How to use real books and decodable books with beginner readers in the classroom

Recent articles in the media about the approach to teaching reading suggest that educators are divided into two camps: the ‘real book’ camp and the synthetic phonics camp.

The real book camp is supported by a number of prominent authors, such as Michael Rosen. They have voiced their concern that using decodable reading books limits children’s vocabulary and denies them the joy of reading and the variety and richness of children’s picture books: decodable books switch children off from reading. The impression is formed that teachers use either real books or decodable books.

Susan Godsland, from the Reading Reform Foundation, debunks this premise and explains why and how the two go hand in hand.

How to use real books and decodable books with beginner readers

1. The vast majority of beginner readers need decodable words, sentences and books, fiction and non-fiction, for reading (decoding) practice, alongside a systematic synthetic phonics classroom programme. This is to set automatic decoding habits in place and avoid children struggling to read words for which they haven’t learnt the code, which, as we know, can cause great anxiety, loss of comprehension and a fear of reading.

2. A tiny minority of children enter YR already reading well –once it is established that they are not relying on sight word memorisation they should be offered real books at the correct level and with appropriate content from the onset.

3. The main decodable reading scheme used should follow the introduction order of the letter/sound correspondence of the classroom programme. With experience teachers will become confident about mixing other decodable book schemes into the main scheme, and should be encouraged to do so to add variety to children’s decodable reading matter.

4. Excellent classroom synthetic phonics teaching alongside decodable books should enable the vast majority of children to move smoothly on to reading real books and a variety of other natural text independently by the end of KS1 – and some much sooner than then.

5. Whilst most children will be limited to decodable books for reading practice, ALL KS1 children should be enveloped in a language rich environment in the classroom – for language development and comprehension purposes they should be read real stories and poems and engage with beautiful picture books, fiction and non-fiction.

6. Good synthetic phonics teaching and practice with decodable books shouldn’t take up much time in the early years, ‘It is multi-sensory and fun and can be achieved in 30 minutes a day, leaving several hours to be filled by child-initiated play, sand, water, painting, outdoor play, you name it.’

7. Modern decodable book schemes can be just as engaging and interesting as real books for early readers. They are certainly preferable to the repetitive text of whole language readers and a far cry from the dull, Victorian ‘The cat sat on the hat’ type books of yesteryear.

8. Before making a judgement on the worth of decodable books, possible detractors should first take a close look at one or more of the new book schemes, such as Read Write Inc. or the Dandelion Books, AND use, or see in use, such a scheme with a class of beginning readers. If they haven’t done this then their opinions cannot be taken seriously.

9. It must be acknowledged that a minority of children, even with the best synthetic phonics teaching, will be slow to become confident decoders for a variety of reasons (poor memory, low phonological learning ability, ESL, absence due to ill health…) They may need to continue with suitable decodable books for reading practice purposes after KS1.

10. Whilst the teaching of classroom synthetic phonics is not optimal still in perhaps the majority of schools, decodable books for intervention, suitable for older readers, will continue to be necessary.

Susan Godsland 2011.

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