Find out the sorts of books your child should be reading and which ones are best avoided. Learn how you can give your child the support they need…
There’s no one type of book that you should use exclusively with your child when they are learning to read. Variety is important because children learn different things from different types of books. However, there are some types of books that it’s better to avoid…
Try to select a mixture of the following types of books:
Avoid books that use predictable and repetitive texts where children can guess words from the pictures or the pattern of previous sentences.
How you use the different types of books with your child is also important and we discuss the best ways to do this below.
Also, bear in mind that no matter how well you choose your child’s books, they are unlikely to make good progress unless they are also following a good reading programme. Ideally, this should be a systematic synthetic phonics programme, because research has shown this to be the most effective type of early reading instruction.
General fiction Books
These books are good for widening your child’s vocabulary and improving their comprehension. But, just as importantly, they can also help your child develop a love of reading if you choose books they find entertaining.
The more they enjoy reading, the more they will want to do it, so look for books that have themes or storylines that are appropriate for your child’s age and interests. These are likely to be the sort of popular children’s books you can find in your local library or bookshop.
Choose a wide range of books and include ones with rhyming passages. Kids love rhyming books and they can help children develop an ear for the linguistic rhythms of the language.
It also helps if the books are nicely illustrated so you can discuss what’s going on in the pictures. However, don’t ask your child to guess words based on the pictures or they might assume that referring to pictures is the best way of figuring out what a word says. Although this strategy might work sometimes for simple picture books, it will cause problems in the future when they encounter books with more words and fewer pictures.
At the beginning of your child’s reading journey, you will need to read most of the words in general fiction books for them.
Although children can make rapid progress with a good phonics programme, it normally takes months before youngsters can read these books independently. This is because the English spelling system is quite complex and good phonics programmes teach children how to read simple words first, before gradually progressing on to words with more difficult spelling patterns.
Unfortunately, a lot of common words have irregular spelling patterns, and these words crop up quite frequently in children’s literature. Children can be taught how to tackle these words successfully, but there’s a lot of other stuff to master first, and this takes time.
So read these books to your child, but as you are reading, pick out a few words for them to read based on where they are in their phonics programme.
Don’t ask them to do too much in the early stages, or you could spoil the flow of the story. However, you can gradually increase their contribution as their phonics skills improve.
Another strategy might be to read the whole story first with your child, and then go back through it afterwards, picking a few appropriate words from each page for them to read for you.
Never ask your child to read words that are more advanced than their current stage in the phonics programme they are following.
There is more to reading than identifying words and your child can learn a lot from you as they listen to you read. Try your best to ‘model’ what good reading sounds like. For example, it makes it more exciting if you can do different voices for the characters and give certain words or phrases greater emphasis by varying your intonation.
Our voices rise and fall naturally when we speak and this can affect the meaning of what we say. For example, our intonation might rise at the end of a sentence if we are asking a question or fall if we are making a statement. We also stress some words more than others and the way we say the words can express emotions and attitudes (“It’s the way you said it that made me angry!”).
Beginners find it hard to read with intonation because they are so focussed on sounding out the words correctly. And it’s especially difficult for children with poor phonological awareness because they find it hard to pick up the natural rhythms of the language. Listening to you reading frequently, and copying the way you do it, can help your child appreciate the importance of intonation and rhythm. Rhyming books can be especially helpful for this as we mentioned earlier.
It’s also important to ask some questions during your reading sessions as these can help to build your child’s reading comprehension. We discuss how to do this in our article about comprehension.
These books are good for developing your child’s general knowledge, which is important for reading comprehension. Non-fiction books can also help with various subjects children will meet in school. However, try to instil in your child that learning more about the world around us is a worthwhile thing to do for its own sake.
If your child has a key area of interest then it’s fine to concentrate most of your time on books about this, but also try to expose them to books that cover other topic areas so you get some breadth as well as depth. This might include some different periods of history, books about the natural world, general science, religion, mythology and geography, etc.
Children are likely to meet some technical words in these books that don’t appear in fiction books and this can broaden their vocabulary. However, non-fiction books also contain a lot of regular words and you can ask your child to read some of these words in the same way as we suggested for general fiction books.
They might also come across some non-familiar words that have quite phonetic spellings and you can ask your child to tackle these too as their phonics skills improve. We were amazed at how well our children could sound out and read the lengthy names of dinosaurs and characters from Greek mythology when they were still very young.
