Decodable Readers: a review comparing six popular series

Any reviews welcome, but please keep criticism on a professional level. Views expressed are those of individual contributors and not necessarily of the RRF.

Moderators: maizie, Lesley Drake, Susan Godsland

Post Reply
User avatar
Peter Warner
Posts: 494
Joined: Sun Nov 06, 2005 4:34 pm
Location: Nagoya, Japan

Decodable Readers: a review comparing six popular series

Post by Peter Warner » Wed Jun 06, 2007 6:41 am

A Comparative Review of Decodable Books, Decodable Readers, or 'Decodables'

Bob Books, Jelly and Bean, Family Readers, Songbirds, Read Write B&W Stories, Jolly Readers

Decodable Readers are a fairly new type of children's books. Several publishers have developed series of these readers for students who are beginning to learn to read. In the United Kingdom, the wide publicity of the now famous Rose Report, and resulting shift in the British national education curriculum toward stressing the concept 'phonics, first, and fast' has helped encourage the development of this type of material.

Decodable Readers are books designed to be compatible with contemporary phonics instruction. Such books are written with vocabulary that is carefully kept within a planned sequence of graphemes, as much as possible. This allows and encourages children who are given instruction in decoding the English alphabetic code in such a systematic structure to read them out loud, without hesitation, and without assistance. If the vocabulary, grammar, and expressions in the story are within their language comprehension, they will be reading fluently with comprehension, simply by applying their understanding of the code sound-letter correspondences.

Graded Readers are not written to support or encourage a phonics decoding strategy as the primary or deliberate strategy. Of course it would be common sense to avoid long or obscure words in books written for young readers, and both Decodable Readers and Graded Readers make an effort to do that. However, these two types of readers approach the process of reading, and indeed reading instruction from different (and perhaps opposing) perspectives, and consequently present a very different experience to the reader.

A glance at a book from the Songbirds series (a decodable reader from Oxford University Press) and then at a book from the Oxford Reading Tree collection (also from OUP) confirms this. Decodable readers and graded readers are designed and composed with different intentions and underlying principles. Those differences, and their implications are beyond the scope of this article. This review is not intended to evaluate the merits of either decodable or graded readers.

While children's books and picture books are plentiful, there are very few legitimate decodable readers on the present international market. For second language learning application, there are even less. There is a great need for decodable readers, and for reading material targeted to second language learners of English, that is compatible with Linguistic and Synthetic Phonics code instruction. This review is intended to help identify and improve what is on the market.

In no particular order, here are reviews of six well-known and mass-published decodable reader series. The evaluations are highly subjective and possibly uninformed, although I have observed my students (grade-school Japanese students of English) interact with each entire set, as I have them all on display in my classroom waiting area.

For a pdf of the complete review (these general comments and a two page table of further data and ratings): ... ing63.html

For a slide show of photos of the material reviewed, with page samples: ... bum64.html

Total disclosure: I have no financial or editorial connections to any of these materials, and wish them all well.
I have communicated personally by email with Marlene Greenwood of the Jelly and Bean series, but have not met her.

Happy reading, Peter Warner. Nagoya, Japan 2007/06/05

Bob Books

The 'Bob Books' are a series of 48 decodable readers from the USA, availible from Amazon USA.

They are written in a very decodable language, with very logical and gradual grapheme progression. They are very inexpensive. Those are all the good points.

The Bob Books are very very small and the stories are very short. If you enjoy reading matchbook stories, these are for you. I'm exaggerating, but not by much.

Although the cover paper is heavier stock, the page paper and two color printing appear cheap. The illustrations are ugly unattractive pencil scratches. It's hard to imagine a child enjoying one of these, and in fact I've yet to see any interest shown in them.

Jelly and Bean

The Jelly and Bean series of decodable readers are written and illustrated by Marlene Greenwood in the UK, and set the standard for decodable readers in many aspects. Perhaps someday Jelly and Bean (the two main cat characters) will be as famous as Peter Rabbit: these books are very popular in the UK.

They are the longest series (106 books), cover the longest span of decoding ability (very beginning to upper intermediate code), follow a gradual and precise grapheme progression plan, and yet maintain charm and interest through every story with a variety of animal characters and their adventures. The illustrations are full
color (although not full page), and the material is top quality.

Jelly and Bean stories were written to use with very beginner students learning to read by synthetic phonics methods, and yet also accommodate the UK curriculum. Consequently, there are high frequency words included in the books, which may irritate or distract those wishing a more pure decodable text.

