Decodable Books

Written by: Brooke Vitale


If you’ve been reading the news lately—at least the education section—you’ve probably seen the terms science of reading, structured literacy, balanced literacy, and decodable text popping up. The truth is, with more and more states mandating a phonics-based curriculum and turning to decodable books, the term decodable has become a bit of a buzzword. But what does decodable actually mean? Quite simply, decodable text is text that a child has the ability to sound out.

What Is Decoding?

For most adults, the act of reading seems as simple as looking at a word and knowing what it is. Our brains have been trained to recognize the letters that form a word and put them together almost instantaneously. Rarely is there a need to sound out the words we see on a page. The ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly is known as automaticity.

New readers lack automaticity. They don’t see text as words, but as a series of letters to identify and sound out. For a new reader, “reading” each word begins by breaking the word apart into individual sounds (called phonemes). Once that has been done, the reader must then blend those sounds back together. The ability to identify the sounds made by each letter (or group of letters) in a word and then string them together to form a full word is called decoding

Pro Tip: Once a child can decode individual words, they are ready to begin practicing their reading with decodable books. Decodable books are books specifically intended to focus on the particular skill a child is learning.

Pro Tip: Early phonetic learning often focuses on orally identifying the sounds that make up a word. Ask a child what sounds make up the word bag and they will come back with the phonemes /b/ /a/ /g/. But being able to identify those sounds out loud and being able to recognize the letters that make those sounds on paper is not the same thing. Learning to decode takes time, and is what makes using decodable readers so important.

What Is a Scope and Sequence?

In order to read, children must first learn the sounds letters make, how to divide syllables, what punctuation is, and so much more. If this sounds like a lot to teach a child, it is! Luckily, children don’t learn all of this at once, and the order in which children learn these skills isn’t random.

Phonics curriculums (and typically decodable book series) follow something called a scope and sequence. A scope and sequence is an organized list of the concepts to be taught (the scope) and the order in which they are organized (the sequence). A proper scope and sequence moves from simple concepts all the way up to advanced skills.

Take a look, for example, at the Charge Mommy Decodable Readers Scope and Sequence. At a high level, our decodable books begin with the simple concept of reading short vowel sounds. Once this has been mastered, children move on to consonant blending, followed by digraphs, long vowel VCE words, and so on. 

Pro Tip: The Charge into Reading decodable readers have now been aligned to UFLI Foundations and appear on the UFLI Decodable Book Guide.

A high-level image of the charge into reading scope and sequence

The further a child progresses in their reading journey, the more complex the skills they can handle become, from the introduction of multisyllabic words to the teaching of advanced spelling patterns and contractions.

While a scope and sequence teaches these skills one at a time, it is essential to recognize that none of them are taught in isolation. Rather, a scope and sequence is cumulative, which each skill building on the ones taught previously. The same is true of any good decodable book. A true decodable reader series will be cumulative in nature, ideally matching a vetted scope and sequence.

Pro Tip: Not all students move through a scope and sequence at the same pace. Some will progress quickly, even beginning to read words that haven’t been explicitly taught with ease. Others will move more slowly, struggling to gain automaticity at each stage of the scope and sequence. Practice with decodable books is an excellent way to reinforce these skills.

Take a look, for example, at this page from Run, Pug! Part of the Charge into Reading Short Vowel Decodable Reader Set. This decodable reader focuses on the use of the short U sound.

Sample pages from charge into reading stage 1: short vowel sounds Run Pug: A short U Decodable Reader

Now take a look at the following pages from Stan and the Slug: An S-Blends Decodable Reader. 

Sample pages from charge into reading stage 2: consonant blends; Stan and the Slug: S Blends Decodable Reader

Part of the Charge into Reading Consonant Blends Decodable Reader Set, this decodable book incorporates both S-blend words such as spin, stop, and slug, and a mix of short vowel sounds. On these pages alone, the short A, short E, short I, and short U sounds appear.

