Should beginner readers use ONLY decodable books?

Susan Godsland has posted a useful list of ten reasons why beginner readers should use only decodable books here (I have copied it in full below).  What do you think?
Her list would certainly make a useful basis for discussion at many primary schools.  We would love to some views from school based practioners – please post your views below.

“10 reasons why beginning readers should only use decodable books:

1. Decodable books are consistent with the synthetic phonics reading method; they go from simple to complex, use only explicitly taught code and illustrations are designed to avoid acting as clues to text. Taught code is used throughout words, rather than first letter emphasis, to ensure that transitivity is well understood. Sounding out is the only strategy required to read the words.

2. Whole-language/Banded books give child a misleading idea of what reading entails i.e. that it is a memorising and (psycholinguistic) guessing game.

3. In order to become expert readers and spellers, children need to know the complete Alphabet Code and the skills of blending and segmenting to automaticity. To ensure this, they need to be taught the code and the skills directly, discretely and systematically. Decodable books give them the necessary direct practice in newly taught code and skills.

4. There is no way of knowing which particular children entering a reception class have poor visual memories or low, natural phonological ability. These children are likely to become struggling ‘dyslexic’ readers if whole-language books are used at first. Children with good visual memories plus a supportive home background may appear to do well, initially, with whole-language books, BUT see 5.

5. Decodable books avoid children developing the bad habit of sight word guessing. This can be difficult to change when they get older and the brain less ‘plastic’. Those with good visual memories will develop this habit quickly and easily through the use of predictable, repetitive text. Eventually their memory for sight words will reach its limit and if they haven’t, in the meantime, been taught or deduced the complete alphabet code for themselves they will struggle to read advanced texts with novel words and no illustrations.

6. Repetitive texts are boring; predictable texts, that a child can only struggle through by misreading and guessing, resulting in lost comprehension, are discouraging. Both types of books can put a child off reading. ‘Attitudes to reading in England are poor compared to those of children in many other countries’ and ‘Children in England read for pleasure less frequently than their peers in many other countries’ (Pirls 2006) These findings are from the time when whole-language books were used as the basis for reading instruction in nearly all schools.

7. The use of decodable books is only necessary for a short period in the foundation stage. When well taught, most children learn the code quickly, begin to self-teach and can then move on to real books rather than being stuck for several years on reading schemes with the restricted word count necessary to ensure adequate memorisation of the high frequency words.

8. Good spelling is aided by the use of decodables -see

9. Ease of decoding from the earliest days by simply sounding out and blending gives children quick success, ensuring long term enthusiasm for reading.

10. Parents easily understand the logic of decodable books and are more able and willing to help their children practise reading at home.”

So what do you think? You can select up to two answers in the poll below (only takes a second) or leave us a comment.

[polldaddy poll=2593587]


  1. I have had a great exchange with Susan Godsland. She asked me to emphasize that from her perspective:

    “Beginner readers should use decodable books, words and sentences exclusively for reading practice but they should also have a rich variety of other books and materials read to them, used for discussion and to look at.”

  2. Susan also pointed out to where it says in her website that

    ‘Another myth, widely circulated by the whole language proponents, is that synthetic phonics teachers engage in the ‘rather cruel’ (Goouch/Lambirth p39) practice of withholding all books from children whilst they are teaching them to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, developing comprehension through a broad and rich language curriculum is a very important synthetic phonics teaching principle.

    Having been misinformed by those who remain sympathetic to whole language/mixed method teaching, many infant teachers seem unaware of this principle and wrongly assume that teachers who use ‘pure’ synthetic phonics provide their pupils with a dry and narrow literacy curriculum which lacks wonderful and inspiring, beautifully illustrated poetry and prose; that synthetic phonics-taught pupils must have a strictly limited diet which consists, solely, of direct phonics teaching and ‘dull’ decodable books, with access to all other books forbidden until literacy is achieved. Maggie Downie, an enthusiastic user of synthetic phonics, explains, ”There is a world of difference between ‘looking’ at books and reading them. Synthetic phonics practitioners are just as concerned that children should enjoy a ‘literature rich environment’ as any of the ‘balanced literacy/whole language advocates. All that they say is that children should not be expected to READ books which are beyond their current state of phonic knowledge. Giving children words to decode which are beyond their capability is something akin to expecting a beginning pianist to play a piano sonata before they have mastered the scales. Systematic phonics instruction is scaffolded learning; give the child words to read which it hasn’t learnt the code for and you pull the scaffold away from under them, leaving them dangling helplessly with no option but to guess at the word. This confuses and scares children, and turns them off reading. I can’t understand why anyone would want to do that.” Phonics expert, Ruth Miskin, agrees, ‘While we’re teaching them this nightmare alphabetic code, we should give them simple books to read, but the richest books to hear’ (Guardian 01/04/08)’

    Susan fowarded another website today which talks about a school where kids are not allowed access to any other books until they have mastered the whole phonic code!

