S2 E5 - How Do We Know That It's Time To Start And Stop Reading Decodables?


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Welcome to this week's episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. Coming to you from Pataway, Burnie in gorgeous Tasmania.  I'm Jocelyn, and I'm so pleased that you've been able to join me.

In this episode, I'm going to discuss a question that comes up often in our live events and online forums.  That is, how do we know when it's time to begin and then move on from using decodable texts?

For a lot of years, decodable texts were very limited to a small number of series.  My earliest exposure to them was with the Fitzroy readers, and then a downloadable series from the website Teach the World to Read. I was lucky enough to learn about decodable texts during my undergraduate degree.  My English lecturer was a woman who'd been told to stop teaching phonics in her classroom then went and did it anyway.  Every year, she would bring the father of a student who'd been failed by balanced literacy practices to talk with first-year education students about their responsibility to make sure that every child could read. She taught us about phonics and had us write an essay evaluating reading recovery effectiveness into the long term.  The 'Complete Phonics Handbook' was a recommended text in her class. That was nearly 20 years ago and to say that this lecturer was ahead of her time is an understatement.  I will be forever grateful for what I learned in her class.

It's taken a very long time for decodables to be widespread.  Even though most schools have at least some, that's not to say that they're accepted or used well,  but that's a conversation for a whole other time.

Today's Topic - When it's time to start and stop decodable texts
Today's podcast is about when it's time to start using and then move on from decodables.  The short answer to the questions, "When should students start reading decodables?"  and "When should students read books that aren't decodable?" is when they can read them. But if we left it there, this would be a very short episode and probably wouldn't help you very much.

Examining Ideas About Decodables. No.1
We need to begin by examining some ideas about decodables. The first of these is that they're somehow magical or special. A decodable is just a book, nothing more, nothing less.  And I say this not because I don't think they're important, but because if we are going to have a measured conversation about this issue,  it's really helpful to take the emotion out of things and to take the judgment out of the conversation. So, decodables are just books with words and pictures in them.  Just as levelled texts that come with a letter or a number are just books with words and pictures in them.  Neither is good, neither is bad. They are just books.

The question that needs to be answered isn't whether either one of these is good or bad,  but about when are they most suitable for students to read at particular points of reading development. If we answered this question using what we know currently from research and a common sense approach, we're all going to be just fine, and so will our students.  It might sound like I'm downplaying the importance of decodable text, but trust me, I'm not. 

Examining Ideas About Decodables. No.2
The second idea that we need to address is the idea that decodables and levelled text somehow exist on a continuum, with decodables at one end and levelled text at the other. This is simply not the case. There are two different types of books written for two different purposes. Levelled texts are books designed for students to practise three cueing,  a practice that has been shown to be ineffective, inaccurate, and inefficient. Guessing from pictures, thinking about what makes sense, and then having a guess from the first letter of the word is not helpful for so many students.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that this method doesn't work for anyone.  If it didn't, no one would be able to read.  But research tells us that the path to fluent and accurate reading comes about when we sound out using phoneme-grapheme correspondences. That's where decodable texts come in. Decodables are temporary books that enable novice readers of all ages to practise reading with the graphemes they know.  They help students focus and stay on the code and help them stay out of the guessing zone.

So when should decodables enter the picture?
So when should decodables enter the picture?  Well, when students can read them. That is, when students can confidently sound out words with known code and are showing signs that they're starting to move from decoding, which is that sound by sound sounding out into word recognition or smoother, more automatic word reading.

We are very used to giving students books from the earliest days of the Foundation year that they take home and have a go at reading.  And when they can't read the words because they don't know how, they're asked to look at the pictures and have a think. But the point of decodables is to use the code and sound it out. So if you don't know code and don't have the phonemic skills to blend smoothly, you are not yet ready for books. Giving books to students before this point sets them up for a world of struggle and/or guessing. I'm not talking about coming across an unknown word and figuring it out, though. I'm talking about when children cannot successfully decode or have only just learned and are still laboriously sounding out every single word,  often unsuccessfully.

The other reason that it's a good idea to wait to give students books to read until they're blending successfully is that most decodables contain some irregular high-frequency words,  such as 'the', and, 'is'.  It's pretty hard to form sentences without verbs, and so that's where we need 'is', 'was', 'has', and 'are'.  The point at which students can learn these words is when they have some blending happening, and there's no point going near high-frequency words before this time.

What this means is that different children are going to be ready for texts at different points in their foundation journey or even into Year One. So it's okay for some students to be reading decodables in term two and others still to be practising at word level.  That's perfectly all right. Children have to be able to read words before we give them decodables and ask them to have at it.  But please remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

What about moving on from the Decodables?
So what about the other end? What about moving on from the Decodables?  For this discussion, we need to reflect on David Share's self-teaching hypothesis.  This hypothesis, that has much research to back it up, is that we can't teach children to read all of the words they will ever encounter.  At some point, they have to come across words they've never seen before, and they need to be able to work out what they are. The primary way that they will do this is by sounding out, examining the graphemes, and doing their best to arrive at an approximate pronunciation of the word.  As students get older,  the chunks of code that they use to do this get larger,  but in the early days, when they're moving on from decodables,  that's going be what they do.

