Explode the Code Review: A Top Homeschool Phonics Curriculum

I ordered a very expensive (several hundred dollars!) reading curriculum last year that I was so excited to start with my 1st grader.

Sadly (but not that sadly), it was backordered several times. The school year was starting though, so I decided to order a couple Explode the Code workbooks as a supplement until the curriculum arrived. 

The price was cheap, so I really wasn’t expecting much.

Well, we ended up loving the workbooks so much that I canceled the other curriculum order, and dove in all the way with Explode the Code!

After a year of working through the curriculum, I have no regrets and have also started my youngest child on the workbooks too!

This extensive Explode the Code Review will cover all this and more: what Explode the Code is, what each workbook covers, what grade level matches up with the workbooks, what you have to buy for the curriculum, whether Explode the Code is enough, how a typical lesson runs, what to do about the tests, whether the work can be done independently, what we loved about the curriculum, and what we didn’t love so much. 

Get some coffee and prepare to find out everything you ever wanted to know about Explode the Code!

What is Explode the Code?

Explode the Code (2nd edition) is a set of 8 workbooks that use a simple, silly, and systematic approach to teach reading through phonics!

If you don’t know, that means students are taught how to sound out words using phonograms (ee, ea, ou, etc.) as opposed to memorizing sight words or guessing at the word after looking at a picture.

A younger child will start with the first book. There is a consonant sounds pretest to make sure the child is ready for the curriculum.  The child then learns about letter formation, short vowel sounds, and blending.

The curriculum progressing from there, taking children to phonics mastery by the end of the series.

Reading lessons in Explode the Code workbooks are approximately 8-9 pages long, giving the student ample practice to solidify new phonics skills. You can choose how many pages you want to do at a time. We usually do 2-3 depending on what the pages are (more about that later). 

There are about 11 lessons in each workbook (which includes built in review) and a test at the end.

The curriculum is recommended for grades K – 4th.

The pattern of the pages is predictable, meaning you do the same style of workbook page for every lesson – just with a different concept being taught. As an added bonus, each lesson also incorporates handwriting, spelling, and reading comprehension practice.

Exactly What to Expect in a Typical Explode the Code Workbook Lesson

Each Explode the Code lesson focuses on one or two key element of phonics.  

As I said above, the lessons are all approximately 8-9 pages. The curriculum creators did not mean for you to complete that work in one sitting! 

You are to do those pages over as many days as your child needs. Maybe your child can only do 1 or 2 pages, and maybe they can do 3 or 4. It just depends on their age, readiness, and how challenging they find the new lesson. 

Let’s Dive into Lesson 3 in Explode the Code Book 5 for a Peek!

All the Explode the Code Books follow a very similar format. So no matter what level book you start with, this is about what your lessons will look like.

This lesson is 8 pages long and starts with identifying the -all and -alk sounds at the end of words.

There are seven words on the first page that the student must decode, circle the matching picture, and then write the word.

Explode the Code workbook pages

The next page has the student identify and circle which word correctly matches the picture.

Explode the Code workbook pages

The third page is a favorite of mine. The student has to look at the picture and figure out what words it is describing (it’s totally fine to help the kid out here if they don’t know which word it should be). Then they have to break down that word into first, middle, and last sounds by circling the right sounds they hear in the word. Lastly, they right the word at the end of the row. This is a great introduction and supplement to any spelling program!

On the fourth page, the child has to read a list of silly questions and check the box of yes or no. This is great for reading comprehension! Kids also really enjoy the absurd questions. For example, what kid wouldn’t laugh at, “Can a scarecrow use a wacky-talky to call its pals?”

Explode the Code workbook pages

The fifth workbook page has more pictures. The child must read the three words next to the picture and circle the one that matches the picture.

The sixth page is a fill in the blank activity. I usually go over the wordbank with my daughter and have her sound out each word. She then reads the sentences and has to write the correct word in the blank. If she is tired and not feeling like writing, I will often let her draw an arrow here. 

Explode the Code workbook pages

The seventh page is often the most challenging. The child has to read two sentences and then put a checkmark next to the sentence that accurately describes the picture. These are more silly sentences and an opportunity for solid reading comprehension work. 

For the last workbook page, the kid is shown pictures that they have seen multiple times in other parts of the lesson. They are asked to write the correct word next to the picture. Another opportunity to practice handwriting, spelling, and breaking down the sounds of a word.