There are some excellent non-fiction books for children that explain things really well and have fantastic illustrations. We found that reading these with our children was an interesting and educational experience for all of us.
These are sometimes called phonics books or decodable books or decodable phonics books, but all the names mean the same thing.
The key feature of these books is that the majority of the words in them can be read by youngsters with basic phonics skills. Subsequent books in a series contain progressively more complex words, so children can move on to more challenging material as their phonics skills improve.
Decodable books are designed to allow children to practise their phonics skills in the context of a real story, without having to resort to guessing words from the pictures or from repetitive and predictable sentences.
We think decodable books can be helpful, but there has been some controversy surrounding them and we have some concerns of our own about the way parents are sometimes advised to use the books…
The main issue that people have with decodable books is that they contain quite basic storylines. It’s been suggested that this could put some children off reading because they might find the books boring. We can understand why people might have this concern but we don’t agree with it entirely.
It’s true that the authors of decodable books are severely restricted by the number of words that children can read in the earliest stages of phonics instruction. And this can lead to some uneventful storylines similar to the ones below:
First page: Pam
Next page: Pam sit.
Next page: Sit Pam.
Next page: Pam sit.
Next page: Pam.
Last page: Pam sat
And in another book…
First page: Pip.
Next page: Pat.
Next page: Pip pops Pat.
Next page: Pat pops Pip.
Next page: Pip tips Pat.
Last page: Pat tips Pip.
Clearly, this is sort of commentary isn’t exactly on a par with the likes of ‘The Gruffalo’. But as Alison Clarke has pointed out:
“The point of these books is not to replace quality children’s literature, which literate adults can and should read to children. The point of decodable books is to give children an opportunity to read something successfully …. and thus gradually build their skills and confidence to the point where they can tackle quality children’s literature, and all sorts of other reading, themselves.”
Alison Clarke, Spelfabet.
So explain to your child that the decodable books are just a way for them to practise their phonics skills and that you will continue to read other types of books with them. Tell them that if they keep practising the decodable books they will eventually be able to read any type of book they want all by themselves.
If they are following a phonics programme, your child should be used to reading individual words from the board in class or from lists they are given for homework. Decodable books are certainly more interesting than reading a list of words and they are often nicely illustrated too.
Some specialist reading tutors report that many children really enjoy reading decodable books. This is especially true for children who have previously been asked to read books that are too difficult for them. Although the stories in decodable books are a bit limited, reading them successfully can actually increase the motivation of struggling readers.
And once you get past the early books in a series, the stories do become more interesting. This is because a greater variety of words can be included as children move on to subsequent stages of their phonics programme.
Although you can pick out words for your child to read in ordinary children’s literature, it’s a lot easier to find a run of words for them to read in decodable books. Also, some of the later stories focus on words with particular letter combinations that children need to learn, such as the ‘ch’ in chips, church and chimp or the ‘or’ in fork, pork, horn and corn. This can also be helpful.
As we mentioned earlier, although we’re generally in favour of decodable books we also have some concerns about them.
We think that some producers of these books expect children to do too much too soon. The expectation is that children should attempt to read every word in the books independently. But in some cases, they are supposed to do this after they’ve only learned the sounds associated with a handful of letters from the alphabet!
This creates problems because it’s virtually impossible to write meaningful text using only a few letters. So the authors are forced to put in words containing letters that the children haven’t been taught yet. What’s more, they also include words with irregular spelling patterns that are difficult to read for beginners and struggling readers.
For example, one set of books in a series we examined is designed for children who have only learned the sounds represented by 6 letters (‘s’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘i’ and ‘n’). Yet the books contain a total of 16 words that the children would be unable to read if they only knew these 6 letters!
After learning the sounds associated with another 8 letters, they are supposed to tackle another set of books. These contain a total of 20 words that the children would be unable to read using the letters they know at this point. Parents are advised to get their children to rote learn these words before they read the books by playing matching games and snap.
So children are expected to rote learn 36 words before they’ve even been taught all of the 26 letters in the alphabet (in fact, they would only know around half the letters in the alphabet at this point).
These books are intended to be used alongside a systematic synthetic phonics programme, but rote learning random words like this is neither a systematic nor a sensible approach, and it’s certainly not phonics!
Rote learning words is extremely inefficient as we discuss in our article about sight words. Many of the words that are expected to be rote learned in this book series could be read quite easily by children who’ve had a little bit more phonics instruction. For example, some of the words to be rote learned include ‘picks’, ‘for’, ‘on’, ‘pass’, ‘up’, ’out’, ‘yes’, ‘put’, ‘from’, ‘spot’, ‘pop’, ‘gets’ and ‘not’.