In spite of this compromise, I regard the Jelly and Bean as an excellent decodable series. The grammar and vocabulary are kept basic with the initial levels, which makes them accessible even for EFL and ESL readers. I have watched Japanese third-grade boys laughing out loud over these books, while reading by themselves.

Jelly and Bean are the most expensive, and they are also the most valuable. This series is self-published, and Marlene is responsive to personal emails and enquiries about the material. I wish she would write another hundred of these stories, perhaps with some people characters.

Jelly and Bean:

Family Readers

The Family Readers are produced by an American company, as part of a fully developed literacy teaching program. I suspect that it is designed as a home schooling curriculum, and it looks very effective for that purpose. There is a very well organized teacher's manual with methodology explanations, lesson plans,
grapheme progression tables and word lists provided with the series set, along with CD with book pages for download and computer study.

The books are highly decodable, and progress gradually from complete beginner to upper intermediate level. The writers were very careful to keep the text within the designated decoding level, to the point of abusing grammar: instead of 'it filled a bit', we read 'it did fill a bit', for example. To a native adult English speaker, the result is a little awkward at times. A beginning reader perhaps wouldn't be distracted as I was.

The illustrations and stories just aren't attractive or appealing. As instruction or one-on-one reading practice material this isn't a problem, but if children aren't really drawn to these books on their own interest, it reduces their usefulness as books to leave out in display.

Family Readers:

'Songbirds' Series (Oxford University Press)

The Songbirds Series are a series of decodable story books written by an accomplished and popular children's author (Julia Donaldson, who wrote The Gruffulo), and illustrated by a collection of top-flight
artists. The combination works wonderfully: the stories are thrilling, the pages are appealing, and the entire text is decodable.

Oxford University Press has done this material the right way- each books feels like a real book. It's large, every page has full-color illustrations, and the paper is top quality heavy stock.

Donaldson has done what many have only approached: she has written engaging stories within the limitations of a decodable vocabulary, and she remains faithful to a systematic development of the
grapheme sequence through the series levels. It is an outstanding series, and it is accessible to beginning readers.

It's also much too short. Even with more volumes being released later this year to add to the present 36 books, it's too brief a series to use for anything except reading for entertainment. For that it is ideal, but seventy more books in the series would allow instructional possibilities.

In spite of my enthusiasm, the series isn't perfect. The decodability levels are not consistent with the book sequence. Some books are easy to decode and some use words that are out of sequence. For example, the very first book begins with 'I am top cat'. The words 'top' and 'cat' are fine, but capital 'I' as first person pronoun is not primary level decoding. Of course, every author has to make some compromises as they compose a coherent story. For my purposes, I was forced to change the sequence of books, but I also had to do that with every one of the materials in this review.

There most likely is some plan to the grapheme/phoneme sequence, but it is not explained well enough. There should be a visible table of the grapheme sequence shown to assist the teacher trying to connect the book progression with their curriculum, something like the table inside the front cover of each Read Write reader (next review).

This series also deserves more support from the publisher. It's difficult to locate at the Oxford web site, and at Amazon UK as well. Most OUP representatives in Japan aren't familiar with the material, or the principle behind them. The best explanation of the grapheme sequence and application of the books that I could find is at the Amazon UK web site.

Also, it seems strange that the series is wrapped into the Oxford Reading Tree (ORT) scheme (with matching levels and color codes), yet the ORT series is overt sight-word curriculum material, standing in direct conflict with the Songbirds Series purpose and application. The obvious talent and quality invested in the Songbirds Series would be better recognized (and rewarded) if it was promoted separately, I think.

Read Write B&W Stories (Oxford University Press)

The Read Write decodable book series are published by Oxford University Press, who purchased Read Write Inc. from Ruth Miskin (a pioneer of synthetic phonics in the UK).

The books I have are designed (I think) to be given to the individual students, perhaps as take-home study and workbooks. They are printed in black and white on inexpensive thin paper. Consequently, these Black and White readers are very low price. There are color versions also listed, which I did not purchase (at 2.6 British pounds apiece, or about ¥630 Japanese yen, they would have been the most expensive of all).

As instruction or personal study material, these should be fine.There is a table in the front of each book showing the grapheme and phoneme progression, graphemes of interest to that story, words in the story that do not follow the curriculum, and words that might need to have their meaning explained. This preliminary
table is very useful, and the series structure is well thought out.