You see, getting an approximate pronunciation of the word that's the job of phonics. Phonics does not take us the whole way. It only gets us part of the way.  What might that sound like in practice, though? A student might come across the sentence,  "He was a renowned artist", and then they read it like this: "He was a renoaned? renoaned?  Oh, oh, renowned artist!" The student knew that the grapheme <ow> could be used to represent both the long /oa/ and /ou/ sounds. They had a go at working out an unfamiliar word and arrived at an approximate pronunciation, but then what? From there, context and vocabulary entered the picture.  If the word is in the child's vocabulary and they understand what it means,  they can use this knowledge to problem-solve.  They know that 'renoaned' doesn't make sense, but they also know there's a word 'renowned'.

What is set for variability?
In other words, they fix up errors in pronunciation. This fixing up is called set for variability, and it's what students need to be able to do in order to move on from decodable texts. And then, at some point, the students begin to be able to work out words and even graphemes that you haven't taught them, and that leaves you thinking, oh,  how did they manage to learn that? We haven't even covered it. It comes back to the self-teaching hypothesis.  Once we have enough code, phonemic processing and fluency under our belt, we can work with more complex texts that have things in them that we haven't been explicitly taught, and we are just fine. In fact, our learning continues to build over time.

Now, some might say that this is a reason to be giving novices levelled texts,  but that is simply not the case. The prerequisite for developing a set for variability with all that problem-solving is well-developed code knowledge and developing fluency in word recognition. So we can't just pop a levelled text full of unknown graphemes and irregular high-frequency words in front of a student and expect them just to work it out themselves.

What grade does set for variability develop?
Now the next question you might be asking is, what grade does set for variability develop?  And the answer to that isn't simple because different children will come to this at different times. Some will get there very early, able to read all sorts of wonderful things seemingly effortlessly in the Foundation year,  and others will take until Year Three. There's no placement test that gives us a magical level at which we can release the reins and open the gates to less decodable texts. Instead, we need to be looking at those prerequisite skills and listening to students read. 

When you listen to a child read, what happens when they come to an unknown word?  Do they stop and look at the pictures?  Do they guess the word from the first letters?  If so, they are not demonstrating set for variability.  They may even be simply doing what they've been taught to do,  and there are some habits that need to be reworked.   

However, if they attempt to sound out and sort of get it right before arriving at the correct word, that's what you want to see. The good news is that there are things you can do to encourage the development of set for variability.  You can engage in some wordplay and ensure that you are teaching the full code to mastery before you move on.  Because remember, if you don't know the code, you can't get to the approximate pronunciation of the word.  So our phonics teaching needs to be really tight.  We also don't want to get bogged down in only some representations for too long. If we're teaching ay, and that's all we teach for six months, then we are not equipping the children with the knowledge of the different representations of the phonemes.

But equally, I would say we also don't want to be teaching four representations all at once to the whole class because there'll be some children who work with that just fine, and there'll be many who don't. They get all muddled, and it actually takes them longer to learn.  But maybe that's another podcast episode as well.

What you can do to support your students.
You can also model what to do when you come to an unknown word. So even though you know the words, pretend that you don't. Show the students what it looks like to attempt to sound out and not quite get to the word,  show the students what it looks like to fix it up.

Finally, ensure that you are helping students build strong oral vocabularies.  Because if we're going to fix up a word,  we need to know what that word sounds like and what it means. And without that, we can't do the fixing.

For many students, set for variability kicks in at around the middle of year one when phonics knowledge is well developed, and fluency is coming on.  So in the later part of Year One and Year Two,  if students have the prerequisite skills and knowledge, start to have them read some of what I call mostly decodable texts. They're decodable for the student, but the student doesn't know everything in them.  These could well be levelled texts from your level text reading scheme. Yes, you just heard me encourage you to give your students levelled texts, but only when they have these prerequisite skills and only when you can see the set for variability happening. You just won't have to worry about the number or letter of the text too much because the levels don't mean anything anyway.  So it's really about how decodable is this text for this child.  Is this mostly decodable?  There's some things they're going to have to work out, but that's actually not a bad thing. If that's the case, we're all good.

Keep an eye on them
But we aren't just going to give the students the text and leave them to it because children have a tendency to just skip words that they aren't sure or even just mumble over them.  So having an adult listen to the students read and provide feedback and support remains really important.  While we're on the road to proficient reading, paying attention to the internal structure of the words is a habit that must be maintained,  particularly for some of our high flyers who get into that sense of everything I read, I just do automatically,  they don't like having to problem solve a word, so we have to help them to do that heavy lifting.

In conclusion
If you were hoping for a cut-and-dried answer to these questions today, I'm really sorry.  I don't have one for you. Nobody does. Different children are going to be ready to be reading decodables and then be ready to move off them at different points in time. We can't say that next Thursday, all students in Foundation will be ready to read a book, and all students in year two will be ready to move on. We need to know what we are looking for and how to respond to our student's needs in this,  as with all matters to do with reading. When we know that, we can make sure that the books our students are reading a fit for purpose.

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