Explode the Code workbook pages

That’s it! A complete Explode the Code Lesson. As you can see it would be wise to break up the workbook pages over the course of a few days or even a week. 

What We Love About Explode the Code

1. Simple Open and Go Workbook Style

There are many other reading programs out there that have so much prep work for parents to do. Cutting out materials, organizing large boxes of flashcards, preparing games, collecting craft supplies, huge teacher’s manuals to read through, etc. 

I tried a rather expensive reading program like that with one of my kids and we both found it took way too long. My kid grew tired of the games and the length of the lessons. 

She really likes knowing that all she has to do is knock out 2-3 workbook pages and read with me for 10-15 minutes every day. 

Then she’s done and we can move on with the day.

2. Price

Yes, the workbooks are completely consumable, but they are pretty inexpensive as most reading curriculum goes.

You can try one out for usually around $12-$15. This really beats other reading curriculum where you can spend well over $100 in order to get the “whole system.” 

3. Customizable

I love that you can easily go through the curriculum at your own pace. There were lessons where my 1st grade child knocked out 4 workbook pages with no trouble. Other times, I had to cut it down to 2 pages because it was a challenging concept. 

We never felt behind or rushed. We just did what we could for the day and that was it. At that pace, we finished 4 books (plus a couple of the 1/2 books) in one school year. I am confident we will finish the last 4 books during second grade.  

4. Silliness Factor is High

The silly pictures and sentences really make up for the black and white workbook format. My daughter is always giggling about the ridiculous questions and funny pictures. 

Kids just want to have fun!

5. Built in Review Lessons

Learning lists of consonant blends and phonograms can get really confusing after a while. I really like that Explode the Code builds review into every lesson. This helps to make sure that skills are not lost as new ones are learned.

On top of that, each workbook includes 1-2 lessons that are strictly review. This helps to slow the pace down for a few days. 

You can make sure the student is truly grasping everything before moving on. 

6. Reading Comprehension

Any phonics curriculum can teach a child to read words, but I love that Explode the Code puts such an emphasis on reading comprehension.

Very early in the student workbooks, the child is asked to read sentences and match them to the appropriate picture. I made a point to cover the pictures to make sure my child wasn’t guessing at words they thought might match the picture. They had to really read and understand, THEN I would uncover the picture. 

This helps the child to understand from the very beginning that WHAT they are reading is important – not just the act of reading.

7. Um, My Kid Can Read – and She Enjoys It

The proof is in the pudding, Homeschool Mama. 

This methodical phonics program has resulted in a kid who can read AND who also enjoys reading. That can be a rare thing at this age! 

I think it has so much to do with the lessons being short, phonics-focused, and silly!

What We Didn’t Like About Explode the Code

I always include this in my reviews because no curriculum is perfect. Explode the Code is close, but not quite.

1. No Included Phonics Readers

As I said above, the workbook pages are not enough to achieve reading fluency. You need to spend 10-15 minutes reading with your child every day. The problem is that it can be very difficult to find phonics readers with words that match up with what your kid has learned.

This can frustrate and discourage a budding reader. 

I would really, really, really like for Explode the Code to sell a series of of phonics readers that matches up with their curriculum. 

Since that doesn’t exist yet, I ended up building my own library of phonics readers (not just Bob books, Homeschool Mama!).

2. The Pictures Can Be Confusing

I read a number of reviews where people complained that they couldn’t identify what some of the pictures were.  And, yes, there have been a handful of times where we have had no idea what a picture was supposed to be. 

We would either just skip that problem or I would make something up for my kid. Not a big deal. 

What Does Each Explode the Code Series Workbook Cover?

Explode the Code Workbooks 1-8

Knowing the answer to this can go a long way to helping you pick the right starting point for your child, especially if you are starting Explode the Code with an older child.

There are placement tests to help parents decide, but it is a little pricey. It would actually be cheaper to just buy a handful of the workbooks and see which one you like the best. I tend to lean towards starting at a level that might be a slightly easy for your kid. This will build confidence and get them used to the Explode the Code format before being really challenged. 