Looking at Charge into Reading’s more detailed scope and sequence for Stage 2, you can see that the scope focuses on a single sound at a time, while spiraling back to include previously learned sounds.

Scope and sequence for Stage 2: Charge into Reading Consonant Blends

Pro Tip: Charge into Reading is a publisher of decodable books meant to support a reading curriculum. It is not a curriculum unto itself, and therefore does not focus on the particular order in which each sound within a stage of decodable readers should be taught. A curriculum-based scope and sequence will go one step further, explicitly breaking out the particular order of sounds to be taught. Short vowel sounds, for example, are usually taught in the following order: short A, short I, short O, short U, short E.

What Is Decodable Text?

Decodable texts are sentences, paragraphs, or books that encourage children to sound out (or decode) words based on spelling patterns they have already been taught—that is, based on where they are in the particular scope and sequence they are following. 

Good decodable books are specifically sequenced and planned to use recently acquired phonics skills. Ideally, they should include a strong focus on the sound or spelling pattern actively being taught, while including practice on previously learned skills.

Take a look, for example, at the word list for the Charge into Reading decodable book The Cove: Long O VCE Decodable Reader.

The word list from Charge into Reading The Cove: Long O VCE Decodable Reader by Brooke Vitale

This decodable book focuses on the VCE pattern O-E. Of the 54 unique words in the book, 28 of them (52%) feature the specific skill set the book focuses on. Repeated exposure to this spelling pattern helps a new reader to familiarize themselves with it, and ultimately map the pattern to their brain (called orthographic mapping).

When discussing decodable text, it is important to remember that what is decodable for one child may not be decodable for another. Thinking back to the Charge into Reading scope and sequence, a reader who is learning the sounds in Stage 3: Digraph Decodable Book Set would be expected to have the skills necessary to decode the books in Stages 1 and 2. For that reader, every book is stage 3 would be a decodable book.

The same is not true in reverse. A child who is on Stage 2: Consonant Blends will not have the skills yet to recognize that the S and H in words such as fish, wish, and shift work together to form the /sh/ sound. Instead, that child would likely try to read each sound separately. For such a child, a book featuring digraphs would not be decodable.

At their core, decodable texts and decodable books act as a support system for beginning readers to gain confidence in recently learned skills, while building on those skills previously mastered—but only if properly sequenced.

Pro Tip: Decodable books are often criticized for being boring. Remember that good decodable reader doesn’t have to be boring. It can be just as engaging as other books, and can offer equally rich vocabulary, all while staying true to a scope and sequence.

High-Frequency Words and Decodable Text

Good decodable books that feature ONLY the sounds and spelling patterns introduced in a scope and sequence can be challenging to write. That’s because such common words as the, to, he, she, and go feature skills introduced later in a child’s reading development. While these words are ultimately decodable, children often need to learn them sooner. For that reason, decodable readers often features a handful of high-frequency words.

A high-frequency word is one that appears frequently enough in text (both decodable books and otherwise) that children learn to read it prior to learning the phonics skill associated with it. Other examples of high-frequency words include irregular words such as said, say, and put, which do not make the sounds one might expect based purely on their spelling patterns.

It is not uncommon for reading curriculums to teach these words separately, encouraging children to learn not only how to read them, but how to spell them as well.

Pro Tip: A sight word is one that children recognize instantly, on sight. These words are not automatic, and take time to learn. Most often when people discuss sight words, what they mean are high-frequency words. Remember that until a child can actually recognize the word with automaticity, it is not a sight word.

Free Decodable Books and Passages

Charge Mommy Books is committed to getting children the resources they need to learn how to read. But we know that not every parent and teacher around the world has access to our decodable books. That's why we offer free decodable books and resource on our site. Sample resources include:

  • PDF downloads of decodable books
  • Reader's theater
  • Decodable passages
  • Phonemic awareness activities
  • Seasonal activity packs

A picture displaying different free Charge into Reading Decodable Books and Passages.
All of these resources follow the same scope and sequence used in the Charge into Reading Decodable Reader Series

The Three-Cueing System Versus Decodable Text

For many years, children were taught to read not using decodable books or a phonics-based approach, but using what was known as the three-cueing system. This method of reading encouraged children not to sound words out, but rather to “guess” at words based on three criteria:

  • Meaning: Does it make sense
  • Structure: Does it sound right
  • Visual: Does it look right

Unfortunately, this method of reading relies heavily on visual cues and does not always result in the correct answer. 

