Decodable texts - how do we get it right?
It is now generally accepted that decodable texts of one sort or another are a key part of a systematic approach to reading instruction. Decodable texts provide the practice students need to develop strong decoding skills with reading material containing limited graphemes and sentence structures. In light of the announcement that all NSW Foundation classrooms will receive a delivery of decodable texts, let’s dive deeper into the what, when, who and how of decodables in learning to read.
What decodable texts are and are not:
In case you aren’t familiar with them, decodable texts are simple texts that contain limited graphemes and irregular high frequency words so that students are only asked to read material that they can sound out. There is no guessing, no looking at pictures and no ‘thinking about what makes sense’ to lift the words from the page when reading decodable texts. Poor old decodables sometimes get a bad rap being labelled as impoverished, boring and as encouraging ‘barking at print’ without any attention being paid to other skills of reading. Let’s be clear. The earliest decodables aren’t rich literature. They aren’t meant to be. The primary role of these early texts is to help children get runs on the board and develop the beginnings of fluency at the basic sentence level. When we begin to play football, we don’t just start playing in a professional side where the game is fast and complex and we are in real danger of injury. As children, we play a modified game and attend training to learn fundamental skills. It’s the same with reading. We can’t just throw children in the deep end with books containing the whole alphabetic code and complex sentences and think that they’ll ‘pick it up’. We need to carefully scaffold experiences through decodable texts to allow children to experience success at each phase of the reading acquisition process. Decodable texts are not all ‘the cat sat on the mat’. Quality decodables contain dialogue, a range of sentence structures, rich vocabulary and engaging story lines. Poorer quality ones do not. Just as with any text, we need to be discerning in our choices and use the best quality texts we can access.
When we need to provide them
I could say ‘in the early years’, but that would assume that all children learn to read in the first three years of school. So instead, I’m going to say, ‘Until they have learned the complex alphabetic code and are reading at 90 words per minute’. Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to hold off giving students a variety of sentence structures, rich vocabulary and engaging story lines. It simply means that until students have reached the important milestones mentioned above, we need to be very mindful that we aren’t putting students in the position of having the guess in order to decode. That means that if a student is 10 years old and reading at a rate of 45 words per minute, they need to practice with decodables. If they are 7 years old, have knowledge of the full code and are reading at 110 words per minute, it’s time to move on. The supply of decodable texts is not about age, it’s about reading development.
Who needs decodable texts
The short answer is ‘everyone’. The long answer is a little more complex. While all children move through the same phases of development in learning to read, they do so at different rates and with different levels of ease. My own observations of students have led me to develop 4 categories of students.
- The Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy Students – seem to acquire reading without difficulty or too much instruction. These children’s brains just put it altogether.
- The Average Children – are seemingly ok with broad instruction in reading. While they benefit greatly from a systematic approach (and it will certainly accelerate and strengthen learning), they seem to be fine with sight word lists and predictable texts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you bust out your predictable texts for these students! They will definitely do better with decodables, but predictables aren’t the end of the world for them. After all, this is how the argument of, “But balanced literacy works fine” has held on for so long.
- The Vulnerable Readers – While average children appear to be ok with balanced literacy, the vulnerable readers are not. These students don’t have a diagnosable reading difficulty but being taught three cueing strategies with predictable texts is an impediment to them becoming proficient readers and they end up reaching the upper primary years of school ‘behind’ or ‘struggling’. Let’s be clear, we aren’t talking about a small percentage of students. With almost 20% of year 9 students not meeting minimum requirements for NAPLAN, it’s clear to see that a large proportion of our students fall into this category.
- Students with a reading difficulty – predictable texts and sight words are a disaster for these students who require a systematic approach for a longer period of time than their peers, delivered with greater intensity and skill.
Just as these four groups of children have different learning needs, they also have a different ‘relationship’ with decodable texts. You can read more about each group’s needs in a previous blogpost here. Just to be clear, I am not saying that only some students need decodable texts. They all do. What I am saying is that not all students need decodables for the same length of time, nor do they all have to only read decodables once they have a decent knowledge of the complex alphabetic code. Pop on over to the post to read more.
How to use them
Decodable texts (either physical books, digital books or sentences/passages printed on A4 paper) need to be a part of every student’s reading instruction. While I explained that 1 size does not fit all in the previous section, that doesn’t mean that some children don’t need decodables. What they do need is decodables that extend them and help them build reading skills beyond the simple sentence level. Students also need access to the right decodables for their stage of reading development, so confining students to texts simply because they match their grade level isn’t effective practice. It’s also not effect practice to simply ‘hand out’ any old decodable texts and say, “Look, we have decodables!” Texts need to be carefully matched to the phonics being learned at the time, but only after a student has developed automaticity with the graphemes contain in the book. So, if you were learning to read the graphemes ‘ay’, ‘ee’, ‘igh’, the decodables you read as you learn them probably wouldn’t contain too many words with these graphemes. Instead, you would practice these graphemes at word and simple sentence level until you have automaticity and then you read longer decodables that contain them. The choice of decodables in instruction needs to be targeted and intentional.
