Teach a Child to Improve Reading
“Do you carry any of those special books that help kids that aren’t learning to read easily?” I asked this question to our librarian many years ago. It was early in our journey, and I was still getting my arms around why the reading instruction and interventions at school weren’t working. Fortunately, I knew enough to sign our daughter up for reading services at the one center in our region that uses a structured literacy approach to reading interventions.
The reading tutor told me about these “special books” that children could use to practice their newly learned phonics skills. I’m from educational publishing, so I was curious about what these magical books were. How come I had never heard about them? If they were so unique, I was sure I could write some and maybe help our daughter get over that hump that I define as decoding. Once I learned more I was perplexed about why there were so few decodable books, and why the decodable books I learned about were hard to find.
Fast forward several years, and I’m the Founder of a nonprofit organization, Teach My Kid to Read, initiating our first program, The Road to Decode, that aims to educate librarians about how we learn to read and where resources like decodable books fit in the process. Awareness, education and access to decodable books becomes the core of our program, and we take a deep-dive to help librarians educate the community about decodables and the breadth of the offerings.
For this post, I proudly interview Dr. Neena Saha. Dr. Saha’s innovative work will enable teachers, parents, and anyone helping children learn to read, better align decodable books with a child’s phonics skill.
What is the best way for decodable books to help with early reading skills?
Decodable books should supplement phonics instruction to allow children to practice what they have learned in a controlled environment. For example, if a child has just been taught the m_/m/ letter-sound (or grapheme-phoneme correspondence) in their reading lesson, it is really beneficial to allow them to practice it in a book that has a high occurrence of m_/m/ GPCs. This is good for two reasons. First, it helps cement that particular grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC) in their memory (see figure 1-1).
It is one thing to be told that the letter m sounds like /m/ by a teacher, and another to apply it on your own. It is the same concept as when you learn a new language. You can try and learn Spanish on the Duolingo app all day, but eventually, if you want to become fluent, you will have to apply what you have learned in an actual conversation in Spanish. However, imagine for a moment that you learned a word on the app. Then, you were thrown into a real-life conversation that had none of those words you learned. Would you be frustrated? I’m guessing the answer is yes. You were not provided with a controlled environment to practice what you just learned. Decodable books are a controlled environment to practice new phonics skills.
Ideally, decodable books are supposed to match reading lessons in scope and sequence so that children are provided opportunities to practice what they have learned in a way that does not frustrate them. This latter point is important but often overlooked. Let’s return to our Spanish analogy for a second. Imagine if every time you completed a lesson, you were put in a conversation that did not have any of the words you just learned. Not only would this be frustrating, but after a while, you might even lose confidence and want to give up. You might say that Spanish is too difficult and move on to a different hobby. The same is true for children. When reading material is too hard, they can feel frustrated, lose confidence, and want to give up. This is especially the case for struggling readers. Therefore, the importance of decodable text for children’s confidence cannot be understated. It is essential that all children feel like they have the skills necessary to crack the alphabetic code.
How can decodable books help older children struggling to read?
The same way they help emerging or beginning readers who are young: they allow opportunities for practice in a controlled environment. However, other considerations need to be taken into account for older, struggling readers. For example, you want to make sure the book is high-interest, and the student is motivated to read it. Appearances matter, too. Most older kids know that they are supposed to have learned to read already and were resistant to the “little children” books. I’m seeing more and more series of decodable books geared toward older children, but it is an area where I still see a great need.
In general, how do teachers and parents choose decodable books?
There are not any really good methods to choose decodable books right now. Qualitative text measures like Fountas & Pinnell are inaccurate, unreliable, and not research-based. Readability formulas (like Lexiles) only consider a few (usually 2) variables, none of which have to do with decoding. You can read a lot more about the flaws of existing systems in the introduction to our paper.
While some reading programs include sets of decodable books that align nicely with a given scope and sequence, teachers are generally out of luck if they need additional books. That is because there is no easy or widely available tool for matching a book’s GPCs to a phonics scope and sequence.
I think the issue is even harder for parents. First, they have to obtain the scope and sequence from their child’s classroom teacher, and then they have to locate sets of books (or purchase them). This isn’t easy because many libraries are not aware of decodable books’ importance and, thus, do not stock them. I know that Teach My Kid to Read is doing really important work in this area.
If parents wish to purchase decodable books online, it can be hard to figure out the scope and sequence of letter-sounds presented in the books because several do not list them. Even if they are listed, they do not list the percentages. Knowing that s_/s/ is introduced in a book is less helpful than knowing s_/s/ makes up 50% of the sounds in a book. That is an area that we at Elemeno are working to develop better solutions.
Would better evaluations of decodable books improve literacy outcomes? If yes, then how?
Yes, absolutely! We at Elemeno are working on this right now!
Better ways of matching students to texts can increase the efficiency of structured literacy practices. For example, if a child has mastered the m_/m/ GPC, they do not need to practice books with high numbers of the m_/m/ GPC. Part of our current research is to determine books with just the right mix of GPCs for a given child, based on the letter-sounds they already know and which ones they still need to master. This is important because providing a child, an inappropriately matched book can lead to poor student outcomes such as frustration, off-task behavior, or giving up.This is particularly concerning for struggling readers and children with dyslexia. They are often matched with text that is too difficult,and they are poor at picking out appropriate materials for themselves.