The stories are surprisingly engaging, and humorous. The story lines were actually more stimulating than the illustration sketches, which felt a little crude in comparison. In fact, this was intentional: the illustrations are designed to relate but not 'give away' the identity of the words in the text, or distract from it. This calculated reduction of appeal indicates how seriously the importance of decoding is taken by Ruth Miskin and her writers, and they deserve credit for that maturity and dedication.

What bothers me most is the decoding and grammar level that the books begin with. The series begins with code that is beyond initial instruction level: Book one, Level one has words like sing, long, thin, and jumping.

Some text used does not follow the decoding progression. That first story has a singing sequence 'La la la la' that is not explained or indicated as an exception. There are similar insertions of text in other stories.

The vocabulary works for native English speakers, but is often beyond an EFL student's language level: 'I'll fix that' as a threat makes sense to a native speaker, but is simply beyond an EFL vocabulary usage.

I would heartily recommend these books for native speaker readers who are proficient with CVC patterns and two syllable patterns. If they have such an established foundation, they should enjoy and benefit from these. I would not recommend this series for beginners or non-native readers.

ReadWrite, Inc.;

Jolly Readers

The Jolly Readers books are designed as decodable readers for students being taught by the Jolly Phonics curriculum, and are sold as part of the Jolly Learning catalog of materials.

From a production standpoint, they are impressive: large size, high quality paper, full color printing, and excellent graphics. This production quality is remarkable considering the low price of the books.

Alone among decodable readers, this series has three notable sections: Fiction, character stories, and a non-fiction series that I found fascinating. Children tired of cutesy characters will love the books about
trucks, jets, and slugs (boys especially I would think). This is an obvious missing element in every other decodable series that makes the Jolly Readers stand out. These are the only decodable non-fiction books that I am aware of.

The fiction books are also well written in terms of story interest. The adaptations of popular folk tales bring exciting literature within the reach of young learners, and actually seem to make a successful bridge from decodable books to graded readers, which also sets this series apart. The character stories however seemed pointless and actually not very cute or charming, at least to myself.

Reluctantly I rate the Jolly Readers low overall, primarily for one reason: The very first books include many words with digraphs that simply cannot be considered basic code. In fact, I would consider the first level to actually be a fourth or even fifth level. To illustrate, here is the text from that very first book:

I wish I had a rocket
to zoom up to the clouds
and jet around the stars a bit
and land on planet Mars,
then orbit around the sun
until it got too hot
and swoop back on a comet's tail
for a picnic on the moon!

By any of the curriculum plans that I have seen, these books are not decodable by beginning readers. That doesn't mean these books aren't worth considering: as higher level decodables, they would be fantastic.

I can only assume that these books are written to be introduced to students being taught by a Jolly Phonics curriculum, after they have completed several initial stages of alphabetic code instruction. There must be teacher's materials giving guidelines for using these readers, and a planned grapheme sequence, but it is not self-evident looking at these gorgeous books how to begin with them. There are abundant curriculum materials and teaching products sold separately, at serious additional cost. There is also an extensive web site offering guidance and even a support discussion forum for Jolly Phonics practitioners.

Finally, the pages shown as sample pages of Level One at the online web site show pages from the one book in that level that is decodable by basic level readers. It almost seems as if that one story (a frog in a pond with ten ducks) was written to provide an appealing online sales pitch. Consequently, I felt deceived and sorely disillusioned when I opened them.

Unless you are using a Jolly Phonics curriculum, I cannot recommend these readers for your beginning students. For students who are proficient with the basic code (including vowel digraphs) they would be wonderful reading material.

Jolly Readers:

This concludes the general comments. More specific data and ratings may be viewed in the pdf download at: ... ing63.html

and a slide show with photos and page samples is at: ... bum64.html

Happy reading, Peter Warner. Nagoya, Japan 2007/06/05

Posts: 517
Joined: Tue Nov 15, 2005 1:51 am

Post by JAC » Thu Jun 07, 2007 2:38 pm

Thanks Peter - I am familiar with and use Jelly and Bean, JP readers, Ruth Miskin's and would agree with your comments.
Perhaps one day you will be able to review the 'I See Sam' readers, which in my opinion are the best that I have used with beginners.

Posts: 239
Joined: Thu Mar 30, 2006 12:14 pm

Post by frances5 » Thu Jun 07, 2007 5:22 pm

I found your reviews very interesting. We have used Jelly and Bean and Jolly Readers at home. At school Andrew uses the Oxford Reading Tree Songbirds. This is how we got on with various decodable books.

