Using Decodable Books with Older Struggling Readers
Updated: Aug 13
In my role as a specialist teacher and Director of The Dyslexia Hub, I work predominantly with upper-primary and secondary-aged students. This is partly by choice (I was a secondary school teacher for many years), but also because this is where the demand is. The vast majority of enquiries to our service are from parents of kids and teens who, after 3, 4...10 years in the school system, have failed to thrive. They have already passed through Prep, Grade 1 & Grade 2 - those crucial early years when children are typically taught to read - and have emerged on the other side without the necessary skills to be capable, confident readers.
Yet while there are already many wonderful resources out there discussing initial reading instruction and the use of decodable readers to support this learning in the P-2 classroom (shout out to Little Learners Love Literacy, Decodable Readers Australia and Snappy Sounds), there is very little information available - for parents or teachers - on how to help older struggling readers i.e. those students in Grade 3 or above who are not yet reading simple chapter books with accuracy and fluency due, primarily, to word-level reading difficulties. These are the kids who are often described as 'reluctant readers' - they don't read for pleasure, they are hesitant to read out loud and they tire quickly when reading. Put simply, reading for them is hard work! Some will have dyslexia. Others won't. All are in desperate need of the same systematic, explicit approach to reading instruction - no matter what their age.
This article is therefore an attempt to fill this void - to explore some of the issues associated with getting older struggling readers on the path to reading success, and the role that catch-up decodable readers can play in this process.
Why decodable readers?
As anyone who has used them knows, decodable readers are a powerful teaching tool when used to support phonics instruction. For many of the dyslexic students I work with, decodable readers have been an absolutely vital first step in their journeys to becoming more capable and confident readers. Not a 'necessary evil' as some might think, but a welcome relief. Finally, a book they can read independently, confident in the knowledge that they have the skills to decode every word on the page - no guessing required! For some, it's the very first time that they've experienced the satisfaction that comes with reading a book from cover to cover. For others, it's the chance to cut old, unhelpful habits loose (I'm looking at you Skippy Frog, Eagle Eye and Lips the Fish!). Ultimately, decodable catch-up series like Phonic Books' Magic Belt, That Dog! and Moon Dogs offer struggling readers hope that they are capable of more than they thought possible...and you can't get more powerful than that!
How do decodable readers work?
The first point to make - and this is an important one - is that decodable readers are designed to be read out loud by a student to a teacher or parent who is able to monitor their fluency and accuracy. They are not to be used for silent reading (at least on the first read), where mistakes go unchecked and those old, unhelpful habits are often reinforced. Nor are they to be read to the student - however reluctant they might initially be to put their skills to the test. As the name suggests, decodable readers exist so that students can practice decoding. If we deny them the opportunity to practice these skills by either allowing them to read without support and guidance or doing all the hard work for them, we are denying them the opportunity to learn and grow.
Secondly, decodable readers are (ideally) used as part of a teaching sequence that begins at the phoneme/grapheme level and builds up to continuous text. To ensure that students are only presented with codes they have been taught, a clear scope and sequence should be followed. Although this might look a little different with older readers whose knowledge of phonics is often 'patchy' (more on this later), structure and sequence are still important.
The basic idea is: a new code is taught, is applied at the word level, and then reinforced at the text level (using decodable readers).
The most difficult code contained within the text should always be the code that has most recently been introduced.
Occasionally the text might contain the odd 'irregular' high-frequency word (like 'said' in the sample text above). Sometimes, a student might need a little support and encouragement to apply their knowledge and skills. But they should always pick up a decodable reader a) confident that they have the skills needed to read 99% of the words on the page, and b) knowing that they should never need to rely on guessing (using either pictures, context or initial sounds) to convert print to speech.
Using decodable readers not only builds skills, but also - and just as importantly - self-efficacy...a student's belief that they possess the ability to become a reader.
Should decodable readers replace other books?
No matter what some critics might have you believe, no advocate of explicit phonics instruction would ever claim that children should be exposed to decodable readers and decodable readers only.
It is only when decodable readers are coupled with exposure to a wide range of books and literature, that students are given the very best chance to succeed as readers.
Decodable readers are used as a teaching tool to both strengthen beginning and emerging readers' knowledge and understanding of the alphabetic code and to build their proficiency as readers. They are a stepping stone to independent reading and should be used for as long as they are needed, regardless of how old the student is. But this doesn't mean that, in the meantime, they can't be immersing themselves in the worlds of Hogwarts, Narnia and Middle-earth or following the adventures of Percy Jackson, Charlie Bucket and Katniss Everdeen.