Introducing unnecessary sight words at this early stage has the potential to confuse children who are just learning how to sound out letters and string them together to construct words.
The whole point of decodable books is to get children to practise their decoding skills, but here they are being asked to abandon their key reading strategy for a random bunch of words before they’ve even had time to embed it. And they also have to waste time doing matching games and other drills when they could be learning the sounds represented by the rest of the letters in the alphabet.
A More Sensible Approach…
The concerns we’ve outlined above are a consequence of an unrealistic expectation. Specifically, the expectation that beginning readers should attempt to read every word in these books independently after a minimal amount of phonics instruction.
Getting kids to rote-learn words they don’t have the phonics knowledge to read before doing a book, and then getting them to regurgitate these words straight afterwards might sound like independent reading, but this is a pretence. It’s like teaching them that 26×18 is 468 and claiming they can do long multiplication.
We think it’s better to give children more practice reading individual words and short captions before they attempt to read whole sentences in books.
Our own preference is for kids to practise reading and spelling individual words using all of the basic letter sounds first.
Once they have shown they can read simple 2 and 3 letter words reasonably well, we get them to practise reading short captions. The words in the captions are almost entirely made up of letter-sound correspondences they are familiar with. Any irregular spelling patterns are highlighted in red for the child, to indicate they might need some help with these.
We think it’s important to be honest with children from the outset. Explain to them that learning the letter sounds and how to blend them will allow them to read hundreds of words over the space of just a few weeks. But point out that there are many thousands of words in English and they will need to learn more stuff about phonics before they’re able to read all of them.
Being able to read simple children’s books completely independently within a year is a much more realistic (but still challenging) goal to aim for. In the meantime, just read the difficult words for your child and get them to read the words that are appropriate for their current phonics knowledge.
Most decodable books also include a number of high-frequency words with irregular spelling patterns. These are sometimes called ‘tricky words’, ‘special words’, ‘red words’, ‘sight words’ or some other phrase. Some of these words occur so often in print that it’s difficult to construct sentences without them. Examples include ‘the’, ‘be’, ‘to’, ‘of’, ‘have’ and ‘I’.
There is an argument for teaching some of these words quite early in a phonics programme, but we don’t think there’s any justification for doing this before children have even been shown the full alphabet. And most tricky words can be learned more efficiently and systematically later in a phonics programme.
In summary, give your child a bit more practice reading individual words before you ask them to read full sentences. If you come across words with irregular spelling patterns then read these for your child in the beginning. Occasionally, you could even point out which parts of the words have unusual spellings.
If you do this, you can avoid the potential confusion and interruption of rote-learning. This will save time in the long run. And your child might even pick up some of the more common tricky words along the way because they will see and hear you reading them so often.
Are Decodable Books Necessary?
They are not essential because a lot of children learn to read without them, but many phonics experts and reading tutors say they can be very helpful. For example, Susan Godsland has listed 10 reasons why beginning readers should be given phonically decodable books on her dyslexics website and she also outlines some research supporting their use. Alsion Clarke of the Spelfabet website also strongly supports the use of decodable books.
However, literacy expert Timothy Shanahan suggests that the research on decodable texts is inconclusive. This is partly because different researchers have defined decodable texts in different ways and students in different studies have been taught different amounts of phonics. So it isn’t always clear whether the different outcomes were due to the extra phonics instruction or the use of decodable texts.
Shanahan thinks there may be some benefit in using decodable books but he says they should only be used as a very small part of reading instruction.
We think Shanahan is perhaps being a bit over cautious because decodable books are simply a way for children to practise their skills, and cognitive scientists say that extensive practice is necessary to embed all types of skills:
“It is difficult to overstate the value of practice. For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice, beyond the point of mastery, is necessary.”
Willingham, D. (2004) Ask the Cognitive Scientist.
In fact, children should have the opportunity to practice their skills in a variety of ways if they are following a good phonics programme. For example:
- Reading individual words from lists,
- constructing words using alphabet cards or magnetic letters to practise spelling,
- doing structured activities from worksheets.
- using electronic animations, games and online activities,
- reading and writing short isolated captions and sentences, and
- reading carefully selected words and phrases from a variety of books.
And some attention also needs to given to improving the vocabulary and comprehension of youngsters during their reading instruction.
