Part 3 – Decodable readers – when should they start?

Suggestions are made about when to start decodable readers and why they are so important.

Part 3: Decodable readers – When should they start?


Interestingly, a book can be called a decodable book, but if a child has not been taught or has not learnt the letter sounds and tricky words in that book, then it is not decodable for that child.


When should they start?


There are differing opinions about when to start decodable readers, and there are advantages and disadvantages about the slightly different approaches. These differences are not serious problems, so long as the basic principles are followed, namely that the children are taught the letter sounds and tricky words that are used in the books.


You will have noticed in Jolly Phonics, and on this website, that we prefer to wait until the 42 letter sounds have been taught. Our reasons were as follows:


  • The 42 letter sounds cover one way of writing the main sounds of English, which gives an overall understanding of how the main sounds linked in speech can be represent by letters.


  • It also enables a greater variety of words to be used in the first books, which means that more interesting stories can be written for the children to read. With only six letter sounds, very few words are available but with 42 letter sounds, there are pages of words that can be used – in fact, hundreds of words [demonstration, using the Word Bank]. So the chance of getting a good story is far higher.


  • Ideally, children should not be asked to read books until they have the necessary skill of blending and know sufficient letter sounds. It is asking for trouble to start before a child has enough basic knowledge and skills. By delaying decodable readers until all 42 letter sounds have been taught, the slow-to-start children have more chance of developing the skill of blending and learning the letter sounds. Then they would be able to take home books at the same time as the other children, although it would be more sensible to give them decodable readers that are simple and have large print [demonstration].


  • Lastly, from a purely practical point of view, once the children are given books to read at home, it takes a great deal of time for teachers to listen and check on their reading, change the books, and record what has been read. My preference is to spend longer making sure the letter sounds and blending skills are being mastered, before sending the children home with reading books to read to their parents or guardians. Once the books go home, there is pressure on the children to accurately read them.


Some writers of decodable books prefer the children to have access to reading books as soon as six letter sounds have been taught. It can be done, [demonstration], but nevertheless, these restrictions come with some snags. It is impossible to have natural-sounding text with words made up of only six letter sounds. The vocabulary is limited and the language is extremely stilted. This may well put some children off reading, especially the more able children who have an advanced vocabulary and are used to having exciting stories read to them at home. This does not mean that these books are not useful. They are particularly valuable for children who are much slower to learn the letter sounds and who need short, simple words for practising the letter sounds and developing the skill of blending. The crucial aspect is to know if the books are decodable for each child and whether they are suitable for him or her.


Are decodable readers for all children?


We know many children are perfectly able to learn to read without decodable readers. These children memorise the letter sounds easily and usually have no problems with blending words or hearing the sounds in words. However, a few of them can run into difficulties if they start memorising words rather than decoding them. They appear to be good readers, until the books have many more words on each page and the memory runs out. Then they struggle a great deal because they have not developed the decoding skills to help them work out the new, more complicated words. Therefore, I think it is safer to start all children off with decodable books. The more able children will work through them quickly and, during that time, will have developed the skills needed for working out the advanced multi-syllable words that will be in the books that they want to read.


The importance of good language skills and a wide vocabulary


In order to become a good reader, it is not only necessary to have good decoding skills, but also good language skills and a wide vocabulary. The latter enables the children to understand what they are reading. A wide vocabulary becomes even more important when the children are good at decoding words and have become free readers. Now they will be reading books that use more complex words that do not always have a reliable pronunciation. There are hundreds of examples, and here are just a few of them [demonstration]:


  • Mode/model/modal: Mode is a straightforward magic ‹e› word, where the second vowel influences the first vowel and changes the /o/ to /oa/. The magic vowel in the suffix ‹ed› or ‹ing› works in the same way (as explained in Step 5), but the rule is not reliable in some nouns. For example, as mode is pronounced /moad/, we would expect the ‹o› in model to be /oa/ rather than /o/, but instead the vowel is short. In contrast, the word modal does follow the rule and the vowel is long.
  • Wagon/bacon: Similarly, we would expect the ‹a› in wagon and bacon to be pronounced the same, but in wagon the vowel is short and in bacon it is long.
  • Debate: With this word, most children would say /debait/ and then have to adjust the pronunciation to /dibait/.
  • Diet: Similarly, the children would have to adjust the vowels in diet to find the correct pronunciation. Instead of saying /ie/, they would have to pronounce both vowels, using the long vowel sound for ‹i› and then a schwa for the /e/ sound.


Children who are used to trying the short vowel if the blending of the long vowel does not make sense have few problems adjusting to the correct pronunciation, so long as the word is in their vocabulary and it makes sense as they are reading.


Jennifer Chew, who is a synthetic-phonics expert, calls this ‘tweaking’. While children are on decodable readers, they are shielded from these awkward words. Once they are confident readers they easily ‘tweak’ the words, so long as they are in their vocabulary.



  • Word Bank - Steps 1-5

    A word bank is useful for writing decodable stories.