Decodable Readers – Writing for Educational Publishing – Presented by Nicole Forrest and Mary Serenc
Two years ago, Nicole and Mary pitched a project to Firefly Education. Their goal – to create a set of Decodable Readers that aligned with the science of reading, were easy for teachers to use, and that were engaging and fun for children.
266 books later (that’s writing 2-3 books a week!) the Soundwave Decodables are now being rolled out in libraries and schools across Australia.
How did it happen?
The right partnership
Mary Senec is a children’s author based in Cairns who has a background in early years primary teaching. She is passionate about helping kids gain the skills they need to independently navigate the wonderful world of children’s literature, and is adamant that Decodable Readers should make sense – and not be boring.
Nicole is a linguist who also has classroom experience in intervention support. She ensures the correct sounds are used in each book, and that no book includes letters or sounds which haven’t already been introduced.
Nicole describes her role as being pedantic and perfect, and Mary’s as being fun, flippant, and on another planet!
Okay. But what is a Decodable Reader?
Decodable Readers are a teaching tool – sets of short books with tightly controlled words which aim to develop students’ word recognition ability and are aligned to the curriculum. Each set builds upon the letters and sounds which have previously been taught.
They don’t replace high-quality children’s literature but are designed so that all students become independent readers.
Soundwaves Decodables each include a warm-up activity, carefully designed layouts, and follow-up comprehension questions. Each set uses a variety of text types (narrative, interactive, clue books, poetry, non-fiction, plays) and each book has tightly controlled words and word counts.
Because the words available for each story are so constrained, illustrations in a Decodable Reader need to carry the story (without allowing the child to guess the words).
This meant that Mary and Nicole wrote detailed illustration notes for each book and were often working directly with illustrators without going through an editor. They were thrilled to work with many incredible artists through The Illustration Room and proud that each book was finished to such a high standard.
Because Mary and Nicole were determined that their Decodables would reflect themes children were interested in, they took on some big challenges – including writing a book about dinosaurs without using the word dinosaur (or any dinosaur names!)
Mary also described the challenge of writing poetry with unforced rhyme when she only had one type of vowel sound available (!) and the difficulty of building tension with an extremely limited vocabulary.
Write Links Exercise
After a fantastic presentation, Nicole and Mary set the Write Links crew a challenge: to write a 40 – 100 word Decodable Reader in 20 minutes, only using the words they supplied (no sneaky word-tweaking with suffixes, etc!) The Write Links stories also needed to include as many of the words with the chosen focus sound as possible [i.e. the shaded words in the top left corner]. There were bonus points for stories with a twist, or which used puns or other humour.
It was a fantastic exercise in using language imaginatively and many of us found that the tight restraints made us consider every available word from new angles, trying to eke out something which could be used to build a plot!
After sharing our stories with the room, Nicole read the story she and Mary wrote for Firefly (using the same words). Now with a better understanding of the craftsmanship involved in writing an excellent Decodable Reader, Gus the Pug received enthusiastic applause from the room!
Thank you, Nicole and Mary, for a fantastic workshop and for generously sharing your experiences writing for educational publishing.
by Helen Gearing