Melissa Taylor is a former teacher and literacy trainer as well as a mother of two, blogger, and children’s book expert. She created and writes the popular blog Imagination Soup. She is also a contributor for publications such as Adobe Education, Brightly, Storey Publishing, and Parenting. Here, Taylor looks at the ways that many early readers are falling short of teaching essential literacy skills.

Last year, a reading teacher called me out for featuring outdated learning-to-read information on my blog, so I started looking at the research. And like Maya Angelou said, once you know better, you do better. Now that I understand how children learn to read, I wouldn’t recommend most of the recently published level one early readers on my desk—at least not for beginning readers to read to themselves. They aren’t bad stories, but they set beginning readers up for failure. What’s worse? There are hundreds of books just like them.

With 67% of fourth graders not reading at grade level, and 32 states mandating teaching the Science of Reading in the curriculum, it’s time for the publishing industry to take a critical look at how early reader books are aligning with the Science of Reading.

Currently, most books for early readers are based on a Balanced Literacy approach emphasizing the debunked word strategy of guessing using picture clues. These are books with great stories and lovely illustrations but words that are too difficult for beginning readers to sound out.

I want to see the word choices within early readers change. I want better labeling of what kids need to know before reading each book these changes will benefit of children, teachers, librarians, and parents. Improvements will also provide new sales opportunities for publishers within the states needing more phonics-aligned books.

But first, let me be clear: this is not the responsibility of authors. Publishers have provided general guidelines for authors of short sentences and short words, and it is the publisher’s guidelines that need to be more specific.

The Science of Reading

Marnie Ginsberg, founder and CEO of Reading Simplified, a reading curriculum for teachers and tutors, Ginsberg explained how children learn to read. “We have already known it, but now it’s becoming mainstream knowledge that kids need to understand how sounds and symbols relate. English is tricky, so we need to provide a gradual developmental path.”

The first step in reading is learning to identify letters and their corresponding sounds. Then children put letters and sounds together to form words. This is called decoding. Research tells us that the majority of beginning readers benefit from explicit instruction in the phonetic building blocks of our language so that they can learn to decode words.

Enter decodable books. These books mostly include letter sounds that the reader has been taught up to that point according to a specific scope and sequence, in addition to high-frequency words. (A scope is the range of concepts taught over a period of time. A sequence is in what order the concepts are taught. High frequency words are the most common words in the English language.)

Literacy consultant and librarian Laura Lay explained that current early reader leveling systems don’t factor in decodability. “For example, two five-letter words truck and chaos are leveled the same, but they are very different in terms of decodability.”

According to Text Complexity by Douglas B. Fischer, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp, the most predominant factors for grade-leveling books (systems like Lexile and Flesh-Kincaid) are sentence length and word length, not decodability.

Adding decodability to early readers is an important step in supporting our nation's growing readers.

Looking at a level one early reader on my desk that is supposedly meant for first graders, one book contains the word embarassed. Not only is this not a decodable first-grade word because it has three syllables and an r-controlled vowel, it’s misspelled!

To this end, Lay told me that she hoped publishers would “move away from leveling using quantitative measures like sentence length, and train editors on what decodable means. If they’re putting the books into first grade, the books should be controled by decodability, not by level.”

Lay said, “it’s about having collections that are inclusive of all levels of decodability and levels of decoding skills. If you don’t have early readers that all early readers can read, then you don’t have a complete collection.”

To be inclusive, publishers need a Science of Reading-informed scope and sequence for what phonemic levels will be included in the different levels or stages of books. “A good program is cumulative,” Ginsberg said.

According to Ginsberg, Some researchers would like to have 80–90% of the words be decodable, but I recommend mostly decodable. It can vary in terms of percentages because students can sometimes figure out things they haven’t been taught.”

Yes, the books need to be decodable but Ginsberg counters with a twist. “If our texts are so rigorously decodable that kids don’t encounter something that is unknown, then they won’t be developing the set for variability strategy they need. That’s a strategy good readers develop to correct their errors in pronouncing unknown words. It’s more likely to develop if they actually see some variety of words in the wild!”

She recommended current early reader books like See Me Run by Paul Meisel and Hot Dog by Molly Coxe because they contain decodable, repeated, high-frequency words, have almost no multi-syllable words, and the illustrations move the story forward.

“It’s definitely not a lack of good intention,” said Brooke Vitale when talking about book publishers. She’s a publishing industry veteran and author of the Charge into Reading Decodable Readers. “As an editor, I would spend hours scrutinizing every single word. I know now that what made sense to me at that time—having not taught a child to read myself and having no educational background—was not aligned with how children actually learn to read.”

Guessing Is Not Reading

Despite all the phonics research and the new legislation, many publishers and reading programs continue to focus on leveled and predictable books. Education analyst, parent, and founder of Read Not Guess Chad Aldeman said, “Some of the leveled readers are nudging readers to guess. For example, take this predictable pattern: ‘I can be a farmer, I can be a banker, I can be an astronaut.’ Astronaut is not a word a child can read, but they can guess it.”

When his son was learning to read, Aldeman knew there was a problem. “He’d look at pictures, turn his eyes away from the page, or look up to the sky.”

As a researcher, he knew he could find the reading best practices to help his son. And he did, by skipping predictable leveled early readers and replacing them with decodable books and direct phonics instruction.

Lay said of current leveled, non-decodable early readers, “There is nothing wrong with those books; it’s how we use them. In instruction, we don’t want to use leveled readers because they’re not appropriate, they don’t follow a scope and sequence, and they don’t take decodability in mind.” She suggested using current early reader books for when an adult reads to a child.

“Parents deserve to be better informed by children’s book publishers with something that lets them know that if this is a read-aloud or the book is better suited for a child to read themselves and what skills their child needs to have in order to read it,” Kucera said. To this end, she would like phonemic information on the front and back cover.

Wiley Blevins, author and early literacy specialist, emphasized that decodable texts aren’t the whole learning-to-read experience. He stressed that it’s also important to ask comprehension questions, build vocabulary and background knowledge, and include a writing experience.

Adding decodability to early readers is an important step in supporting our nation’s growing readers. Publishers, you have an opportunity to help more readers, teachers, librarians, and parents and to make a profit. By factoring in decodability, creating a phonics scope and sequence, and more accurately labeling books, you still can have comprehensible, instructive, and engaging titles while setting readers up for success.