Jelly and Bean

These books are stories about two cats Jelly and Bean, although Marylene has also written books about pigs and dogs. The stories are available as either plain text or in books. The books have beautiful illustrations and my son loved the stories.

The big advantage of these books is that they do not progress in difficultly too fast. There are plenty of books for children who need a bit more practice. I think that they are great for building confidence and fluency. Some of the long vowel series are easier than the consantant blend and clusters books.

We did not find it a problem that there was the occassional word that was not decodable. Children don't live in a 100% pure synthetic phonics world. Andrew see street signs and library books with words beyond his decoding ablity. I think that Marlene has got the right balance between making a book decodable and making it flow.

The only draw back with this series is that there is no non fiction or general fiction stories. We bought the Jolly Readers because my son wanted a change from animal stories. However he still goes back them as favourite books.

Jolly Readers

We have used gone through the Red and the Yellow Jolly Readers. My son has loved the non fiction stories and general fiction. He has been less keen on the stories about Inky the mouse and friends. The illustrations are of a high standard. I like the way that letters that are not sounded out in words like the "e" in "are" are in faint writing.

My only critism is that the books progress in diffculty very rapidly. The jumps in difficulty between levels is quite big. I agree that the red books are hard, for example one of them had the word "lipstick" in!

I particularly like the non fiction because I feel they are very boy friendly.


My son's school uses these. My son has enjoyed these stories. The illustrations and stories are very good. We have used some stage two and stage four Songbirds. I found the questions at the end of the books useful for checking understanding. I also like that fact that its clear which phomenes the books is practicing.

We found them quite hard compared to Jelly and Bean or Jolly Readers. In the stage 2 books the pictures gave away the stories, but this has not been a problem with the stage 4 books.

Posts: 120
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 9:23 pm
Location: Leeds

Post by jenny » Thu Jun 07, 2007 5:48 pm

Your review of Read Write Inc is misleading, omitting as it does the ten books (Ditty Books) which precede the 'Green' reading books.
Jenny W

User avatar
Peter Warner
Posts: 494
Joined: Sun Nov 06, 2005 4:34 pm
Location: Nagoya, Japan

Post by Peter Warner » Fri Jun 08, 2007 6:00 am

JAC wrote: Perhaps one day you will be able to review the 'I See Sam' readers,
which in my opinion are the best that I have used with beginners.
Thank you, JAC.

Your recommendation led me to their web site

and I'm trying to arrange overseas shipping with them at the moment.

I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Best regards, Peter Warner.
Peter Warner
Nagoya, Japan

English in Japan

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Proverbs 9:10

User avatar
Peter Warner
Posts: 494
Joined: Sun Nov 06, 2005 4:34 pm
Location: Nagoya, Japan

Post by Peter Warner » Fri Jun 08, 2007 6:06 am

jenny wrote:Your review of Read Write Inc is misleading, omitting as it does the ten books
(Ditty Books) which precede the 'Green' reading books.
Jenny W
Thank you, Jenny. That's a worthy comment, and would certainly help explain
why the 'Green' level starts where it does.

I'm in the process of locating and ordering the 'Ditty Books' now.

Best regards, Peter Warner.
Peter Warner
Nagoya, Japan

English in Japan

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Proverbs 9:10

Posts: 517
Joined: Tue Nov 15, 2005 1:51 am

Post by JAC » Sat Jun 09, 2007 12:21 am

Peter, I see that there is now another thread on the main message board. The BRI books mentioned there are the same as the I See Sam ones, the difference being they are produced by two different publishers. One publisher includes word lists and a few other things at the beginning of the books.
As has been stated the best place for information and discussion is the BRI website posted by USA teacher.
There is also a short article about these books in one of the RRF newletters. Autumn 2004 called Beginnng Reading Instruction.

Polly Kaan
Posts: 14
Joined: Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:57 pm
Location: Kingston

Re: Decodable Readers: a review comparing six popular series

Post by Polly Kaan » Fri Jul 23, 2010 3:32 pm

I agree with all these reviews Peter.

I'd love to see what you make of the Dandelion Readers which seem to start at the most basic level of any I have seen, the Jescott Bodkin books, which are perhaps the most carefully sequenced by phonic complexity (and aimed directly at the children without comments for teachers) , and the King Wizzit series which look great for older beginning learners especially boys.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest