Decodable versus Levelled Readers

There are two key types of texts used in the teaching of reading and as a part of an intervention program for students having difficulty learning to read. ‘Decodable’ readers focus on ‘code’ and contain a large number of phonetically regular words that can be sounded out once a student has the corresponding knowledge. ‘Levelled’ readers focus on ‘meaning’ and repeatedly use ‘high frequency’ words (said, where, out) and syntactic patterns.

Murray et al. (2014) analysed the first 10 levels of first-grade versions of each of these types of readers (Fontas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention and the decodable My Sidewalks readers) from a word, text and program perspective. This article provides a summary of the key findings.

Murray identified four word-level features deemed as critical in the development of independent and proficient reading: Word decodability (i.e., words that could be read if a child had the appropriate level phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge), high frequency words (i.e., words that occur frequently in print), word concreteness (i.e., words that can be visualised as a picture) and multisyllabic words. Text level features related to the pace at which new words were introduced and how often words were repeated in the text. At the program level, the researchers investigated the match between the content of the phonic instruction in the teacher’s guide to the words used in the students’ readers.

Word-level results

Word decodability: The decoable readers had a significantly higher use of phonetically regular words (on average 62%) than the levelled readers (on average 42%).

High frequency words: The levelled readers used slightly more high frequency words (on average 66%) compared to the decodable readers (on average 59%).

Word concreteness: Both programs had a similar percentage of concrete words (slightly more than 25% of words).

Multisyllabic words: The levelled readers consistently included more multisyllabic words (on average 23%) compared to the decodable readers (on average 11%). Interestingly, in the first three levels of the levelled readers, on average, 23% of words were multisyllabic compared to 6% of words in the decodable readers. However, in the last three levels of each program, 12% of words in the decodable readers were multisyllabic compared to 17% in the levelled readers.

Text-level results

Both programs had a similar percentage of words used only once in a reader (45% for levelled readers compared to 41% of decodable readers). However, decodable readers contained slightly less word repetition.

Program-level results

There was a distinct difference between phonic lessons and the corresponding text used in readers in the two programs and this difference became larger at later levels of the readers. In the early readers, the match between the lesson and text was 28% in the decodable readers, but only 4% in the levelled readers. In the second level the match was 68% in the decodable readers and 31% in the levelled readers. The maximum correlation between the lesson and the text for the levelled readers was 50%, whereas in the decodable readers the match went as high as 76%.


A focus on levelled readers

Advantages Disadvantages
  •  The development of a ‘sight word’ vocabulary (i.e., words that are rapidly recognised) due to the higher level of repetition of words.
  • A higher level of success in reading real words at the pre-alphabetic stage (i.e., before children have sufficient knowledge to decode words) because of the high proportion of multisyllabic words that are more likely to be unique in visual appearance and are often included in the accompanying illustrations (e.g., pancakes, blueberries, etc.).
  • High percentage of multisyllabic words and a lower percentage of decodable words may encourage guessing and an over-reliance on picture cues.
  • High percentage of words occurring only once in the text may cause difficulty for at-risk beginning readers.

A focus on decodable readers

Advantages Disadvantages
  • High percentage of frequently occurring words help in the development of a ‘sight word’ vocabulary for these words.
  • Low percentage of multisyllabic words and a high percentage of decodable words that are directly related to explicit lesson instruction encourages the application of this knowledge to decoding words rather than just guessing the word or relying on picture cues.
  • High percentage of words only occurring once in the text and a relatively low percentage of word repetition may cause difficulty for at-risk beginning readers because the introduction of too many new words and insufficient repetition may inhibit the development of a ‘sight word’ vocabulary.

This research suggests that the best readers are ones that contain a majority of content words that are decodable given a student’s current phonic knowledge and teaching program, yet at the same time systematically introduce and then use repeatedly high frequency words (which students may or may not currently have the phonic knowledge to successfully decode).

For more information about decodable readers that also systematically introduce high frequency words while simultaneously providing significant repetition of all words go to: Learning to Read


Murray, M., Munger, K., & Hiebert, E. (2014). An analysis of two reading intervention programs: How do the words, texts and programs compare? The Elementary School Journal, 114(4), 479-500.


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