The University of Iowa

The Role of Decodable Readers in Phonics Instruction

Teacher helping student reading book

When students practice with decodable readers, they see words in a carefully planned scope and sequence that allows for focused phonics instruction.


Posted on: November 17, 2020

Many comprehensive core literacy curricula for beginning readers include or recommend decodable books (also commonly referred to as decodable readers, decodable texts, or controlled texts) for practice applying phonics skills in connected text (i.e., words that are not in isolation but are used to form sentences and paragraphs). Although these texts are an important tool, they can create confusion for parents or educators who are attempting to provide supplemental instruction. Compared to other books in the program that are brightly illustrated and include enriching content, it may seem counterintuitive to utilize texts that present seemingly limited vocabulary and little to no illustrations. To better understand the value of decodable readers in reading instruction, it is important to first understand the differences between decodable readers and leveled readers.

Decodable Readers

Decodable readers are texts that introduce words and word structures in a carefully planned scope and sequence. The order in which that word structure is introduced often aligns with the scope and sequence of the curriculum. In this way, students have the opportunity to apply the phonics skills they are learning and to build confidence in their abilities to read full sentences and short stories. Decodable readers that are not specifically tied to a curriculum’s scope and sequence are often leveled by syllable types. These books tend to indicate what type of syllables are used in the book, using the patterns of vowels (V) and consonants (C) such as:

Pattern Syllable Type
VC closed
CVC closed
CV open
CVCC closed (with consonant blend or digraph)
CCVC closed (with consonant blend or digraph)
VCe silent-e
CVr r-controlled
CVVC vowel pair or diphthong
VCCle final stable

Decodable readers are sequenced to include words with more complex structures as students progress to learning those complex structures during explicit literacy instruction.

By design, decodable readers often do not include extensive illustrations. Early readers should not be encouraged to use images or pictures as context to guess what the words are. Rather, they should be encouraged to attack words using their phonics knowledge and decoding skills (Hempenstall, 2003). By not providing illustrations that can be used by readers to compensate for weak decoding skills, decodable readers reinforce good reading habits. In addition, the systematic presentation of phonics skills in the readers make error patterns easier for educators to track and use to plan subsequent instruction that will ensure children continue to make progress and master foundational language skills.

While reading decodable texts with students, it is important not to allow students to attempt reading the words by guessing at their shapes or looking at the first letters and guessing the remainder of the words. If students have not yet learned any of the phonetic structures present in the new words, it is acceptable to read the vocabulary words to the student.

Many decodable readers will identify new vocabulary words at the start of the text so they can be taught before students begin reading the passage. To help students learn a new vocabulary word, follow these steps:

  1. Read it to them as a whole word.
  2. Pronounce each sound in the word, pointing to the graphemes (letters or letter combinations) that coincide with the sounds.
  3. Read the whole word again.
  4. Have the student repeat the word and continue reading the passage.

If the word appears again in the text, give students a moment to recognize it. If they do not recognize it, then repeat the process as if seeing the word for the first time. This approach will help to encourage a positive reading experience and prevent students from experiencing a sense of failure when they have not yet been taught the necessary skills for decoding the new words.

Leveled Readers

The author or publisher chooses the content of leveled readers (i.e., books intended to match the current reading ability, age, or grade of a student). Sometimes, the content is thematic (e.g., seasons, holidays, mystery, animals, fantasy). Content also may be based on the opinions of educators about what would be appropriate for students of a certain age. It is common for leveled readers to include an estimated difficulty or readability level such as a targeted grade or a Lexile reading measure (MetaMatrics, 2007). Readability levels are determined by measuring word frequency and sentence length, rather than the scope and sequence of decoding instruction. Leveled readers also are typically brightly and ornately illustrated, giving students images and ample context to guess what the words are in the text. This can make it very difficult for educators to detect error patterns because students can use these compensatory skills to read. Moreover, there is no consistency in the skills required to read a given text. Together, these characteristics can make it difficult to know from children’s performances with the leveled readers what adjustments, if any, should be made to foundational skills instruction.  

Using Different Books For Different Purposes

These distinctions in text types highlight that decodable readers are intended for explicit instruction in how to decode or apply phonics skills to read words. However, effective literacy instruction is not limited to only encoding and decoding words. Early exposure to a variety of books and other texts will build students’ knowledge of content or concepts, develop their language abilities, and communicate life skills such as empathy and critical thinking.

To make the most of reading a non-decodable book, try pairing the reading with one or more of the following activities:

  • Take turns with young readers as you use new words from the text in additional sentences.
  • Find words that rhyme with words from the book.
  • Set a family or classroom challenge to use five more times that day a new word read in the text.
  • Find antonyms and synonyms that you could substitute for a word read in the text and discuss what impact those changes would have on the story line.
  • Read in various accents.
  • Read with different rates or styles, and ask students if that made it easier or harder to understand the meaning of the book. 
  • Read a sentence and work together to see how many ways the sentence can be repeated with a different expression, phrasing, pausing, or emphasis. Discuss how each change affects the meaning of the sentence or the text as a whole.

Although other kinds of books can be more stimulating, decodable readers should not be viewed as negative. In fact, decodable readers can build students’ feelings of success because they reinforce the cumulative nature of early reading development and increase students’ opportunities to practice essential skills with more than just isolated words (Cheatham & Allor, 2012). Designing comprehensive literacy instruction requires a good understanding of what decodable readers are, why they are needed, and how they should and should not be used.


Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: A review of the evidence. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25, 2223–2246.

Hempenstall, K. (2003). The three‐cueing system: Trojan horse? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8(2), 15–23.

MetaMetrics. (2007). The Lexile framework. EBSCO Publishing.