Decodable Text Explained

What Decodable Text Is

The Importance of Decodable Text

How to Select Appropriate Beginning Reader Books


What is Decodable Material?


In reading instruction, the term ‘decodable’ refers to words containing only the phonetic code the child or student has already learned.  To determine if text is decodable you need to evaluate the phonetic structure of the vocabulary and compare it to the code knowledge the child has already acquired.  We often think of ‘decodable’ text as phonetically simple words and text. Although decodable text is simple in the beginning when the child has limited knowledge of the phonemic code, decodable text expands as the child learns more of the phonemic code.  


Why is it important to have the child read decodable text?


In beginning reading, it is important for the child to read phonetically decodable text because it allows the child to apply correct phonologic processing skills. If you have the child read text that is NOT decodable (contains sounds they have not yet learned) the child is unable to use correct phonologic processing and often resorts to incorrect strategies that lead to reading difficulties.  To become a proficient reader, the child MUST develop and practice correct phonologic processing. Decodable text provides the child material he has the skills to decode correctly.  Decodable text allows the child to use and develop correct print to sound phonologic processing pathways and avoid the potential of developing incorrect reading strategies.  Decodable text helps children build necessary skills!


The prudent limits on the material the child practices reading are temporary restrictions to help the child learn. Having the child read decodable text is similar to teaching a child to play the piano. A beginner does not play advanced pieces of music. The beginner starts with individual notes and simple songs such as Mary Had a Little Lamb. As the child acquires skills they are able to play more and more songs correctly. Similarly as the child learns more sounds, the material that is decodable rapidly expands.  Before long the child is able to pick up and read any appropriate book.


Can you give an example of decodable vs. non-decodable words?


Decodable text contains sounds the child has learned so will expand as the child acquires new code knowledge.  The following examples list the code the child knows and then a list of words that would decodable based on the child’s knowledge.  The first set of examples is given for a young beginner who is in the initial stages learning the basic code. The second example if for a child who has mastered the basic code and is just starting to learn some of the complexities.


Example 1: The child has only learned the following sounds: a=/a/, m=/m/, t=/t/, s=/s/, d=/d/, i=/i/, r=/r/, e=/e/, n=/n, c=/k/, h=/h/, o=/o/)

·        decodable words would include words such as: rat, net, miss, rant, hit, cat, sit, cast, him, hat, rest, rim, man, nest, not, rod, hot, and

·        words that would not be decodable and why they would not be decodable include words such as: art (the child has not yet learned ‘ar’=/ar/); rain (child does not yet know ‘ai’=/ay/); chair (child does not yet know ‘ch’=/ch/ or the ‘r-controlled vowel combination ‘air’=/air/), ‘hate’ (child has not yet learned the vowel-consonant-e combination) or teacher (not yet learned ‘ea’=/ee/, ‘ch’=/ch/ or the ‘er’=/er/); contain (child has not learned the o=/u/, ‘ai’=/ay/ plus young beginners should not start with multisyllable words).


Example 2: The child has learned the basic code and is just beginning to learn some of the complexities. He now knows the basic sounds of the alphabet plus ‘th’=/th/, ‘ch’=/ch/, ‘sh’=/sh/, and ‘ee’=/ee/ 

·        decodable words would include words such as: that, this, grab, test, much, ship, trash, math, green, sheep, step, plan, chest, vet, splash, swim, blast, flip,… and many others.

·        words that would not be decodable would include most vowel combinations, r-controlled vowels and advanced complexities: Examples of words that would not be decodable would include train, great, stream, soil, enjoy, right, star, porch, term, bird, year, earth, action…)


How do I determine if books or text are decodable?


To select appropriate beginning reader material, you must evaluate the text. The determination of ‘decodable’ is based on factors including:

·        The code the child has learned. These are the sounds that the child has directly learned. In the beginning this code knowledge is limited. As the child learns more and more of the phonemic code the amount of material that is decodable will expand rapidly.

·        The phonetic structure of the words.  Decodable words consist of phonograms the child knows. Remember decodability is based on the phonograms not the letters of the alphabet.  For example, the child who knows ‘o’ = /o/ and ‘i’ = /i/ can not decode ‘oi’=/oy/ until he learns the phonogram ‘oi’=/oy/. 

·        The length of the word. Young children need to begin with single syllable words. After they have mastered single syllable words move to 2 syllable words. Remember, you still need to evaluate phonemic code as word length is only part of decodability. Short words can have complex code that is not yet decodable by beginners (for example: owl, art, boy, roar, right, soil, year). The easiest words to read are consonant-vowel-consonant patterns (for example: ran, sit, fun, red, mom, him,…).


Always evaluate the vocabulary carefully! Do not rely on the grade level rating printed on the book.  Many very simple children’s picture books with only one or two words per page and numerous books actually labeled “early phonics readers” are full of words like ‘rhinoceros’ and  ‘laugh’ that contain complex code or multisyllable word such as ‘carnival’ and ‘investigations’ that are absolutely not decodable by beginners.  It is not simplicity of the text, but rather the structure of the words used.


To determine if a book is decodable evaluate the phonemic code used in the text and check if it meets your child’s code knowledge. The following examples show several sentences that may be decodable to a beginner contrasted with sentences that are absolutely NOT decodable by beginners. 


Decodable text examples:

·        The cat hid on top of the big rock.

·        Deb had eggs and ham with us.