    Clearly we need to have a constructive open debate on how to take the theory of phonics into practice in schools. Please contribute by adding your views here.

  3. Expert readers search for connections between what they know and the new information they encounter in the text. They monitor the adequacy of their understanding and take steps to repair faulty comprehension once they realise they have failed to understand something.
    Dependence on phonics alone can militate against such higher order reading skills: skills which can be applied as well by those aged 5 as aged 50. This is especially so for those struggling with the whole notion of phonics because of a specific processing difficulty.
    Maryanne Wolf’s book ‘Proust and the Squid’ outlines the importance of a rich receptive vocabulary. She discusses the ‘Matthew effect’: ‘the constructive or destructive relationship between reading development and vocabulary: where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For word-rich children, old words become automatic and new words come flying in, with from the child’s sheer exposure to them and from his or her figuring out how to derive the meanings and functions of new words from new contexts. These readers are poised for fluency.
    For children who are word-poor, their impoverished semantic and syntactic development has consequences for their oral and written language. If vocabulary doesn’t develop, partially known words don’t become known and new grammatical constructions are not learned. Children rarely receive explicit instruction in vocabulary and grammar’.
    Nothing can replace the experience of a rich language environment in the creation of fluent, expert readers.
    And such experience cannot come from phonics based instruction alone.

    1. There is no doubt that phonic readers are limited by words which a child can read at any given level. It is also true that children gain vocabulary through reading and those children who do not read have a limited receptive and expressive vocabulary.

      It is very important to recognise that decodable readers do not replace wider reading but precede and facilitate it.

      We see our pupils at the Bloomfield Learning Centre take off once they have had structured teaching with the help of decodable readers. But soon they are off and reading lots of other books with richer vocabulary. The decodable readers have enabled our pupils to learn and practice reading independtly and successfully. This development would not have taked place without decodable readers.
      Decodable readers are only intended as a stepping stone to the wonderful world of reading – and should be seen as such.

    2. Surely a key way for any child to have their vocabulary extended is by someone reading to them? Just because a child is using decodable texts to learn to read does not mean that they can’t be exposed to a huge broad rich variety of reading materials in this way.

      As a parent I sometimes feel that we are rarely reminded to read to our children as they get older. And yet this has to have a huge effect on literacy in terms of motivation to read and the introduction of rich language. Ideally I think the books that one read should stretch the child slightly.

      Another point is that I find decodable texts do have a much richer vocabulary than the equivalent Look and Say reading books because they are not limited to a tiny set that the child has learnt to recognise. When working with the Dandelion Launchers with my 5 year old son I have had to explain to him the word “spud” and “glum”. I don’t remember those conversations when I was doing Chip and Biff with my daughter!

      So for me the keys to reading literacy and confidence are to keep reading to the child to raise their knowledge of vocabulary and interest in reading. Whilst building their confidence in reading to themselves with decodable texts that they have the skills to decode.

  4. The DfE has just introduced a revised set of criteria for synthetic phonics programmes.

    Please note that it includes new advice on early texts to practise reading: ‘(E)nsure that as pupils move through the early stages of acquiring phonics, they are invited to practise by reading texts which are entirely decodable for them, so that they experience success and learn to rely on phonemic strategies. It is important that texts are of the appropriate level for children to apply and practise the phonic knowledge and skills that they have learnt. Children should not be expected to use strategies such as whole-word recognition and/or cues from context, grammar, or pictures.’

    1. Susan can you give me a link to this advice? I am having a debate with some teachers who argue that the National Literacy Strategy states that picture cues are valuable ways for beginner readers to learn. It would be useful to be able to cite the latest government guidance.

      Also someone mentioned to me that OFSTED are particularly considering phonics on this round of assessments. Anyone know if there is any truth in this rumour?

