Why Use Decodables?

Decodable books are getting a lot of attention right now. Over the last few months, I’ve had many conversations with educators discussing the characteristics of decodables, and the merits of using them in early literacy instruction. I often find that the act of writing a blog post helps me solidify my own thinking, so I thought it was about time for a post on this topic!

What is a Decodable Reader?

So what defines a Decodable Reader/Decodable text? IDA Ontario provides the following definition:

Decodable books and text contain words made of letter-sounds, and spelling and morphological patterns (e.g. prefixes & suffixes) that a student has been explicitly taught.

I particularly like this definition, because it extends beyond letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondence, and includes spelling and morphological patterns. One only has to try to spell the word “jumped” (which is a fairly common word for early writers to attempt) to realise that early literacy instruction needs to include more than just what you can “hear” in a word. 

Decodable texts follow a “scope and sequence”. The scope and sequence will carefully lay out the “scope” (the range of concepts covered in the book) and the “sequence” (the order of concepts covered in the book), and will flow from simple to complex concepts. There is no “one size fits all” Scope and Sequence, although most do start with simple CVC words containing short vowel sounds (e.g., “cat” or “run”), and move towards more complex concepts such as vowel digraphs with more than one sound correspondence (e.g., “snow” or “cow”). It is important to have the decodables you use compatible with your scope and sequence but, in my experience, it is challenging to have an exact match. Unless you purchase an entire program that includes decodables and follow it from start to finish, you will likely need to do some creative management of the texts you choose and use. I really like how UFLI Foundations has created a Decodable Text Guide where you can find books from different publishers that align with different stages of their scope and sequence. As is the case with all materials for literacy instruction, it is important to preview a decodable book before using, and check to see if there are any concepts within that might require additional student support. For a book to be truly decodable, most of the concepts in the text should have been taught. If there are too many untaught concepts, it isn’t an appropriate book to use (at that time). 

I want to add one more note regarding the progression of “simple” to “complex” in scope and sequences and book series. Many decodable readers do not introduce prefixes and suffixes until later in the scope and sequence. In our SyllaSense scope and sequence, we introduce prefixes and suffixes early on. We do this because English is a morphological language – when speaking and writing, we combine morphemes (meaning units) to form words and express our thoughts. We consider it important to expose students to these building blocks early in literacy instruction.  An added bonus to adding prefixes and suffixes early on is that it allows us to create text with more natural language structures. Children learn oral English structure well before they can read or write. By the time students start kindergarten, most are beginning to use sentences such as “I played with the blocks” to tell their parents about their day. By adding the suffixes to our text, we are able to match our written text more closely with the natural oral language structures in place when we speak.

What do Experts Recommend?

I chose to highlight recommendations from two different sources – “The Right To Read Inquiry”, completed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and “The Curriculum Evaluation ” Tool, created by The Reading League.

The Right to Read Inquiry

The Ontario Human Rights Commission released their “Right to Read Inquiry” report in the spring of 2022 . There are many thoughtful recommendations included in this report, but here are some pertaining to and related to the use of decodable books and systematic, explicit instruction:

Revise early literacy resources

30. The Ministry should work with external expert(s) to revise Ontario’s Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading (Kindergarten to Grade 3) and Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction (Grades 4 to 6) and other supplementary resources and materials to:

e. Remove all references to levelled readers and incorporate references to decodable texts in Kindergarten to Grades 1 or 2 (or in later reading interventions) and/or to practising word reading in less controlled books that are nonetheless selected to provide practice for word-reading skills for young readers, and with appropriate reading materials, other than levelled readers, in later elementary grades. Reading materials should be selected based on other criteria appropriate for developing reading competence, language and knowledge

f. Replace cueing and balanced literacy for word reading with mandatory explicit, systematic and direct instruction in foundational word-reading skills including phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding skills, and word-reading proficiency (accurate and quick word reading)

Review textbooks and supplementary classroom materials

37. School boards should stop using textbooks and classroom materials that are inconsistent with the scientific evidence, as outlined in this report. School boards should only purchase textbooks and classroom materials on the revised Ministry approved lists. School boards should replace levelled readers in Kindergarten to Grade 1 or 2, with decodable texts.

It is clear that decodable readers are highly recommended by this report, particularly for students in Kindergarten, Grade 1, extending into Grade 2, and for those requiring reading interventions at an older age.

Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines – The Reading League

Another useful document is the Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines, which was published in 2022. I like their clear table format, but mostly I find it useful because it clearly lays out practices that are aligned with the science of reading. In regards to teaching phonics and phonic decoding in a systematic way, the following practices are recommended by their guide:

-Phonics instruction includes cumulative review including application in reading and writing. Phonics instruction is systematic and sequential, building from simple letter-sound correspondences to complex phonic patterns (i.e., instruction begins with short vowels and consonants). 

-Segmenting and blending are taught explicitly and practised regularly, in both decoding and encoding. Explicit instruction directs students’ attention to the structure of the word; the emphasis is on phonic decoding. 

-Irregular high-frequency words are taught by drawing attention to both regular and irregular sounds once sound-spellings have been taught. 

-Opportunities to practice decoding words in isolation are provided. Instruction includes spaced practice and interleaving of skills taught (e.g., practising old and new phonics patterns in one activity, practising a learned phonics pattern in reading and spelling). 

-Phonics skills are practised by applying letter-sound knowledge in decodable texts that match the phonics elements taught, securing phonic decoding. 

-Advanced Word Study (Grades 2 and above): Instruction begins with basic letter-sound correspondences followed by increasingly more complex patterns such as syllable types, morphemes, and etymological influences (i.e., word origins). 

-Advanced Word Study (Grades 2 and above): Includes more advanced phonics skills (e.g., second sounds of c/g, digraphs, variant vowels)

I really like the fact that this list also recommends teaching “to automaticity”, and circling back to practice. A well written series of decodable books will help an educator to do this. Concepts introduced early in the series should keep showing up in later books to allow for this practice and the development of automaticity or “mastery”.

Personal Experience

There are many additional sites and documents that recommend using decodable readers, but I’d like to wrap up with my own experience. When I was teaching Kindergarten, I always had a small selection of students who did not seem to do well with levelled readers. These students often had lagging oral language and phonological awareness skills, and struggled to pick up the key high frequency words found in our levelled readers such as “look”, “here”, “come”, “said”, etc. Partway through my second year with a FDK group, I took my Associate Level Orton Gillingham training, and learned about decodable readers. This is when I started writing. I was lucky enough to work with an Early Childhood Educator who liked to draw, and together we put together a selection of early decodable books for our struggling readers. It was amazing to see the difference these books made for our students, many of whom were in their second year with us and had made little progress with reading. I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my own practices at this time. I realised that we were spending time each day teaching and reviewing the alphabet (grapheme-phoneme correspondence), then giving students texts to read that did not match these correspondences. We were teaching that the letter <a> can represent the sound /ă/, but then we were giving students books with words like “ball” and “want” and “wake” and “car”. These words are not irregular, but they include more complex orthographic patterns that we had not yet taught. Once we moved to decodable readers, students were able to use what they had been taught about grapheme-phoneme correspondence to identify the letter sounds, blend the sounds, then read the words on the pages successfully.

Ultimately,  whether you are driven by research or by personal experience, I encourage everyone to explore the use of decodables with beginning readers. Here are a few key reminders when thinking about using decodables and teaching concepts in a systematic and explicit manner:

-You need a scope and sequence to guide the teaching of the topics and the order of instruction

-You need to make sure the materials you use are cross-referenced to this scope and sequence – any concepts in the text that have not already been taught should be addressed before reading (note – there should be very few of these)

-You need to work toward “automaticity” by cycling through and reviewing concepts that have already been taught

Some Useful Links:

UFLI Foundations: Decodable Text Guide

International Dyslexia Association of Ontario: Decodable Readers and Text Passages

Ontario Human Rights Commission: Right to Read Inquiry Report

Reading League: Curriculum Evaluation Tool

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s