·        The pup will jump in the pond with the big dog.


In contrast, The following sentences are NOT decodable by beginners:

·        The cougar escaped by climbing behind the large boulder.

·        Darlene delighted in devouring the delicious doughnuts.

·        The playful Labrador puppy leaped right into the water with the other dogs.


Help your child find, select and practice reading appropriate decodable text.


Does the requirement of decodable text mean I need to avoid reading real books to my child?


NO, absolutely not. It is critical to recognize, the use of appropriate decodable text ONLY applies to the material the child reads to you when the child is first learning how to read!  This prudent use of decodable text does NOT limit the text you read to your child.  You definitely should be exposing your child to a wide range of books and true literature. The use of decodable text to help your child develop and practice reading skills never prevents access and exposure to wonderful children’s books.


The use of decodable text in reading instruction does not mean more advanced books are off limits but rather the text the child first reads to you needs to be decodable. For example: If your child likes dinosaurs, go the library, head for the dinosaur section and check out a stack of books. Let him look through all the books. Sit down on the couch and study the illustrations. Read pages and pages of  advanced text to him such as “The paleontologist discovered ancient fossilized relics of a Dromaeosaurus from the cretaceous period”. However, when it is his turn to read to you, select decodable text and have him read the beginning decodable book “Tom dug up a big T-rex fossil.” 


Remember, the purpose of having the child reading simple decodable text such as ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and “The pup will swim in the pond’ is to intentionally help the child build and establish necessary phonologic processing pathways. Decodable text is only a temporary restriction to help the child build necessary skills. Decodable text is highly effective tool to help children develop correct reading skills.


The use of decodable text in beginning reading does not limit children, but rather effectively helps them build necessary skills so they become proficient readers and can access the limitless opportunities of skilled reading. 


I’m having a difficult time finding decodable text. What can I do to help give my child practice with decodable text?


In the very initial stages when the child has limited code knowledge it can sometimes be challenging to find decodable books.  As the child’s knowledge of the code increases it becomes easier and easier to find decodable books. Several decodable beginning reader series are commercially available (the ‘Bob Books’ are one series of decodable books).  


A terrific and inexpensive alternative for younger children is to make your own decodable books. Making your own decodable books is easy and fun. All you need is a paper or a stack of 4x6 index cards and a pencil. Print one simple decodable sentence per page and staple the pages together to make your own decodable story. Make a few simple illustrations or better yet, have your child illustrate their own book after they read the text. Remember you don’t have to be a talented author. This is not literature but rather practice reading decodable text.  List out the sounds the child knows and then write up a few short sentences. For example if the child knows the sounds: a, i, o, e, u,  b, c, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v,  and ‘th’ you can write a quick simple ‘story’ such as:

The Dog in the Mud

This is the dog.

The dog is in the mud.

The dog can stomp in the mud.

The mud is on the dog.

The dog must get a bath.

Sam can rub the mud off the dog.

The dog is mad at Sam.


One of the most effective tools for practicing correct phonologic processing is word lists. Type up a list of random decodable words. The child or student reads the words in the list. The advantage of word list is the student must use correct phonologic processing to correctly read the words. The other incorrect strategies such as guessing based on context do not work with word lists.  These word lists provide a highly effective tool for helping students develop and practice correct phonologic processing. 


For older students (3rd grade and up), skip the simple decodable stories completely. While these students absolutely do need practice reading decodable text, the juvenile nature of simple decodable stories usually makes them inappropriate for older students. Instead of practicing with simple stories, rely on extensive use of decodable word lists.  These decodable word lists are essential for reading remediation with older students as they provide necessary practice processing print phonetically.   


You can also expand the choices by reading books together. In ‘joint’ reading, you read all the complex code and have the child read the words containing the code he knows. In the beginning when the child’s code is limited, you can point to the words you want him to read. Later on have him read most words and only jump in to help when you encounter new complex code or complex multisyllable words the child is not yet ready for. You can also help out with specific sounds. When the child is reading a story and comes across a sound they do not know simply point at the sound and say, “we have not learned that sound yet”. Tell him “the sound is ____”. For example when you encounter the word “right” before the child has learned the sound for “igh”, point out the 'igh' and tell him it has the /ie/ sound and then have him continue reading. Remember, reading decodable text is a temporary step. Before long the child will be able to read any appropriate book.


Very simple decodable books are only necessary in the initial stages. As the child learns more of the phonetic code he will be able to read many words.  As the child’s reading ability develops you can pick out a much wider selection of books. In most cases, as soon as the child learns the majority of the phonemic code and has established a strong phonologic processing foundation there is no longer a need to evaluate for and select decodable books. However, you still need to help your child select level appropriate books. For example a first or second grader who has learned their code should be able to read “My Father’s Dragon” however “Eragon” would likely not be a level appropriate choice. While you want to help your child build skills, you do not want to frustrate them with material way above their level.




In summary decodable text is words consisting of phonograms (print=sound code) the child has already learned. It is important to use decodable text in the initial stages because it helps children develop correct phonologic processing pathways. Therefore, in beginning reading, evaluate and carefully select text that is decodable. The use of decodable text only applies to material the child reads to you.  The initial use of decodable text in beginning reading does not limit children, but rather effectively helps them build necessary skills so they become proficient readers and can access the limitless opportunities of skilled reading.  For additional information, see the article Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading.


Additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently can be found on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2007 Miscese R. Gagen