In reading the sentence “The horse ran across the yard,” for example, a child might guess that the word horse is actually pony. After all, the sentence “The pony ran across the yard” makes as much sense as the original sentence. It sounds right, and odds are the picture would look right. But of course, it’s not right. And teaching a child to read based on those cues led to serious issues once the pictures disappeared and children had no visual cues to read with.   

A true decodable book, by comparison, does not require a reader to guess at what a word might be based on whether it makes sense. Instead, a decodable book encourages them to sound out a word based on their existing reading skills.

Decodable readers also don't offer “picture clues” to help determine the word. Instead, a good decodable book will offer pictures that enhance the story, rather than telling the reader what the words on the page are.

At Charge Mommy Books, we pride ourselves not only on using the art in our decodable books to enhance the meaning of a sentence, but to introduce new vocabulary and open up conversations about what a word might mean. Take, for example, this page from our SH reader Wish Fish

An image from the Charge into Reading Book Wish Fish: SH Decodable Reader

A child reading this page could not guess that the last word is shad. This would have to be sounded out to get the correct word. But once the child reads that word, the art can help the reader to determine what a shad is. 

Decodable books also do not offer predictable text. Predictable text is a series of similar sentences strung together. For example:

This is my big cat.

This is my big dog.

This is my big pig.

This is my big hen.

In the example above, a reader would likely catch on quickly to the fact that only the last word of each sentence is different. Predictable text enables readers to “memorize” a sentence without properly reading it.

Decodable books, by comparison, offers more varied text to avoid this memorization.

The cat is as big as a cab. 
It is a big cat, but it is not  as big as the dog. 
The dog is as big as a van!

Here, the word big is repeated, but not with the same sentence structure over and over. Even the repeated sentence at the beginning and end of the paragraph does not come across as predictable because it is broken up by other text.

Why Does Decodable Text Matter?

Given the new understanding of how critical phonics skills are to mastering reading, the use of decodable books has never been more important. As tempting as it is to tell a child to memorize a word, straight memorization will not help when they come in contact with more challenging words down the road. And memorizing a word on its own may not lead to recognizing the same letter combination in the middle of a longer word.

Decodable books enable children not to memorize, but to learn what sounds letter combinations make—and under what circumstances—and apply that to words of any length. They encourage children to take the time to decode actual words and their meanings without the background support of illustrations, which enable guessing.

Studies show that children who use decodable readers have increased reading accuracy and are more likely to continue decoding text outside of a classroom or instructional setting.

Why Use Decodable Books?

Unlike leveled readers, which offer a “level” without any real insight into what that level means, decodable books are skill-based. That means that it is easy to determine what reading stage your child is at and to find a book that is truly appropriate for that stage.

The mastery of phonics patterns is foundational in reading, but children will quickly lose interest in reading unrelated sentences. As such, decodable readers are a convenient tool not only for classroom learning, but for parents to use at home with their children to encourage reading comprehension and engagement.

The term decodable text can apply to many things: decodable sentences, decodable passages, decodable activity pages, or decodable books. While all of these are essential components to furthering a child's reading skills, it is important not to underestimate the power a child feels when reading a physical book. A true decodable book—that is, a printed decodable book that a child can hold in their hands—offers a sense of confidence that using printouts and passages does not. Time and again, I have received feedback from parents and teachers whose children have completed one of our decodable books and are so excited to say "I read a book. All on my own." The ability to turn the pages—to physically mark their progress as they move along through a decodable book—provides children with an amazing sense of accomplishment that is not to be overlooked.

What can your child read today?

