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Should Decodable Readers have Pictures?  

Decodable readers, also known as “text-based stories,” offer children the opportunity to practice their reading skills with books they can read on their own. Decoding is a reading skill that uses phonics, picture recognition is designed to give vocabulary clues to early(or later) readers and add value to both fiction and non-fiction texts.

Decodable readers utilize phonetic words, usually in book sets of increasing difficulty. They are often accompanied by child friendly pictures to assist with comprehension and understanding of the text. Reading requires many different skills of which decoding phonetic words, although important, is only one.

While learning phonics and word decoding skills the question can arise is it better to have texts that are accompanied by images or that stand alone. This blog post will help you understand why including pictures can be beneficial or not.

What are Decodable Readers?

A decodable reader is a type of reading book that is specially made for children learning how to read. They will focus on a particular phonetic sound, such as a short vowel, or a particular digraph.

Although it is almost impossible to create a book or meaningful text out of one phonetic sound, unless you are Dr Seuss, they will use simple sounds the students should already be aware of as well as the focussed sound. The idea is that students and children can read upwards of 75% of the words within the book.

These decodable readers will, especially at beginning and early years versions, have images to allow emergent readers the chance to understand and relate to the story while they try to read and decode the words within it.

Should decodable readers have pictures

Examples of Decodable Reader Books

There are many examples of books that can be found as decodable readers. They all aim to teach children how to learn to read and progress from basic decoding of sounds to decoding of more complex words.

To achieve this they often come in progressive sets that increase with reading level, word count and phonetic focus.

Four examples of these decodable sets are listed below with links if you want to know more.

Bobs Books

These decodable readers have been going for over 40 years and we still have them in our classrooms. For classroom use these are certainly well priced if you need multiple sets.

Star Fall Readers

We LOVE to use their Short vowel games and stories online as an introduction to phonics for our emergent readers. Now its possible to use their books as well!

First Little Readers

Full set of Phonetic readers great for parents to encourage decoding skills at home, or for teachers to use as part of guided reading and phonics lessons.

Pete the Cat Readers

Great images, and interesting stories for children to start their reading journey.

Features of a Decodable Reader

Decodable readers contain words and sounds that students have already learned or are in the process of learning. Jolly phonics follows a similar pattern and creates texts with sounds that have been covered by students.

This is done to encourage and motivate students to read, and to boost confidence in their reading. It has a pure focus on these sounds , and as a result the text is often unnatural and doesn’t provide a great narrative or engagement opportunity.

Features of a decodable reader:

  • Decodable texts contain letters or groups of letters familiar to students
  • May be nonsense or random story telling to fit the requirements of the sounds.
  • At the lower levels decodable readers are likely to have no narrative or story
  • Decodable Readers will likely have images but these will relate to the words on individual pages, and not
  • Decodable readers focus predominantly on phonics rather than grammar, sentence construction or vocabulary

Should Decodable Readers Have Pictures?

In our, not inconsiderable experience, we have to give a hard yes to this. As we mentioned above, reading is a journey, it requires the collection of both skills and experience. Decodable readers offer a systematic phonics element to that journey.

However, that’s about all they offer. Your students will, in time, learn how to decode words even increasingly difficult words. What they won’t get is the love of reading that comes from picking up a book and immersing themselves in it. They wont learn how to inference, how to use picture clues, how to empathize or substitute themselves with the characters in the story.

  • Decodable readers and text certainly have a role to play, but despite the push on phonics, even from the pages of our own website! , there is more than one way to teach a child to read.
  • So what about images and pictures in decodable readers, purists say, mistakenly in our opinion, that images and picture distract from learning the decoding skills needed to read. This is particularly cold we think. There is considerably more to reading than decoding.
  • Children, especially young children at which decodable readers are mainly aimed at, are not reading to get better at reading, just like they don’t learn to swim to keep fit, ride a bike to get some where or play a sport to join a national team. All of these things may happen of course, but its not the aim. The aim children have with the vast majority of activities they do is similaple – it is fun.
  • Pictures don’t necessarily add that much more fun to a decodable reader, but at the least, the very least, they add a context, a way to understand what the words they are decoding actually mean.
  • They also offer teachers and parents the chance to refer to the picture and embellish on the text to make the decoding task more interesting.
Should decodable readers have pictures

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Decodable Readers

Decodable readers are made for a purpose, unsurprisingly that primary purpose is teaching decoding. There are benefits to this, and some drawbacks. These drawbacks are multiplied if too much emphasis is placed on decoding skills

We will explore these positives and negatives in a stand alone and larger article but for the moment the table below give you an idea.

Benefits of Decodable ReadersDrawbacks of Decodable Readers
Builds confidence with young readersDoesn’t offer a great chance to read for the joy of reading
Focus on reading and phonics skills building which they can use and develop on an ongoing basis.Spending time sounding out letters and blending them is unlikely motivation enough.
Just allows students to work on on skills systematically. Reading for meaning is not a priority, so they are frequently nonsense books
Although a little close to rote learning, the repetitive natural of decodable readers does have a place in education If decodable readers are used in isolation it risks other reading skill acquisition falling behindfollows a set progression, allowing levelling and assessment to be undertaken.Decodable readers are not authentic texts.

How to Use Decodable Readers in a Classroom

Decodable readers, just like phonics, certainly have a place in every modern english classroom. One of their strengths is the ability to assess reading levels and to level texts to children’s and students reading ability.

  • This opens up the chance to do guided reading lessons, and small class similar level mini lessons in class. We have pages and pages of resources for phonics and guided reading instruction all over the site and will link below this section.
  • Guided reading requires teaching having as accurate an idea of a students reading level as possible and sets like the PM Benchmark (which we used expensively) allow teachers to assess students reading ability, however this reading system tests for both phonics agility AND comprehension.
  • We have had students reading, or appear to be reading, at levels 20 plus. they pronounce the words excellently, but when it comes to answering comprehension questions it all a muddle.
  • Children may be able to read to a higher level than they can understand or comprehend. So it is important to test their reading levels, but also make sure to see how much they are understanding. It is no fun to read words you may be able to say but have no idea of their meaning.
  • Decodable readers can also be used to target a known weakness. If students are struggling with digraphs, or blends or another phonetic element. then teachers can bring out a set of books that have these sounds as a focuss to do a short sharp focussed lesson on that sound ( with other resources as well)
  • Assessments are useful for guided reading sessions as mentioned above, however being able to inform parents ( carefully as there is a tendency to try to push their children a little faster than they are able) of their children’s reading level and to suggest appropriate reading material means they can take their learning out of the classroom and into the home.
Should decodable readers have pictures


In conclusion, decodable texts should have pictures to help struggling learners better understand what is happening in a story. To add fun, to give the teacher a way to introduce comprehension to the story and to introduce other reading skills to students and children rather than just decoding and phonics.

Children will also benefit from being more engaged, allowing them to retain what they are reading. Without images or illustrations, especially in early years and with emergent readers, it becomes pretty soulless and joyless to sit and just decode words for the sake of it. Adults can handle books with out images all well and good, but even with us they put a picture on the front cover.

Reading and learning to read are so much more that correct pronunciation of words, there is comprehension, empathy, grammar, vocabulary knowledge, memory development, reasoning skills and, yes, decoding. However decoding is one skill from a long and equally important list.

The question perhaps should not be ‘‘should decodable readers have pictures” but how can we use decodable readers effectively? and we will be exploring that in much more depth in the coming articles

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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