How to Choose & Use Decodable Books

In this post, I answer the question “what are decodable books and when should I use them?”  I offer you an explicit routine for using decodable books with your small groups.  Finally, I leave you with 5 FREE DECODABLE BOOKS with comprehension questions and explicit teacher lesson plans that are perfect for small group instruction in Kindergarten, first and second-grade classrooms. 

In a recent blog post, I shared the problems with the 3 cueing systems and offered science-based strategies for how to help students navigate texts and solve unknown words.  One of the tips I offered was to use decodable texts.  

While many of you found this tip helpful, you had more questions. You wanted to know more about decodable texts. Specifically, you wanted to know how to use and where to find high-quality decodable books.  

Today I’m excited to talk to you more about how to choose and use high-quality decodable books in your classroom.  I’ll share what I learned through my study of Wiley Blevins’ book, Choosing and Using Decodable Books, and walk you through an instructional routine for using decodable books with your small groups. Finally, I’ll leave you with a FREE sample of my decodable books with comprehension questions resource that includes detailed teacher lesson plans! 

What is a Decodable Text? 

A decodable text is a text you use in beginning reading instruction.  It can be a book, a passage, or a poem that only includes phonics patterns and high-frequency words that you have already taught your students.  I find it most effective to use decodable texts for small-group instruction.   

There are a lot of decodable texts out there these days. It can be hard to know which are truly high-quality.  According to Wiley Blevins high-quality decodable texts are: 

  1. Comprehensive. It should make sense and sound natural.
  2. Instructive.  This means they include previously taught decodable words and have a heavy focus on the target phonics skills for a specific week of instruction.   
  3. Engaging.  High-quality decodables are texts that students will want to read over and over again.  This is necessary to ensure students build fluency and are able to discuss and write about the text.

The Benefits of Using Decodable Books

Studies have shown, students who use decodable controlled text in their early reading instruction get off to a stronger start in their reading instruction.  For one, decodable texts give students practice applying the skills that you have taught to real reading experiences. This application is how skills stick and it is essential for building a faster foundation in early reading.  

Secondly, decodable texts focus on developing accurate decoding.  Students DO NOT guess at words or rely on pictures to figure out unknown words because we know those are ineffective, bad habits to develop. The majority of the words in a decodable text can be sounded out based on the sound-spelling relationships students have already been taught.  This helps them to promote orthographic mapping, the mental process used to permanently store words for immediate retrieval.  

Finally, the use of decodable text also has a powerful effect on students’ confidence and motivation to read. When students read decodable texts there are lots of words they can successfully sound out using their growing phonics skills.  Studies have shown that this reading success breeds self-confidence and enjoyment of reading. 

When Should You Use Decodable Texts? 

Decodable books are wonderful resources to use for small-group instruction. Small groups allow you to provide explicit, targeted instruction to students based on their identified needs. It is an opportunity for students to receive the additional teaching and practice that is often needed for them to master the skills we teach. 

Decodable books are organized by phonics skill, not reading level. So instead of creating small groups based on reading levels as you did for guided reading, you group students by the specific skills they need more help and practice with.  Take a look at this post if you are curious to learn more about small group instruction vs. guided reading.

You’ll want to make sure your small group is developmentally ready for decodable books before you plan to use them. Decodables should be used once children have had explicit instruction with all letters and sounds that are included in the particular text.

After students show strong decoding skills, they are ready to move on from decodable texts and read leveled books independently. According to Linda Farrell and Michael Hunter of, students should continue to use decodable readers until they can do ALL three of these things: 

  1. Demonstrate mastery of decoding real and nonsense CVC words (short vowels, digraphs, and blends) in isolation. 
  2. Decode 2-syllable words and known 3-syllable words in isolation that have short vowel syllables (closed) or schwa. 
  3. Decode one and 2-syllable real words with r-controlled vowels and silent e.

Generally, students are able to do these three things towards the end of first grade or the beginning of 2nd grade. 

A Routine for Using Decodable Books in Small Group Instruction

Now that we have a grasp on what decodable books are and how they help our students, I want to share an explicit routine for how to use decodable books with your small groups that Wiley Blevins’ book, Choosing and Using Decodable Books. While this routine can be used with any high-quality decodable book, I will walk you through how it looks when using my Decodable Books with Comprehension Questions resource.  

Before reading, prepare students for reading by first explicitly telling your students what target skill you are practicing.  Then, provide students with blending practice using blending lines. These are a list of words that can be used to introduce the new skill for a decodable book. Blending lines should be used following the I do, We do, You do format.

In addition, before passing out books to read, we want to review or explicitly teach the irregular parts of the new high frequency words students will encounter while reading the new text.

Now it’s time to pass out the decodable books! Have students read the title and preview and predict what they will be reading. This is a wonderful time to frontload higher-level tier 2 vocabulary that likely is not in the book but will build their content knowledge.

Now students are ready to read!  You can do this in a few different ways depending on the needs of your students.  For the first reading, students can choral read or echo read the book. For subsequent reading, children can practice their decoding and fluency skills while partner reading or whisper reading, etc.  Keep in mind that the actual reading of the text should take about 50% of the small group instruction time. 

When students make a mistake while reading, be sure to provide them with immediate corrective feedback.  Point to the mistake, state the error, and state what it should be.  Have the student repeat the correction and go back and re-read it correctly.  

After reading, we can check children’s understanding of the text through comprehension activities. The purpose of reading is to build meaning, so you want to give students opportunities to practice oral and written comprehension.  

Students can discuss with a partner orally their ideas before writing their answers to the comprehension question. Encourage them to find details in the text to support their answers.

My decodable books resource offers students opportunities to discuss the text and write about the text.   It includes two different options for writing for easy differentiation.

If you are ready to give this routine a try but need decodable books, I am happy to offer you a FREE sample of my Decodable Books Resource.  This sample includes:

💕 5 FREE decodable books aligned to a research-based systematic phonics scope and sequence. 

💕 Explicit lesson plans for each book with activities to use before, during, and after reading

💕 Two versions of student printables

💕 Audio recordings for each passage to ensure you can easily differentiate based on students’ needs.

Looking for a complete set of high-quality decodable books?  My science of reading-aligned decodable books with comprehension questions and explicit teacher lesson plans has all that you need!

This bundle includes: 

💕 60 explicit and systematic decodable books (you can print them in B&W or color)

💕 60 step-by-step teacher lesson plans AND blending lines for every book

💕 2 versions of the student printable for easy differentiation

💕 15 pages of teacher info, helpful tips, and a suggested scope and sequence

💕 QR codes for students to scan and listen to the stories

💕 Instructional videos showing you how to put together the decodable books & how to use blending lines

Looking for more decodable books? Take a look at this blog post where I shared a list of high-quality decodable books for readers of different levels and ages.

We know that decodable books offer students a strong foundation in early reading.  I hope the information and resources I’ve shared today will help you bring more effective early reading instruction into your classroom! 

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