FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Decodable books are designed to support a Synthetic Phonics method of teaching reading. In Synthetic Phonics, letter sounds (phonemes) and the letters that represent them (graphemes) are taught explicitly and systematically. In decodable books, the text is controlled by and limited to the phonemes that have been taught to that point. For example, the first set of books may be based on children only needing to know the sounds for s a t p i n m d. Only words using these sounds would be used in this set of books (apart from a limited number of very common ‘tricky words’ such as ‘I’ and ‘the’, which are not decodable). In this way, children are able to practise their growing phonic knowledge by reading books that are almost 100% decodable for them.
A tricky word (also called a common exception word) is a word that is very common in the English language, but is not decodable using phonics alone. Children must be taught to recognise these words on sight, because they can’t use the phonics they know to sound them out. Some tricky words become decodable later on, when the relevant phonemes and graphemes have been taught. Sometimes only parts of a word are tricky, and the rest of the word is decodable.
Let’s look at an example. The word the is usually introduced very early in beginning reading texts because it is a high-frequency word that appears a lot in English texts. It is one of the glue words that helps to bind a sentence and story together. It is just a small word of only three letters, but from a decoding point of view, it offers some challenges that make it tricky at the early stages of reading. All sounds in the word the will not have been taught to children yet. These sounds are the digraph /th/ (two letters, one sound), which makes a voiced and unvoiced sound, but in this case it is the voiced, and the letter e, which in this case represents an unstressed vowel, the schwa sound /ə/.
The Sunshine Phonics Decodable Series aligns very closely with the New Zealand curriculum as described on the Ministry of Education website.
The Pathway to Reading Poster (© Crown 2021) shows decodables help with the foundation of reading, then the colour wheel and guided reading come in. Sunshine Decodables can be used in the foundation stage alongside or instead of Ready to Read Phonics Plus. Like Phonics Plus, Sunshine decodables “support instructional reading and focus on explicit teaching of word recognition knowledge and skills. Children learn to ‘crack the code’ while also building their language comprehension knowledge and skills.”
The Sunshine Decodables programmeme meets the three key areas of ‘Effective Literacy Practice years 1-4’. “To be successfully literate, students need to master three key areas of reading and writing: learning the code, making meaning and thinking critically.
Learning the code: This means developing the ability to decode and encode written forms of language. The focus is on the conventions of written language and the skills required to read and write letters, words and text. ‘Cracking the code’ is an exciting intellectual challenge for learners.
Making meaning: This involves developing and using knowledge, strategies, and awareness in order to get and convey meaning when reading or writing.
Thinking critically: This involves responding to texts at a personal level, reflecting on them, and finding reward in being a reader and a writer. ”
Since these are decodable books, the usual levelling systems that New Zealand classrooms use do not apply. Levelling systems such as Reading Recovery Levels, Fountas and Pinnell and PM Levels are determined from predictable texts using criteria that do not match up well with decodable books. These are based on things like the amount of repetitive text and the level of picture support needed, but are of less importance in books with decodable text.
The levelling in decodable texts is more to do with the sequence of phonics learning. The phonics code is simple in the beginning, as are the texts, and as the code becomes gradually more complex, so do the texts themselves.
The Phonics Overview for Series 1 and Series 2 are virtually identical. However, Series 2 takes a slightly slower pace. The Phonics Overviews are available here for Series 1 and 2.
Synthetic phonics is an evidence-based approach to teaching children to read that is widely documented. The evidence comes from various sources including New Zealand (Early Literacy Research Project, Arrow, Chapman et al, 2018), Australia (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, Rowe 2005), the UK (The Rose Review, Rose 2006), USA (National Reading Panel, 2000). All reports emphasised the importance of explicit and systematic teaching of the components associated with the alphabetic code. The NZ report quoted from the Rowe report: …to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that links written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well. (page 37, emphasis added)
Assessment can take many forms and we provide a free downloadable comprehensive Assessment Kit with a range of tools that assess four different areas. The Kit also contains two optional Tracker Spreadsheets (Excel format). The Trackers can be used to record assessment results from either Series 1 or Series 2, and to monitor students’ progress.
The Kit contains the following four assessments.
Screening Tests – quickly screen students to place them at the correct stage of the Sunshine Decodables series.
Phonics Assessment – comprehensive tests to assess students’ understanding of new phonemes and graphemes, ability to segment and blend decodable words and to read tricky words.
Assessment of Reading Accuracy – unseen texts to assess students’ reading accuracy.
Comprehension Assessment – questions on the unseen texts.
The Sunshine Phonics Decodables Programme Teachers’ Books also include the phonics assessment sheets.
To be a successful reader, you need to not only decode the words in front of you, but also to make meaning from what you are reading. Phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency are all key areas of competency that successful readers need to draw on to decode and make meaning when they are reading.
All of these key areas can and should be addressed when teachers are working with children either on a decodable or predictable text. At the back of all the Sunshine decodable books there is a lesson overview that includes comprehension and the full range of reading skills, all of which are explored in greater detail in the Teachers’ Books.
Our free Assessment Kit also includes a Comprehension Assessment tool.
Most decodable programmes follow a similar structure in terms of the order that the phonemes and graphemes are introduced. While this may not be an exact match, it will be close enough for the different programmes to work effectively together. All programmes introduce the single consonants and vowels first with their most common sound along with the short sound for the vowels. From there, programmes usually introduce consonant digraphs, vowel digraphs and trigraphs and consonant clusters. Later, different spellings of the same phoneme and different pronunciations of the same grapheme are introduced.
The Sunshine Phonics Decodable Series follows closely with the UK’s Letters and Sounds Programme and also works alongside other Australian decodable series.
If your school decides to use decodable books as their main classroom instructional texts for Foundation and Year 1, where do all your other predictable texts fit into this? Do they still have a place even though they are constructed differently and don’t directly support the synthetic phonics programme you are running? Of course they do.
We need to feed our children a rich and varied diet in food and this also applies to literacy! While decodable books may be the key instructional resource that you use for your guided reading, there is no reason why other books cannot be used in other parts of your literacy programme alongside decodable books. Reading to and with students can include all texts. Teachers will still support children in experiencing and enjoying literature in all its forms and will use opportunities to talk about story and structure. Teachers will still teach a range of reading strategies because they can be utilised by children while reading any text.