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Choosing the right books for beginning readers

A good quality, synthetic phonics program paired with decodable readers will ensure all students have the best chance of acquiring reading success.

According to reading scientists and an ever-growing body of research, it is now indisputable that decodable, phonic-based readers are most appropriate for beginner readers. In order to improve global reading results, we need to focus on teaching reading skills explicitly. A good quality, synthetic phonics program paired with decodable readers will ensure all students have the best chance of acquiring reading success.

For most people with reading difficulties, a phonological deficit (difficulty working with the sounds in words), makes high-quality instruction even more crucial. We need to engage students in a powerful evidence-based program, such as Sounds~Write, MultiLit or Jolly Phonics, that teaches them about the sounds in words and their relationship to letters. These introductory literacy programs are most effective when complemented with phonics-based readers.

Levelled readers undermine reading development

One of the major barriers to the teaching of phonics is the adoption of reading levels by Australian schools. Levelled books are classified in different ways depending on the system but are based on the number of words, semantic difficulty and the complexity of the sentences, rather than code knowledge that has first been explicitly taught. What this means is that a book with a levelled vocabulary can have mixed text in it with all kinds of spellings. Students may find some books easy at a particular level (those that follow a predictable pattern, for example) and others too hard. To deal with the difficulty students have decoding text that contains spellings and word structures they have not yet been taught, they are given strategies that undermine the reading development process, such as guessing from context clues and pictures. These systems include a testing regime to determine when children are ready to proceed to the next level. Well known systems include Running Records, Lexile Framework for Reading, Reading Recovery, Guided Reading and PM Benchmarking.

In many schools, there are expectations in terms of levels for each grade. For example, students should be at Level 23 by the end of Grade 2. Because reading skills are not taught explicitly and systematically through these systems, students can find themselves at the same level for a whole year. This can have detrimental effects on their motivation and self-esteem. The systems that level books now have a strong commercial base and schools prefer to buy books that fit into the levelling system they are using.

Choosing phonically controlled books

To ensure that beginning readers enjoy success, it is important to explicitly teach phonic skills. These are the foundation skills of independent reading as they provide students with the ability to decode words they have not seen before. Depending on the program, teaching starts with the sounds of 5-6 letters of the alphabet, for example s, a, t, i, m, and students are then taught to blend words containing just these letters, eg sat, at, mat. As more letters are introduced, more words can be decoded by the student. Once they can recognise and blend each of the letters of the alphabet, they can be introduced to consonant and vowel digraphs and alternate spellings of the vowel sounds. Good quality phonic readers will follow a progression of introducing sounds and spellings. It is important to ensure the progression of your readers will fit with your explicit phonics program.

Students should be using decodable readers for as long as they are learning to read. Decodable simply means the student has acquired the knowledge and skills to decode the text.

Recommended Phonic Books

Dandelion Launchers and Readers
Little Learners Love Literacy
InitiaLit Readers
Decodable Readers Australia
Letters and Sounds
Snappy Sounds
Jolly Phonics Level 0 orange readers
Fitzroy Readers

See more information about some of these recommended books on our Public Libraries page. Members can be borrow these readers from the SPELD SA library. The readers may also be purchased from our shop.

Readers for older students with literacy difficulties

Phonic Books UK have published a series of Catch-up readers for older students (from around Year 3). These follow the same progression for introducing sounds as the Dandelion Launchers and Readers but contain more age-appropriate text and illustrations. To determine where to start with your student, a placement test is available on the Phonic Books UK website.

Further Reading

Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation

How Spelling Supports Reading And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think by Louisa Moats

Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When “Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction” Isn’t By Louisa Moats Foreword by Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Martin A. Davis, Jr

Teaching decoding by Louisa Moats

Putting research into practice for teaching beginning readers: One school’s move to implement evidence based instruction by Principal, Steven Capp, BWPS

Outline of the literacy progression in the Australian Curriculum - emphasizes the need for students to apply knowledge with decodable texts

Outline of the skills of developing fluency using decodable texts and then moving onto what we would term levelled readers once decoding is firm.

Can I use decodable readers with PM readers by Decodable Readers Australia

SPELD SA is a not-for-profit organisation providing advice and services to children and adults with specific learning difficulties and those who care for, teach, and work with them.

For over 50 years we have been delivering a range of services to the community including educational training, parent workshops, educational consultations, psychological assessments, tutoring, literacy intervention programs and extensive resources through our library and bookshop.

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