Getting Decodables Right for Dyslexic, SEN and other Struggling Readers

Each effective synthetic phonics programme, both for able and struggling readers, possesses advantages and drawbacks – costs, quality and length of training, ease/difficulty of implementation, extent of class preparation, flexibility, and so on. Most schools, including successful reading schools, follow the government Letters and Sounds programme, the long-established Jolly Phonics programme – chiefly used in conjunction with Letters and Sounds – or Ruth Miskin’s ReadWriteInc. Other programmes also have their merits and their implementation will need to be considered ‘in the round’ and assessed for their effectiveness for both high achievers and weaker readers. It is this second category of potential readers that is largely left out in the cold, in spite of all the advances during the last decade.

The overwhelming majority of top-performing schools in the SATs 2 tests ( augment their teaching with decodable readers compatible with their phonics instruction. In theory, decodables provide vital practice for everyone. In practice, they don’t – there is still a significant tail of underachievement. The books frequently lack the overlearning and language flexibility so necessary for weaker readers. Decodable books for beginners generally focus on just one specific meaning of a word. These books are very helpful for the majority of children. But for those who need masses of language development including much exposure to code in different contexts, and blending practice in sustained reading, this inflexibility is a handicap. To ensure effective learning, flexible language, multiple word repetitions in different contexts, and memorable and engaging characters that prompt empathy, need to be inbuilt. By judiciously mixing single-syllable words using simple code with a few advanced code graphemes, story-telling is completely transformed. Contrary to the perception of many, carefully chosen advanced code correspondences have no drawbacks and many benefits. Children have no difficulty with intelligent drip-feeding of advanced code, provided that instruction is consistent, clear and to the point. Adam Boxer in his blog: quotes Frederick Reif’s Applying Cognitive Science to Education: ‘it is very clear that we should not be aiming to just lower the load as much as possible. If we do this the learning will take an incredibly long time as we make tasks smaller and smaller but also, importantly, that it will become exceedingly boring and demotivating for the student.’

In addition to a lack of sufficient repetition and overlearning, many series advance too fast for weak readers, with most decodable books making little allowance for the slowest pupils. Schools often cling to inappropriate books with impossible-to-decode words for early learners (sometimes because schools lack the funds to replace them). In this way, they help to set up vulnerable readers for long-term failure and all the implications thereof. Alison Clarke of Spelfabet has a brilliant video explaining why some children become bamboozled when trying to figure out the complexities of the alphabet code:

All children benefit from systematic phonics, augmented with decodable books, but struggling readers also need their decodables to be meticulously planned, slowly paced, with loads of inbuilt practice. And, in order to aid the TAs, volunteers, parents and carers who will be responsible for guiding their young charges, the  books need simple, logical, succinct instructions.

Starting with a brief to make learning to read as easy as possible, a team of educationalists, psychometricians and teachers, in tandem with children’s authors, spent around five years mapping the alphabet code in order to plan deceptively simple decodable books. An emphasis on language development, slow and safe drip-feeding of code, judicious addition of a few words with advanced code, enabled the creation of stories that trigger both curiosity and empathy, with instruction that avoids tedium and overload. These design features (and more) were part of the initial planning when Beginning Reading Instruction: BRI was designed. A minority of other decodable series, such as Little Children Love Literacy, contain some of these features including the extra practice essential for the majority of SEN children and other weak readers.

To summarise: the existing decodable programmes are generally ineffective for SEN, dyslexic and other struggling readers. The solution is specially developed reading schemes that cover all the additional needs of these vulnerable pupils.

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