Accessing a wide range of reading material plays an important role in feeding both oral language skills and knowledge of the world, both of which are vital to reading comprehension. Therefore, for those who are: a) not yet able to access texts that match their cognitive ability and interests, and b) no longer able or willing to be read to, audiobooks are an important adjunct to decodable readers.
Audiobooks are also a wonderful way of avoiding the all-too-common silent reading charade, whereby - terrified that their reading difficulties will be revealed - a student with dyslexia will select an age-appropriate chapter book for silent reading sessions and helplessly stare at the pages, unable to make any sense of what's in front of them. In my ideal world, all schools would adopt a Universal Design for Learning approach to such situations, and offer audiobooks as an option to all students. Nobody likes to be singled out as different (least of all teens), and therefore the preference is always to create an inclusive environment where barriers to learning are altogether dismantled, not just modified for a visible few.
Challenges specific to older struggling readers.
I am a realist, and it's important to acknowledge that reading instruction is often not so simple once students are that little bit older. Not for teachers, and not for parents.
By Grade 3, these gorgeous kids have already battled through three or more years of school - bewildered as to why reading seems to come so naturally to others but not to them; frustrated that, despite doing everything their teachers are asking them to do, reading is still not 'clicking'; embarrassed and afraid that others will judge them to be 'less than'. Whilst not all struggling readers will have felt these feelings with the same degree of intensity, learning difficulties always leave their mark.
It is therefore vital that, before commencing any kind of intervention, kids' experiences are both acknowledged and validated. It's not their fault that reading hasn't come easily to them - they simply didn't receive the instruction that they needed, when they needed it...and it's important that they hear this! Let them know that you see their strengths, not just their weaknesses; reassure them that they are not alone - that there are many kids out there just like them; emphasise that now is when things will start to get better. Addressing these emotional barriers is a necessary first step in building a resilient, motivated reader.
There is then the issue of where school-based intervention takes place - the old in-class support versus withdrawal debate. Although people will have different views on this matter, I am unapologetically in the withdrawal camp when it comes to older struggling readers. The need to preserve self-esteem is paramount in these situations, and students must be offered a safe space in which to develop their skills, away from the prying eyes of their peers. When we begin reading instruction with older kids, we are asking them to open up, be vulnerable and expose a part of them that they have actively tried to hide for many years. Requiring students to do this in front of friends and classmates is not only counterproductive, it is often damaging. Therefore, if intervention is happening at school, it is important that it is done in a private breakaway space or separate classroom.
The next challenge is finding decodable readers that are appropriate for older kids. Although individual students will have individual preferences, on the whole, I find that by Grade 3, most kids are not keen on reading the decodable series designed for P-2s. The themes explored in these books are no longer developmentally appropriate, nor are they as engaging for 9+ year-olds. It is also important that, even though they might be consolidating skills usually taught in the P-2 classroom, they don't feel like they are doing it in the same way as the little kids. Again, it's all about preserving self-esteem.
For this reason, catch-up decodable series like those published by Phonic Books in the UK (e.g. Magic Belt, That Dog!, Totem, Alba) are a must for middle- to upper-primary aged students. These books are not only engaging (kids genuinely love reading them), but they also follow a clear scope & sequence and come with high-quality teacher resources (e.g. pre-reading activities, worksheets). All of the series comprise 10-12 books that follow the same set of characters through some kind of adventure. The stories contain a good mix of male and female protagonists, ensuring that they appeal to a broad audience. The books are also fully illustrated, which makes them a gentler 'in' for students still overwhelmed by full pages of uninterrupted text.
Things do, admittedly, get a little trickier once we enter the secondary years, when the aforementioned catch-up decodable series are no longer as appropriate. Although the selection for teens is somewhat limited, TAP and Piper Books both offer interesting age-appropriate options for older students. I particularly love TAP's dystopian Gas Men series; one of my most reluctant teenage students got so sucked into the storyline, that he begged to read for an entire session.
It should be noted that none of these other collections follow as fine-grained a scope and sequence as the Phonic Books series i.e. most are perhaps better described as 'phonically restricted' in that each book level is limited to certain spelling patterns (e.g. CCVCC, CV + consonant digraphs), but don't necessarily introduce new phoneme-grapheme correspondences gradually or systematically. These books are therefore designed less to support targeted phonics instruction (e.g. the various spellings of the long a sound) and more to simply practice decoding skills at a level that reflects a student's knowledge of phonics and/or morphology.
How to select the right books/series.