If children are doing all of the above things then reading decodable books will inevitably be a relatively small (but potentially quite useful) part of their reading instruction.
Where Can I Get Decodable Books?
If you live in England or Wales, your child’s school should provide them with decodable books to practise their reading at home. Unfortunately, not all schools do this, but you can access some free decodable books via this link from Alison Clarke’s Spelfabet site and she has also compiled a comprehensive list of decodable books.
There are a variety of free phonics e-books available from the ‘Oxford Owls’ website, including some of the Julia Donaldson Songbird’s series (she’s the author of The Gruffalo and many other popular children’s stories). We suspect that Oxford Owls would like you to go on and purchase some of the other books in each series but this is still a good way of checking them out for free.
We also found some free printable decodable books here.
Predictable and Repetitive Texts
We do not recommend using these books with your child if they are a beginning reader.
As the description implies, the books contain predictable and repetitive sentences. When an adult reads the first two or three sentences to a child, the child can figure out the next sentences themselves based on the pattern of the previous sentences and the pictures alongside the text.
For example, the text for a book about a visit to the zoo might run something like this…
At the zoo…
I saw some zebras
I saw some elephants
I saw some lions
I saw some monkeys
I saw some rhinos
and so on …
If each line of text is accompanied by a picture, you can see that the average child would soon be able to ‘read’ the rest of the sentences independently. But it’s clear that this isn’t really reading. Put the same words in different sentences without pictures and the kid wouldn’t have a clue.
Another book about a visit to the park might contain pages that say…
We walked to the park and I went on the swing
We walked to the park and I went on the slide
We walked to the park and I went on the roundabout
We walked to the park and I went on the see-saw
Although the sentences are a bit more complex this time, a smart kid could soon predict the next sentences with the help of some pictures. But once again, this isn’t really reading!
So why are these books published?
Both of these techniques are inefficient and unreliable, but some teachers and schools continue to use them because it’s what they’ve always done and some kids do eventually learn to read using these methods. It also takes more effort for the teachers to learn about and start using more effective strategies.
Alison Clarke has produced an informative video about predictive and repetitive texts…
Reading Scheme Books
These books are usually provided to children by their schools, but their quality can vary considerably. The books are often described by publishers as “carefully levelled guided readers”. However, some of the stories that are designed to be used at the beginning of a reading programme are full of words that are too difficult for beginning readers.
“In these schemes, books are levelled according to the number of words on a line, number of lines on a page or the number of high frequency words used and the degree of repetition, NOT on the phonic decodability of the text.”
Susan Godsland: http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/decodable_books.htm
Some of the words in these books might look quite simple at first glance, but they contain spelling patterns that are likely to confuse children who are just learning the most common sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet.
For example, we found the following words in a set of books for absolute beginning readers: ‘my’, ‘wash’ ‘cook’, ‘chop’ ‘clean’, ‘birthday’ ‘want’ ‘was’, ‘here’, ‘door’ and ‘the’.
The first sentence in another book for beginning readers was “Mum was frightened”. 2 out of 3 words in this sentence would cause problems for beginners.
Now having words like this in children’s books is fine if an adult is reading them to a child. But if a beginner is expected to read them independently they are only likely to confuse the child.
See Alison Clarke’s article for a more in-depth discussion of levelled books for guided reading. Former primary headteacher and school inspector Gordon Askew has also written a good article criticising the use of inappropriate books for beginning readers.
Research has shown that teaching children to read using ordinary books works better than special reading schemes. The variety appears to help children apply their skills in a wider range of contexts.
However, this doesn’t mean that all reading scheme books are bad. We read a number of these books with our children and some had very entertaining stories; others that were non-fiction had fantastic educational content that was very well illustrated. As with other types of books we’ve discussed in this article, the most important thing is to support your child when you are reading together.
If you follow the guidelines we’ve mentioned in this article and restated below, you can share just about any type of book with your child…
- Never ask your child to read words that are more advanced than their current stage in the phonics programme they are following.
- Just read the difficult words for them and get them to read the words that are appropriate for their current phonics knowledge.
- Don’t ask your child to guess words from pictures or the context of the sentence.
- Don’t spend time getting your child to rote-learn so-called sight words.
If you would like to know more about teaching phonics to your child, see our article: ‘How to Teach Your Child Phonics’.
If you want to know how to improve your child’s reading comprehension, see the following article: ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’.
If you would like to know more about teaching spelling, see the following article: ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’.
If you want to help your child learn to write, click on this link.