Explode the Code Book 1 Covers: letter formation, letter sounds, CVC words with short vowels sounds a, e, i, o, and u

Explode the Code Book 2 Covers: initial and final consonant blends bl, cl, fl, gl, sk, sl, pl, cr, dr, gr, br, fr, pr, tr, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, tw, mp, sk, st, ft, lt, nt, lf, lp, nd, nk

Explode the Code Book 3 Covers: one-syllable words ending in long vowels, silent e words, silent e with consonant blends, sh, th, wh, ch, tch, ng, ck, ee, ea, ai, ay, oa, ow

Explode the Code Book 4 Covers: compound words, common suffixes -ful, -ing, -est, -ed, -ness, syllable division, open and closed syllables, ai, ay, ea, ee, oa, ow

Explode the Code Book 5 Covers: ed words, -all, -alk, -old, olt, -oll, -ild, -ind, different sounds of -ed, word families, qu words, thr, shr, scr, str, spr, spl, -ey

Explode the Code Book 6 Covers: ar words, or words, er, ir, ur, wor, war words, sigh, oo, ea, ie, oi, oy, ou, ow, au, aw, ew, ui, and ue

Explode the Code Book 7 Covers: ce, ci, cy, gi, ge, gy, dge, -mb, kn words, wr words, silent t words, silent h words, ear says “air,” ear says “er,” ph words, ei and eigh words

Explode the Code Book 8 Covers: -ness, -less, -ous, -or, -ist, -ity, -ture, -ment, -able, -ible, -sion, -tion, -ance, -ence, -tive, -sive, -ify, -ize, -ti-, and -ci-.

Is Explode the Code Enough for a Reading Curriculum?

The short answer here is yes. 

Explode the Code goes above and beyond to make sure that your kid has solid phonics instruction and learns the phonics skills to decode just about every word they come across. 

But, I would add that you still need to read with your child for 10-15 minutes every day in order for them to gain true reading fluency. 

I really wish that Explode the Code offered a set of phonics readers to go along with the workbooks – I would have paid a lot for them!

Here are the phonics readers I use instead.

What Are the Grade Levels of Explode the Code?

Many people get confused about knowing where to start in the workbooks. That is understandable because the numbers on the workbook do not correspond with a grade level.

Depending on the reading readiness of your child, I would start with book 1 in kindergarten. Take a gentle approach of 1 page a day and it should last you most of the year, especially if you’re only doing school 3-4 days a week.

Aim to complete workbooks 2-8 during 1 and 2nd grade while going at your child’s pace. The workbooks may seem easy at first, but they will build with intensity as you go along. 

Explode the Code is also an excellent supplement for children in higher elementary grades (3rd grade – 6th grade) who are struggling with reading.

What Do I Have to Buy for Explode the Code?

Explode the Code Teacher's Guides

Well, of course you will need to buy the workbooks. I would recommend just buying one (there are great deals on Amazon) to see how you like it, and then later buying the bundle options to save a little more. 

There are teacher’s guides to buy. One guide will cover two workbooks, which is very nice. For example, here is the Explode the Code 1 & 2 Teacher Guide to look at.

You will find some people will say the teacher’s guides are unnecessary, but I disagree. The teacher’s guides do a wonderful job of giving your clever ways to introduce the phonograms for each lesson and warm the child up before each worksheet. You will also find other essential literacy skills to teach your child, such as homophones, phonemic awareness activities, sight words (just a couple for each lesson), vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.

The teacher’s guide also has necessary information for administering the tests at the end of each workbook. I buy mine used on Amazon, and always get great deals.

I would not recommend buying the Explode the Code flashcards. You can easily make them yourself with a deck of 3 x 5 cards (which is what I did).

There is also an Explode the Code Online Program that some use for supplementing and fluency, but we did not have much luck with it.  The online version seemed to have too many technical issues and “clunkiness” for us. 

There are also Explode the Code 1/2 workbooks that you might consider buying.

Wait, What?! What Am I Supposed To Do With These Half Workbooks?

Explode the Code Books 3, 3 1/2, 4, 4 1/2

The 1/2 books are a review of the material taught in the Explode the Code workbook before it. So 3 1/2 is a review of Explode the Code Book 3.

I did not even know that the half books existed until I saw someone mention them on Facebook, so they are definitely not necessary. What you decide to do with them or not do with them is totally your choice. 

Here is what I have heard some parents choose to do with the 1/2 books:

  • Skip them entirely
  • Use the Explode the Code workbook and half book at the same time
  • Only use the half book if a kid is struggling in a certain lesson
  • Only use the half book if the kid does not do well on the test
  • Always use the half book after finishing an Explode the Code workbook
  • Use the half books as review only after you’ve finished the whole series (Workbooks 1-8)

As you can see, there are a lot of options.

