When it comes to books that are appropriate for beginning readers, there are two main categories these books fall under: decodable books vs. leveled readers.
What is the difference between decodable books and leveled readers?
Let’s start by identifying what sets each of these two types of books apart. Decodable Books are books that include text that can be read phonetically using the rules of phonics instruction taught up to that point. If your child is just learning short vowel sounds, for example, a decodable book would not include digraphs and long vowel sounds even if they are decodable because those phonics principles have not been taught to him/her yet. Likewise, decodable books include limited non-phonetic words with controlled vocabulary that contains the most phonetically consistent words in the English language. Words in a good decodable reader will not be easily identified using illustrations. Rather, the illustrations will add depth to the story even when the words are limited.
Conversely, leveled readers are books that rely on illustrations and context in order to determine the unfamiliar words. Leveled readers appeal to the interest of children with engaging illustrations and require children to often guess at unfamiliar words using either context or picture clues. Leveled readers include many high-frequency words (sometimes called sight words) and often incorporate repetitive text.
Whole Language (or Balanced Literacy) vs. Structured Literacy
These two types of books (and their usage in classrooms and homes) stem from varying philosophies in how children best learn to read. Proponents of whole language instruction believe words should be learned as whole units, therefore leveled readers are sufficient because children memorize the individual words with enough repetition. Most leveled readers for the earliest readers will feature one sentence per page that repeats on each page with only one word that is different (and can be guessed using pictures). Whole language instruction stems from the idea that reading is a visual process and words should be memorized. Unknown words should be identified using the three-cuing system (see below).
Structured literacy, on the other hand, requires explicit, and systematic instruction specifically in phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. Proponents of structured literacy rely on the extensive body of research in the science of reading to guide their instruction. This evidence has shown that special attention to phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness) and phonics aids our brains in orthographic mapping, the process with which our brains store words for automatic retrieval and how we are able to eventually read without “sounding out” every word.
The Three-Cueing System and Leveled Readers
The repetitive text in leveled readers help kids feel confident in reading. But be careful: leveled readers require kids to use the three-cueing system to figure out unknown words. The three-cueing system is a model adopted by whole language enthusiasts (Goodman & Smith). This approach states that skilled reading involves deriving meaning from three types of cues:
- Grapho-phonic (Does the word look right?)
- Syntactic (Does the word sound right?)
- Semantic (Does it make sense?)
Although this might sound good in theory, the problem is that this type of method ultimately encourages children to guess words and does not, therefore, allow the brain to map these words into long term memory. Leveled readers will often require children to guess words based on the picture rather than by applying phonetic principles, thereby by-passing the opportunity for orthographic mapping. Encouraging kids to guess at words sets them up for developing some very poor reading habits!
Which type of books should beginning readers use?
Beginning readers should most definitely start their reading journey using decodable text. For many years, decodable readers were considered boring because plot lines can be difficult with such controlled vocabulary. But that is changing as more and more people recognize their usefulness and are using their creative talents to write engaging decodable books (like ours!).
Prior to handing our child a book, we always want to make sure that we prepare him/her for the decoding demands of that text. We won’t introduce multi-syllable words to a child who is still learning short vowel sounds, for example. This is why we must follow and explicit plan and give our child small successes through decodable text that she can confidently master using the skills already taught to her.
Likewise, be sure that you are simultaneously exposing your child to a beautiful array of children’s literature by reading aloud to her! This will make up for whatever the decodable books lack in creativity and engagement! Plus, it is a special bonding time for parent and child to read a delightful book together! Soon enough, your child will have the necessary skills to read those beautiful books to YOU!
The three cueing system. (2020, August 9). Five from Five. https://fivefromfive.com.au/the-three-cueing-system/