What is a decodable reader?


When it comes to early reading, the term 'decodable reader' is quite the buzz word. And with good reason! So what is a decodable reader? And why should your child be using them? 

A DECODABLE READER is a book that only contains the letters, sounds and spelling patterns that a child has actually been taught.  

The focus is on decoding text (blending sounds to read words) based on skills learned not guessing words based on the pictures.

Decodable readers are carefully designed to support readers as they build their understanding of letters and sounds, and the patterns that occur in our language.

They are generally tied closely to a particular phonics program, and build in complexity in line with the sequence introduced in the program.

Most phonics programs start with just a few sounds - s, a, t, p, i, n - then add a few more - m, o, p. Children learn the link between these sounds and letters and then practise reading short words containing just 3 sounds (CVC words as discussed in Lingo-Free Literacy #3). For example, 'mmm' and 'a' and 't' blend together to form the word 'mat'.

The other type of reader that is commonly used in a classroom (and is most likely in your child's classroom) is a levelled reader or PM READER. These tend to include lovely illustrations but far more complex words. The hope is that by immersing the child in words, while referring to the pictures, they will start to make connections between the written and spoken word themselves. This approach may work for some children, but it is certainly not the recommended approach according to the science of how our brains learn to read.

Remember, learning to read is not a developmental stage like learning to walk or talk. It is a complex skill and we need to explicitly TEACH children how to do it.

Let me show you an example of each reader style to demonstrate.

Decodable Reader

This kind of book is decodable - we are asking the child to decode the word by identifying each sound in the word and blending those sounds together to form words. This is an example of text at a beginner level. it only includes simple words and a limited number of letters.

Tim Taps
Tim sits on a mat.
Tim taps on a pot.
Tap Tim, tap!


You'll notice this story only includes letters they have been taught (s, a, t, i, m, n, o, p) which means ALL WORDS can be decoded. Using their knowledge of letters and sounds they can blend the sounds to form words. While the stories may not be amazing at the beginner level, if a child is reading this book they are genuinely decoding the English language. The next step is to add more code. 

Beginner PM Reader (also referred to as 'levelled text')

This kind of book is predictive - we are asking the child to guess what the text is based on the picture. 

Around the Garden
Look at the butterfly.
Look at the caterpillar
Look at the beetle.
Look at the yellow flowers.


Given this is a beginner reader they MAY be able to read words like 'at' and 'the' but they will be predicting the rest based on the picture. You'll notice each sentence starts the same way. It doesn't take children long to work out that they can repeat the start, look at the picture and guess the final word.

This story includes all kinds of complexity that is well beyond a beginner reader. For example:

  • 2, 3 and 4-syllable words (bee-tle, but-ter-fly, cat-ter-pil-lar)
  • the 'oo' sound pattern (look)
  • the 'ee' sound pattern (beetle)
  • and '_le' syllable type (beetle)
  • that o+w can say 'oh' (yellow) and 'ow' (flower)

The child is left with no option but to guess. Remember, at this early stage the child may have only been taught a handful of letters and sounds in class. 

Our school doesn't have decodable readers. What should I do?

Firstly, don't panic. The first step is to be aware.

If your school are providing predictable PM Readers rather than decodable readers, look for elements in each page that your child may be able to decode. For example: 

  • how many words can you see that include the letter 'p'
  • point to letters and ask 'what's the sound for this letter'?
  • pick out 2-sound or 3-sound words that your child may know and get them to sound them out. (e.g. an, in, mat, sit) 

Next, get online and find yourself some beginner decodable readers. Click here for Read3's suggestions for beginner readers and where to find them.

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