A defence of decodable books: Response to a recent systematic review


Well before the sparkling new Australian Curriculum 9.0 endorsed replacing predictable texts with decodable texts in early years classrooms, demand had begun to grow for decodable books. They are called ‘decodable books’ because almost all of the words are decodable for beginning readers who have just started to learn the alphabetic code. They are written specifically to provide a scaffolded way for students to practice reading words using the phonics knowledge and skills they are learning. They are closely aligned with a phonics scope and sequence so, as a child’s knowledge of phonics grows, the number and complexity of words they can decode also grows. Used properly, high quality decodable books also draw students’ attention to the meaning of what they are reading. Decodable books are best viewed as an instructional tool that is used for a limited time. Eventually, all books are decodable but not at the start of instruction.

Decodable books are never recommended as a replacement for shared reading of storybooks and picture books in all stages of learning. Shared reading means hearing the text and looking at the text as well as the pictures and other features – not just listening to it. Storybooks and picture books (and non-fiction) are important for oral language, vocabulary, comprehension, and the sheer delight of books. However, in an evidence-based approach to reading instruction, where students are always encouraged to decode unfamiliar words using phonics as a first strategy, decodable texts are recommended to replace predictable texts for reading practice. Predictable texts are designed to encourage students to use the inefficient and inaccurate ‘three-cueing method’ for reading unfamiliar words, which in practice means guessing what the word is using context and picture clues. They contain many words that beginning readers would only be able to work out by guessing.

There is a detailed comparison of decodable and predictable books, and a summary of the evidence supporting the use of decodable books, is in an earlier post that can be read here.

Since that post was published, a new research report has been released — A systematic review of decodable and levelled reading books for reading instruction in primary schools: An evaluation of quality research evidence (Birch et al., 2022). It has been shared by teachers and principals to a mixed response. It is sometimes being used as a justification not to use decodable texts in initial reading instruction. Read More

Ten years after the first version, the Australian Curriculum gets it right on reading

When the draft of the revised Australian Curriculum was released for consultation last year, the response was swift and emphatic from hundreds of reading scientists and well-informed educators and parents familiar with the scientific evidence on reading and literacy. They were dismayed that the draft curriculum did not reflect the accumulated evidence on reading and writing that has been published and disseminated over the past thirty years or more. Instead, the draft curriculum retained content that endorsed out-dated approaches to literacy teaching, based on the now disproven whole language methods that are to blame for thousands of students leaving school without adequate literacy skills. To their credit, the federal and state education ministers agreed with this assessment and instructed ACARA to take note.

Read More

What the ‘Dubbo study’ tells us about background knowledge and reading comprehension

Is a lighthouse just a lighthouse?

The contribution of background or content knowledge to reading comprehension is becoming better understood (see for example, here, here, here, and here) and there are long-standing concerns about persistent differences in literacy levels among rural and metro students, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Put these things together and you have the basis for an important experimental question: Would students in a rural area with a relatively high Indigenous population perform better on reading comprehension assessments if they were likely to be familiar with the content?

Continue reading

Threading together the sciences of reading

By Nicola Bell


Research that informs our collective understanding of literacy development is not conducted within one field of science. This is tricky, because it means that researchers working in different areas aren’t necessarily speaking the same language. As such, it’s not always obvious how various strands of evidence are woven together to form a coherent picture of the ‘science of reading’.

So, let’s get detangling. What exactly do people investigate to answer questions related to literacy development?

Read More