Finding the right entry point is paramount - both to ensuring a positive reading experience and to gaining the maximum benefit from the readers. It is important to remember that a book is only 'decodable' if the student has the requisite knowledge and skills to decode the words on the page - decodable is a relative concept! Thus, in the interests of building confidence and self-efficacy, it's preferable (in the beginning at least) to aim too low rather than too high.
If a student is already following a phonics scope and sequence, this should be used to guide your selection (see the table below). If not, simply having them read the first couple of pages of a book will give you a pretty good idea whether you've found a good fit or not. If they're reading fluently with very few (if any) accuracy errors, then go up a level. If their reading is cautious, perhaps a little disjointed, with maybe 2-3 accuracy errors or 1 decoding error per page, then stop...this is the perfect level for now i.e. there is work to be done, yet the goal of fluent and accurate reading does not seem completely out of reach. If, however, they are stumbling over multiple words, are not able to self-correct errors when supported to do so or appear fatigued after only a couple of pages, go down a level.
Another wonderful resource (especially for those looking at the Phonic Books series) is the Phonic Books diagnostic assessment, which is freely available here on their website. This single word (and nonsense word) reading test provides teachers and parents with a recommended starting point in their phonic progression.
Tips and tricks for using decodable readers with older students.
With any aged students, but particularly older students, it's always important that you begin with an explanation of why you're asking them to do something - in this case, read decodable readers. They need to know that:
* decodable readers are a learning tool to help them develop their reading skills and build confidence
* whilst these readers mightn't be exactly what they'd choose to read, right now, they are what they need to read (I liken them to veggies for the brain!)
* the aim is to transition from decodable readers to chapter books as soon as the necessary skills have been consolidated i.e. this isn't forever
Before reading...begin with a couple of pre-reading activities to 'warm up the brain'. The Phonic Books series are wonderful in that every book begins with both a single word reading list (grouped by grapheme/spelling pattern) and a list of any tricky vocabulary contained within the book. Don't skip over these! They enable students to 'tune in' to the target sound, which helps to reinforce phoneme-grapheme correspondence when they come to read the story. I usually accompany this with a brief review of the focus concept e.g. discussing the different spellings of the long a sound - noting common patterns e.g. 'ay' always comes at the end of a base word like in 'play', 'a' will say its name at the end of an open syllable like in 'ba.by'.
When reading...it is important that students are encouraged to read 'through the word' i.e. systematically match graphemes (spelling patterns) with phonemes (sounds) and blend those sounds to form a word.
After reading...discuss the story, ponder what might happen next, review helpful strategies, but most importantly, praise your student for what they did well! Whether they consistently paused at the end of sentences, chunked longer words into syllables, didn't guess, read with expression, or simply read an entire page for the first time...positive reinforcement is everything!
If a student mis-identifies the vowel sound in a word, highlight the grapheme, and ask e.g. "What sound does 'ai' make?" If they're still not sure, give them a guide word e.g. "Like in 'rain'." Then direct them to attempt the word again. Make a note that this spelling pattern needs more work.
If a student is struggling to accurately blend all the sounds in a word (this is often a particular issue with CCVCC words), blend incrementally e.g. s, sp, spe, spen, spend. Make a note that blending needs more work.
If a student is getting distracted by the pictures (either intentionally or unintentionally!), try a timed challenge i.e. how quickly can you read the next four pages.
If a student is reverting to guessing or making multiple substitution errors with small words, try an accuracy challenge i.e. can you make it to the end of the page without making a mistake (self-corrections are perfectly okay).
If a student is struggling to read a longer, multisyllable word, segment into syllables/morphemes and reveal only one word-part at a time (e.g. ad.ven.ture) - an index card with the corner cut out can be useful for this.
If students are frequently losing their place, skipping lines etc., try using a ruler so that only one line of text is revealed at a time (I find that older kids are more willing to do this than use their finger, but fingers work equally well).
Don't be afraid to ask a student to reread a page or sentence to focus on fluency and expression. You may wish to model this for them first.
If students are overlooking punctuation (especially full stops), tap the table as an auditory reminder. To keep things interesting, I sometimes use a sound effects app instead.
If a student is really reluctant to read (despite the fact that you know they have the knowledge and skills to do so), only ask that they read every second page (after a few pages they often get so engrossed in the story that they forget to stop reading). This isn't a long-term strategy, but rather a way to settle initial anxiety and overwhelm.
Don't feel like you have to finish a reader in one sitting...it can take time to build reading stamina.
Want to learn more?
For a rough guide to the various decodable series mentioned in this article, see here.
For more information about The Dyslexia Hub Library, click here.