Blog Post
Illustrations on Mute: The Power of Text in Decodable Books

When you open a decodable book, you may notice that there are more words than pictures. This may seem odd, given that decodable books don’t have a lot of text to begin with. Books that are light on text are often heavy on images, but decodable texts are often devoid of images entirely or contain images that don’t fully connect with the text. Why is that? Like with all things Science of Reading-related, we have to go back to the research.

A Disproven Method: Three-Cueing 

The three-cueing system was used in classrooms across the country for decades. Formalized by psycholinguistics in the 1960s, three-cueing encouraged students to use a series of cues to guess unfamiliar words. For the first cue, the teacher would ask a question about meaning. The student would then use context clues to see if they could figure out what the unfamiliar word was. Then, students were encouraged to pay attention to syntax, to look at sentence structure and figure out the word based on the part of speech. The third and final cue was visual. While some teachers viewed “visual” to mean the letters themselves, most teachers used this cue to ask students about the illustrations, to see if students could guess the word based on the images in the text. This last cue was most incompatible with phonics instruction (if the teacher interpreted “visual” to mean “pictorial”). 

The three-cueing method and its iterations was popularized by many reading programs, like Fountas & Pinnell and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. These programs have since removed three-cueing from their curricula, in an effort to be more research-based. The research around structured literacy instruction (focusing on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) is robust and sound, while the Science of Reading proved that the research around three-cueing was flimsy at best.

Since decodable texts are controlled (meaning that the goal is for students to apply their decoding strategies and phonics lessons to the words in the text) we don’t want students to guess. In decodables, we, quite simply, want students to decode. We want them to apply strategies to decode with accuracy. We want their accuracy to lead to greater fluency, which, in turn, leads to the ultimate goal: improved reading comprehension. It all starts with decoding, though, which means that we do not want to give students – particularly older students who were taught to use three-cueing to guess – illustrations that give away the meaning.

A Better Approach: Decoding Leads to Meaning-Making

Instead, we first teach students to decode words. Then, we make sure that the stories we give students have enough context for students to derive meaning from unfamiliar words. We want them to derive meaning from these unfamiliar words after they decode them. We provide structured literacy support and knowledge-building so they can make meaning. 

Images and visual literacy remain an important part of this meaning-making puzzle. We can preview images and post-view images so students can use them to picture the setting, add to their knowledge, and make connections between the visual and verbal texts.

Pictures in Storyshares Decodables

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing why it’s good to “mute” illustrations in decodable books. But, it’s possible that you’ve seen the Storyshares Decodable Series - and if that’s the case, you may be confused, as Storyshares Decodables have so many pictures! They’re still on mute when it comes to making meaning from the text itself, though! Here’s why:

  • We use real photographs. We want our books to be appealing to older striving readers. The images in many decodable books make it obvious that the books are for younger readers. We use images that feature older characters. These photographs match the age range of the intended audience, rather than the grade-level equivalent of their reading ability. In doing so, we make sure that the older striving readers of Storyshares Decodables feel like these books were made for them… because they were!
  • Photographs help readers visualize the setting. Storyshares Decodable Chapter Books are written by a diverse community of authors, from all over the world, many of whom are telling versions of their own stories. Our decodable series span the globe, from the Pacific Northwest to the Bahamas to Benin, in West Africa. Many of these settings are unfamiliar to readers. While readers will be able to understand the story from reading the text alone, the photographs help them visualize where the story takes place. 
  • Our photo researchers select photos that do not help readers guess words. We have a team of editors and photo researchers who select photographs to go with the text. We make sure that these photographs do not give away the words on the page, though! The words remain opportunities for students to practice their skills with engaging, authentic, and scaffolded texts.

Take a look inside our cutting-edge approach to decodables for older, striving readers here.