What is decodable to one child may not be to another. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your child recognize uppercase and lowercase letters?
  • Does your child know their letter sounds?
  • Can your child blend (sound out) 2- and 3-letter words, or are they getting ready to?

Use our reading assessment to find the right decodable books for your child.

How to Select Decodable Books

When selecting decodable books, it is critical to test the specific phonics skill being addressed in the book. Remember, not all decodable books are relevant to all learners. Before selecting any decodable reader, consider the following:

  • Does the scope and sequence used in the decodable books align well with the scope and sequence your child is reading?
  • Does the decodable book include multiple uses of the specific skill being targeted, or is the skill only used a few times?
  • Does the decodable book feature correct grammar and punctuation?
  • Does the decodable book include a list of skill-specific words to review before or after reading?
  • Does the decodable book include a list of high-frequency words to review with your child prior to reading?
  • Are the high-frequency words used in the decodable book actually common words, or are they random words your child might not be familiar with?

When choosing decodable books, it is important to remember that some decodable books feature simple stories for the true beginning reader while others encourage more comprehension techniques with higher interest topics. A more challenging decodable book would build on the phonics instruction a reader has already received and mastered, while a simpler decodable book might focus more specifically on beginning phonics instruction.

Before investing in any decodable reading system, be sure the scope and sequence is readily available for review so that you know what you’re getting with each book.

Remember, a strong base in decoding text is the first step in reading, as it enables children to recognize familiar words and figure out unfamiliar ones more quickly as their reading skills progress. Be sure to select decodable books at your child’s reading level to avoid frustration with encountering words your child does not yet have the skills to decode.

Charge into Reading Decodable Readers

At Charge Mommy Books, I approach decodable books a bit differently than most. Whereas some decodable books have been criticized for being boring, I know that nothing engages a reader more than humor. And I know that a story that doesn’t make sense won’t be read more than once. With 20 years’ as a children’s book editor under my belt and more than 100 published children’s books, I know how to write decodable books with a clear beginning, middle, and end that readers will actually WANT to read.

But I don’t trust just my own judgement. I read every decodable book I write to my own new readers. And if it doesn’t make them laugh, I throw it away. Because I’ve seen my own kids walk away from boring books far too often! I don’t want yours to do the same.

Grounded in the Science of Reading and designed in consultation with Orton-Gillingham trained literacy specialist Marisa Ware, the Charge into Reading Decodable Readers take the guesswork out of learning to read!

The Short Vowel Beginning Reader Set is perfect for children who know their letter sounds and are ready to begin decoding or "sounding out" words. Each book in the set focuses on a single short vowel sound, building reading confidence one sound at a time. Compelling storylines paired with a strict scope and sequence make for a series that children won't just be ABLE to read, but that they will actually WANT to read.

But it’s not only humor that sets our decodable books apart—it’s the way they are structured. Rather than focusing on all sounds within a stage of reading together, Charge Mommy Decodable Readers break each of the sounds taught at each stage of reading into individual books. Not one short vowel sound book, but a book focused on Short A, one on Short E, and so on. Not all word-ending spelling patterns together, but a book on the TCH sound, one on DGE, one on NK, one on the FLSZ rule, and one on the ending sounds of Y. This individual focus allows a reader to master a single sound at a time, not a collection of sounds.

Each decodable book also comes with 8 pages of sound-specific literacy activities that allow children to roll right from reading to practice—no prep needed!

 A sample literacy activity page from Charge into Reading: Wish Fish: SH Decodable Book

And because I want you to know exactly what you’re getting, every decodable book begins with a word list that features all of the skill-specific words included in that book, any high-frequency words included, and any skill-specific words that match other decodable books in that stage of reading.

At Charge Mommy Books, we believe in complete transparency. That’s why our scope and sequence doesn’t just list the skill-specific words in each decodable book, it lists every word in every book. 

This scope and sequence was created in consultation with Orton-Gillingham-trained literacy specialist Marisa Ware.

A sample page from the Charge into Reading Decodable Books scope and sequence

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