But let me be clear about something. Providing decodables does not mean that children don’t have access to any other books. In fact, I’m a huge advocate for supporting children to spend time with any old book they want to, but that doesn’t mean they have to decode them themselves. Children need to develop a sense of themselves and their relationship with books. If they want to borrow Diary of a Wimpy kid from the school library and look at the pictures, sounding out the occasional word, let them. If they want to have a go at reading Billy B Brown or a picture book, don’t interfere. If a book is too hard, the student will soon choose something else. If it’s their own free-choice time, let them have free choice and of course, continue reading to children for as long as you can. You might be thinking that I’ve gone slightly crazy here, but the thing is that what I’m describing is low stakes, no pressure personal time with books. It’s not instruction. Instruction requires decodable text intentionally and carefully matched to a students’ current needs.
I hope that this post has provided some food for thought. The use of decodables, as with any aspect of teaching, is nuanced and complex. The easy bit is knowing that they will accelerate reading acquisition for all students if used correctly. The harder bit is knowing how to differentiate a decodables lesson that includes both reading and sentence level writing so that every child gets the targeted instruction they need.
If you are interested in joining me in early 2022 for the Reading Success in the Early Primary Years Teach Along, click hereto add your name to the waitlist and find out when bookings are open.
Author's note 19/7/2021 - In light of the recent Twitter furore over the NSW decision to provide decodable texts and particular criticism of this post (who knew my work was that powerful?) I would like to note the following:
1) There is no conclusive empirical evidence for the use of decodable texts in the early years of schooling. However, that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of evidence for other things such as the importance of learning to apply the alphabetic code or cognitive load theory or the importance of directing student attention on what we want them to learn. Decodable texts provide us with a practical way to support the initial decoding development of a wide range of students as we do our best to help every child in our classes learn to read - a complex, tricky undertaking at the best of times.
2) Just because we don't have gold standard evidence for something doesn't mean we should sit on our hands. Pam Snow's post (here) sets this out very eloquently, but I'm just going to say this. We simply cannot allow the previous/current (depending on your school) state of affairs to continue with at least 1/5 children not learning to read.
3) As teachers, we know we aren't considered to be very important in the grand scheme of things. We don't make decisions at a system level. We don't do the research or interpret it. BUT we are the professionals with the students in front of us every single day and we do need to follow the established evidence where it exists. When it doesn't, we should absolutely be able to think about the evidence that DOES exist, reflect on what we know about how our students learn and make informed decisions about how we teach. Note, I haven't said 'go rogue' and make things up. Data is the means by which we evaluate the effectiveness of our decisions. That data needs to come from reliable assessment and be examined objectively. Sometimes, however, that data is the observations that wouldn't make it into a study - The beaming smile on a child's face after years of reading failure. The thanks of a grateful parent who got to help their child decode without tears. The 'hum' that comes about when children across the class are joyfully engaged in partner reading of their decodable texts. But that kind of data isn't important to those who sit in the ivory towers of academia. (Please note, not all academics live in ivory towers. Professor Pam Snow, you're a legend!) Now, I'm not saying that we make these decisions in isolation. We talk with colleagues, engage in robust professional discussion, learn from the experience of others and engage with those academics who have a finger on the pulse of the research and an understanding of the realities of schools. We put student wellbeing at the centre of things and go from there. As more research becomes available, we adjust practice to refine our approach. That's what professional teachers do.
4) Throughout this post (and the previous post I have linked to herein) I have discussed 4 types of readers. I have not, at any point, claimed that these reader types have come from any kind of research evidence. The clue is in the words, "My own observations of students have led me to develop 4 categories of readers."
You can likely see that I'm a little fired up as I write this. I have been lectured at, talked about and had my work called 'poorly grounded opinions' by someone influential and that's not ok. The aim of my work is to meet teachers where they are in their own journeys and provide some support for what comes next. All of my work aims to be informed by evidence, but is presented in a way that shares the details of how to make things work in the reality of the classroom. This is, indeed, based in my own experience through which I have developed some conclusions about what reading instruction might look like (after reading about the research, talking with others, weighing up options, reflecting on data and learning about the experiences of other people in the field). My conclusions will likely change over time as our profession learns more and refines what we do, as they should. You may have drawn different conclusions about some of the things I discuss. That's ok.
I hope that the post you are about to read provides you with some food for thought and supports you as you navigate your own complex world of classroom decision making.
All my best,