  5. I have had a positive experience this year with introducing sight-word (whole word) readers very early in my Kindergarten class. I believe that getting the children to ‘feel’ like they are reading has encouraged them to develop an interest in and desire for reader far sooner than last year’s class, where I introduced decodable books later in the year after they had learned how. I have developed my own readers, where I begin with sight-word and illustration format, then add decodable words as we move along. In practice, this is excellent. As soon as they have learned the sounds of even three letters (m, a, p) I add them to the books they are already reading in simple word forms (map, Pam, etc). At this stage, I fail to see why I would reach a stage where the readers consist of pure decodable text. Sight-words are difficult to decode without knowing exceptions to general rules that are taught first. It would slow down over all progress if those exceptions were taught (especially with English-Learners) and students were then responsible for decoding all words in the text. I think a blend of whole word and decodable word reading should be maintained at least at the early stages of fluency development.

  6. @bjohnson

    This is an interesting one. I am in a debate with our primary over this one. In key stage one all the kids are made to learn all the top 100 high frequency words as spellings in the high-frequency order. My son finds this extremely difficult (aged just five) and it is a real turn off for him. Having said that I am enjoying watching him being able to use the words he has learnt in his writing. I just feel that learning spellings based on a pattern would be easier e.g. “this, that, them, with” rather than “said, to, my, like”. I have managed to get them to reduce the spellings he is given each week from six to four which is more manageable. According to them this “high frequency” focus is part of letters and sounds. Would love to know if that is a fact.

    In regard to your post. Most decodable readers do introduce some sight words (a very limited set) early on. In the dandelion launchers they are clearly identified in each book at the start … so the adult reading with the child can give them to the child if they are struggling. In my experience you only need to give a child a sight word a few times in the context of reading for it to be internalised (with most children – clearly there will be exceptions). For me starting out with sight words is kind of turning reading on its head … you are teaching the child that reading is about learning by rote (and or guessing) when actually the vast majority of reading should be about decoding.

    Also think that you are going to a vast amount of effort creating your own books when there are such lovely resources available now. Having said that earlier this week I got Tom to read some books I created for my eldest Daughter (now 10) . Like yours they are a mixture of sight words she had learnt (aged 3) and decodable. He loved them because they were so personalised (about our family with pictures of Dad being Bad etc.). Wonder if you wouldn’t get more literacy value if you were to spend the time working with the children on creating their own books!

  7. I was interested to read bjohnson’s comments. There is no doubt that some children can learn to read through sight words. They see the word once or twice and memorise the picture of the word, and they progress at a fast pace. But there are others who do not have a good visual memory, and if guessing is the easier option, they will choose that, rather than decode. These children are very often not identified until they reach end of Year 1 or Year 2 and become the frustrated 6 and 7 year old non readers. The reception teacher does not see those children, because they have left her class by then.
    The child then starts misbehaving, and the misbehaviour is blamed for the non-reading. Virtually all children can be taught to read, and I feel it is wrong to only support those with the visual skills.
    If those non readers are lucky, and get phonic one to one tuition at a later stage, they can learn to read, but this is not available to all children. Also, those children who learn to read at a later stage have great difficulties catching up with their peers.
    I believe starting with phonics does not hamper the visual child at all, because the visual child is going to remember the sight words. I think that is actually what you are saying.
    As a busy reception teacher, why not teach phonics, as the initial strategy, so that all children can learn to read, and not, as has been happening in schools, only those with good visual memory.

  8. I realise this thread is very old but as a parent (and secondary English teacher) helping my son to learn to read, I have been so impressed by the fully decodable phonics readers available on the market, which have allowed my son to develop so much confidence as a reader: “I can read!”. By contrast, I find it baffling why anyone would present a complete beginner with books that include non-decodable words, such as “spaceman” and “orange” (both examples from ORT), which are neither phonically decodable nor high-frequency enough to warrant memorisation. It feels like a cruel trick to play on a beginner reader, which risks denting their confidence. I have removed all of the say-and-see readers from our bookshelf and created a bookshelf of fully decodable readers, where I can reassure my son with complete confidence, “Yes, you can read! In fact, I bet you can read any of the books on that shelf, all by yourself.” That’s incredibly empowering for a young reader. We talk about the pictures a lot, of course, because this is a good way of developing interpretative skills: we might discuss how a character’s feelings are revealed by the expression on his face, or we might predict what might happen from a visual clue, but these are not long-term reading strategies per se: when my year 10 students encounter Dickens for the first time, they rarely have the luxury of illustrations to help them make sense of the text.

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