Ending the Reading Wars: The Importance and Limitations of Decodable Readers

The admirable objective of decodable books is to provide a ‘safe’ place to practice newly learned skills. One problem is that an over-cautious use of decodables can exacerbate a yawning language gap. This is particularly true for children with poor language skills as the books inevitably lack the flexibility of language that breathes life into stories and reveals nuance and shifts of meaning. Children starved of the experience of interactive language need bucket-loads of enhancement as well as rigorous phonics exposure.

It’s essential to read to children but they also need the experience of reading language-rich stories themselves as early as possible to accustom them to sustained reading. This, as a general rule of thumb, is after children have been introduced to around 80-100 correspondences. (With scrupulously structured decodables, possibly earlier still.)

‘When we talk of closing the word gap, we actually mean something much bigger than that unassuming phrase implies. We mean welcoming a child into a world of new ideas, insights and emotions, into a world that we, the word-rich, take for granted, and which we will routinely guarantee for our own children.’
Geoff Barton, General Secretary, the Association of School & College Leaders

Professor Kate Nation explains how schools need to get the right balance between phonics and comprehension skills (TES): Two sets of things are critical for early readers. You have to understand how the writing system works – the idea that letters represent sounds…And then the other side of the coin is that we read to comprehend, too. We need that alphabetic principle, but we also need a broader understanding of language…Language is important for reading but also for emotional regulation and self-expression. I don’t think the impact of rich communication can be over-estimated.’

In a major paper, ‘Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert’ (Sage Journals) Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation review the science of learning to read and move beyond phonics, reviewing the research on what else children need to become expert readers and consider how this may be translated into effective classroom practice. They ‘present a tutorial review of the science of learning to read…but we also move beyond phonics…and recommend an agenda for instruction and research in reading acquisition that is balanced, developmentally informed, and based on a deep understanding of how language and writing systems work.’

And in an erudite and thought-provoking report from the DfE,  Gill Jones  hits the nail right on the head: ‘…We have ignored this at our peril and the resulting disappointing reading results at 11 could well be a consequence of privileging over-cautious phonics over the wider teaching of literacy.’

Decodable readers are unquestionably an excellent teaching tool, a central factor in learning to read and, for struggling students, provide crucial additional practice. However, these restricted readers might benefit from a slight structural adjustment. BRI: Beginning Reading Instruction is an example of a programme that introduces subtle changes by recalibrating single-syllable cvc words in their stories and interspersing this structure with a few Advanced Code words. This minimal loosening of cvc constraints encourages fluidity and expressiveness while broadening the range of vocabulary and, most importantly of all, foregrounds the importance of story. As Daniel Willingham has noted (danielwillingham.com): ‘Elsewhere I have written about the potential power of narrative to help students understand and remember complex subject matter (Willingham, 2004; 2009). Now a new study (Arya & Maul, 2012) provides fresh evidence that putting to-be-learned material in a story format improves learning outcome.’

By means of carefully drip-feeding a few single-syllable Advanced Code words into its early readers, BRI allows for multi-layered meanings, while also signalling Alphabetic Code complexity in the gentlest way possible. Just as little children begin to distinguish that everything on four legs is not a dog, that there are different kinds of dogs and that dogs differ from cats, so they quickly accept that ‘e’ and ‘ee’ can stand for the same sound and that ‘e’ can stand for more than one sound, e.g., me and met. The addition of carefully selected Advanced Code allows language to escape the bondage of constricted, often wooden, readers. By mid to end Year l, most children should have progressed beyond the constraints of minimal text decodables. Kate Nation observes that ‘contextual knowledge builds over time as each encounter a person has with a word adds to their database of information about that word…over time, words occurring in varying contexts with varying contents becomes more context independent than words appearing in more similar contexts.’

Many academic reading experts – including Daniel Willingham, Mark Seidenberg, Anne Castles, Katie Rastle and Kate Nation – stress the importance of narrative. It may be only the weakest c.5% of readers who need more time with traditional, restricted decodables in order to stabilize their foundational skills. So why not make sure that the majority of children are well on their way to enjoying ‘real’ books by Year 2?

One thought on “Ending the Reading Wars: The Importance and Limitations of Decodable Readers

  1. This is relevant to policies of the English Hubs.


    Elizabeth Nonweiler +44(0)1635 37120

    On Sun, 1 Dec 2019 at 23:37, Reading Matters by Piper Books wrote:

    > Reading Matters posted: “The admirable objective of decodable books is to > provide a ‘safe’ place to practice newly learned skills. One problem is > that an over-cautious use of decodables can exacerbate a yawning language > gap. This is particularly true for children with poor langua” >


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