the addition of non-decodable vocabulary provides an opportunity to learn something about butterflies!

Our brains are designed to help us see patterns. When we use text that doesn’t completely limit words beyond those that have been taught, many readers will naturally begin to pick up the patterns in words. For example, you would not teach students the oo pattern until much later in a phonics sequence, but I have seen many children able to read the words cook and took, all because they can read the word look.

Literacy expert Tim Shanahan tells us: “It is so important that we not overly constrain the decodability of the texts that young children read….I recommend using a combination of both highly decodable texts and controlled vocabulary readers. We want kids actively looking to see spelling patterns, including ones that have not been taught.” 

Read the summary of the research here: https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/how-decodable-do-decodable-texts-need-be-what-we-teach-when-we-teach-phonics

Leveled books CAN provide students with opportunities to practice their decoding skills…and so much more!