Learning to read can be a mysterious process – some children just seem to ‘get it’ without having to be explicitly taught.
But we know from research that reading does need to be taught, unlike language development, which is an innate skill that all human beings just have.
Many children require a systematic approach that allows them to learn to read. Following a systematic approach usually involves teaching a few sounds at a time, and gradually adding in more sounds as a child masters those sounds that have been taught previously. For these children, decodable books become an important and crucial part of the learning process.
So, what are decodable books?
Put simply, a decodable book is a book that contains only the letters and sounds that a child has already learned, plus a few high frequency words e.g. ‘you’, ‘the’, and ‘my’. Written words can be looked upon as a code made of letters that represent sounds. Reading is thus a process of decoding and identifying the sounds that these letters represent, and putting the sounds together to form words. There are approximately 44 sounds in the English language, and only 26 letters. Often, the same letter can give a different sound, and likewise, the same sound can be spelt using different letters. For example, the letter ‘a’ can be said one way in “hat”, and a different way in “baby”. Similarly, the sound ‘eee’ can be spelt ‘ea’ like in “team”, and also ‘y’ like in “funny”.
A child at the beginning stages of reading who has learned consonant and short vowel sounds can decode and read simple words like ‘hat’, ‘bed’ and ‘dog’, but will not be able to decode more complex words like ‘chair’, and ‘sound’. When a child is expected to read books with words that he is unable to decode based on his current letter and sound knowledge, he does not have the necessary skills to read the words in those books and therefore starts guessing at words. This leads to the development of poor reading strategies, and often, the child loses the direct connection between the sound-letter patterns he is learning and the text he is reading.
On the other hand, when a child reads a fully decodable book that is linked to the same sequence of sound and letter relationships that he is learning, he is able to apply his knowledge and build the link between sounds/letters and the words. With practice, the child develops good reading strategies and also improves his reading accuracy and speed. Because he is able to decode every word in the book, he also feels successful, which in turn helps build confidence. Soon enough, he will develop the skills and knowledge to read more complex texts that may contain any of the letter representations of the 44 sounds in English!