Both decodable and levelled books have been created for beginner readers. They are, in fact, the two main categories of books used with children that are on the first stages of learning to read.
Noticing the differences between the two can be tricky for an untrained eye.
On the surface, they certainly look quite similar: big letters, simple stories, some pictures… However, they present VERY substantial differences.
Let’s find out what those differences are in this article!
Once you learn about them, these books will never look the same to you!
By the way, if you are interested in a comprehensive list of good-quality decodable readers, check this other article on the blog!
Main differences between decodable and levelled readers…
Difference #1: While levelled readers are all about predictable text, decodable books contain highly phonetically-decodable texts!
Sometimes decodable books go along a specific phonics program you may be following. But, oftentimes, they are sold separately.
In any case, the major factor that the determines the level of the decodable books your child should read is: What is his/her PHONICS level? This is because decodable books only include text that can be easily read phonetically using the rules about phonics that the child knows up to that point.
However, this is not important in levelled readers. They take into account other factors, as we will learn later on!
The scope / phonics sequence in good-quality decodable readers normally goes like this:
- You start with extremely simple word structures (2 and 3- letter words that use the most common letter sounds. Ex: cat, dog, hop, at, mat).
- As the level of phonics of the child advances, the decodable readers also evolve and present more complicated words from a phonics perspective.
- Along the way, decodable books introduce some irregular high-frequency words. The introduction is done gradually, rather than presenting the child with lots of them at the same time.
Therefore, if you are buying decodable books for your child, you want to look for readers that are in line with your child’s phonics level. You normally find that information on the books themselves.
If you are interested in a comprehensive list of good-quality decodable readers, check this other article on the blog!
Difference 2: The only possible strategy for figuring out the words on decodable readers is sounding out words.
On the other hand, on levelled books, the predictability of the text alongside with the presence of supportive illustrations make it possible for the child to figure out the words just by looking at pictures, the context or simply by how predictable the text is.
They can ‘read’ by guessing instead of by sounding out words. In other words, levelled books are purposely made to make children guess. This is by design.
Difference #3: Other factors that are taken into account in levelled readers are: whether words are long or not, whether stories are simple or not, length of sentences, number of words.
Have you noticed that there’s nothing phonics-related on this list of factors?
On the other hand, on decodable books everything revolves around phonics and the giving children lots of opportunities to practice sounding out words and blending.
If there is anything that they have in common is that (of course), with beginner readers the stories tend to be short and simple as well on decodable books!
Difference #4: In decodable books illustrations are supportive of the story, rather revealing of the story or the words in the story.
In decodable books, the pictures could be nice and cute, they could be simple black-and-white pictures or there could be no illustrations at all: it doesn’t really matter!
They are there for decorative purposes, really. That’s all. In levelled books they are an integral part of the story, as we’ve learned. They help children ‘guess’.
Difference #5: In decodable books, the introduction of high-frequency words that can’t be easily sounded out is done in a gradual way.
This is to avoid confusion and a cognitive overload in children.
On the other hand, levelled books don’t take these type of considerations into account when it comes to the introduction of irregular high-frequency words. They actually tend to use lots of them (regardless of whether they can be easily sounded out or not) from the very beginning.
Again, since levelled books have not been designed to support the phonics approach to reading, the main idea is that these words simply need to be memorised and that the more exposure the child has to them from the very beginning, the better.
The same reasoning goes for all words in general: In levelled books, words that do not make sense phonetically for the child yet and complicated exceptions are introduced from the very beginning.
Why are there so many differences between decodable and levelled books?
They are a tool for different teaching methods.
If you didn’t know, when comes to teaching children to read, there are two main approaches.
These two main methods are: the whole word approach (also called the “sight words” approach) and the phonetic or phonics approach.
While the whole word approach relies on what are called “sight words” (getting children to memorize lists of words and using strategies for figuring out the text from a series of clues), the phonics approach relies on teaching children about the sounds.
Sounds are represented by letters (or groups of letters) in the alphabet. With phonics, children are taught the sounds that letters make, and to blend these sounds in words to able to read words.
Only a small fraction of words (that present exceptions and irregularities) have to be memorised by children. Besides, in a good quality phonics programs, these exceptions are irregularities are normally not introduced at the beginning. They are taught when children are ready for it, to avoid confusion and a cognitive overload in kids.
I am sure that you may have ascertain by now which method uses decodable readers and which one uses levelled readers...
Levelled readers are the favourite tool of advocates of the whole-word approach to teaching reading.
On the other hand, decodable books are an essential tool for any good-quality phonics program.
Final thoughts about Levelled Books vs. Decodable books
The sad truth is that the differences between are not widely understood, not even in the schooling system.
Many schools that claim to use the phonics approach for teaching children to read, still used levelled readers.
Why is that?
Well, that would a topic for another whole article, but I will briefly mention a few…
From not understanding the reasons as to why it is important to use phonics books if you claim to use the phonics approach to having made a substantial investment on levelled books…
Some educators also argue that phonics books are boring and ugly. And, there is certainly a point to this argument: Creating books with restrictions on the words you can use can certainly limit your creativity. That is why it is so important to use good-quality decodable books!