What have we done? I tried to use the half books for a while, but I found my kid didn’t appreciate that much review. I will purchase them in the future if my kid is struggling with a lesson and needs more practice.

Let’s Talk About the Explode the Code Tests

Explode the Code 1/2 books

Explode the Code 1 1/2
Buy Now
07/16/2024 01:39 pm GMT

Every Explode the Code workbook has a test at the end. The tests are a tool for you, so don’t give them too much power.

If your kid sails through the workbook, but bombs the test, take it with a grain of salt and consider if they were just having a rough day. 

I personally ignore all of the dictation and spelling parts of the test because I plan to teach spelling with a different curriculum. Explode the  Code is all about learning to read for us. The spelling part is just a bonus. 

If your kid struggles through the test, consider buying one of the Explode the Code 1/2 workbooks for extra practice before moving on. For example, if your kid struggles through book 4, look to buy Explode the Code Book 4 1/2 before moving onto book 5. This is great for the kid to still feel like they are progressing, but not getting frustrated with new material just yet.

Can Explode the Code be Done Independently?

homeschool student doing Explode the Code Workbook

I have read many reviews from parents saying that they love that their kids can use Explode the Code for independent work.

Um, I’m not super sure of that.

Reading is a core subject, so I want to make sure my kids have a solid foundation. I did not feel confident telling my 1st grader to run off and do the workbook pages on her own. 

What if she guessed at answers and didn’t really sound out the whole word? Or what if she sounded it out incorrectly and no one was there to tell her?

At this age, and especially with a core subject, I feel more comfortable sitting with my child. She still needs someone to keep an eye on her handwriting and affirm she is sounding out the words correctly.

Recap Explode the Code Review

Whether you have a younger child, who is just starting out with reading lessons or an older child, who is having a hard time with reading, Explode the Code can get you to reading success!

And best of all, this phonics curriculum is for just about any budget!

I have already bought all the books for next year and I am so excited to see my kids progress to be completely fluent, independent readers

Have you used Explode the Code in your homeschool?

I would love to hear about your experience in the comments!

Read Next:

Check out this All About Reading Pre-Reading Review to find out all the things we love (and don't love!) about this curriculum after using it with two kids. Find out exactly how the lessons run, what it covers, how long they take, what supplies you'll need, and the tips I've learned along the way. As an added bonus, I share if you really need that deluxe package or not!



  1. What are the differences between book 1-8 and book A,B,C?

    1. Lauren Schmitz says:

      Hi Dorris! A, B, and C are more focused on pre-reading skills. Such as letter identification, writing, etc. Book 1 of ETC starts with simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words like cat, bat, and hat. Hope that helps!

  2. Is explode the code a full phonics program or just a supplement?
    Does it teach all letters and sounds and handwriting?
    I am looking for a simple phonics program to use with my son for kindergarten who is brand new to learning.
    I saw somewhere people use the bob books to go with explode the code for reading practice. Have you ever heard this?
    What is the difference between experienced de the code and primary phonics???

    1. Lauren Schmitz says:

      Hi Vera, yes ETC is a full phonics program, especially if used with the teacher’s guide. Letters, sounds, and handwriting are taught in “Before the Code” which is more for the pre-k/kindergarten crowd. My only complaint about ETC is that it doesn’t have a set of readers to go with it. Primary Phonics is essentially the same curriculum, but they have readers to go along with it and a reading comprehension workbook. You can read my full review of primary phonics here. Hope that helps!

  3. We use Explode the Code. My first grader is not yet near fluent with Book 1 and 2 skills, although he does know mostly WHAT to do. His reading just doesn’t flow as well as I believe it should. We have incorporated the Dog on a Log books as well as the All About Reading (Runt Pig, Cobweb the Cat) as well as, Reading Street and Journeys decoding readers for unit 1 in both fluency with CVC words. (not all at one time….looking for the stories that interest him.) QUESTION: Should we go on to Explode the Code Book 3 or wait while we read for fluency with the Books 1-2?

    1. Hi Linda! Great question. If you don’t think your child has absorbed the concepts of 1 and 2, then I would get Explode the Code 1 1/2 and 2 1/2. Some people don’t know about those workbooks. They are for kids just like your first grader who need a little extra time before moving on. I hope that helps!

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