Decodable Texts- Yay or Nay?

Should you use decodable texts in the reading classroom?
  • Should you use decodable texts in the reading classroom?
  • Are all decodable texts useful?
  • Will they automatically improve reading?
  • Which ‘side’ are you on?
  • Are ‘sides’ even helpful?

I’ve been asked all these questions quite frequently lately. So today (and next week) I’m laying it all out there- my current thoughts when it comes to the use of decodable texts in the reading classroom.

The journey to my current view

It makes sense that if you fly across the other side of the world just to hear your favourite researcher speak, you have to listen to what she says – even if some of it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable.

That was the case for me back in 2019, when I finally got to hear from my research idol, Nell K. Duke, as part of an International Literacy Association discussion panel titled, ‘What Research Really Says about Teaching Reading- And Why That Still Matters’.

Three specific comments from that panel discussion challenged my thinking and have formed the basis for my evolving approach to literacy instruction ever since.

The first 2 comments were delivered by P. David Pearson (another one of my research idols). In his opening address, Pearson outlined 6 ‘rules of the road’ for dealing with research related to reading instruction. He suggested that, as uncomfortable as it may be, in order to get the best outcomes for all students, educators needed to ‘play by the rules’ when it came to referring to and using research.

I distinctly remember two of his rules hitting home for me that day:

Rule #2: “When research is applied, it ought to be applied in an even-handed way. No cherry picking. You must look at all research, not just the bits that fit your biases” (ILA, 2019).

Rule #6: “You must stay at the table and cut through the rhetoric. While individuals tend to stay with people who are like them, this approach is bad for educational policy and a problem for society today” (ILA, 2019).

Upon hearing these rules, I challenged myself to listen to the remainder of the panel discussions with a completely open mind and heart. New mantra: “Get outside your own echo chamber. Don’t cherry pick research.”

And that’s when Nell Duke came along and severely tested my resolve with this newly adopted mantra…

When asked about what the research says about decodable texts, Duke dropped a bombshell: “Even though it’s not what some people want to hear…when it comes to decodable texts, the weight of the evidence suggests decodability is an important factor in texts for beginning readers. The degree to which the texts are decodable does matter for children and for their development. More decodable texts foster literacy development better.”

The gasp in the room was audible.

The mantra in my mind was loud:

“Get outside your own echo chamber. Don’t cherry pick research. Get outside your own echo chamber. Don’t cherry pick research. Get outside your own echo chamber. Don’t cherry pick research.”

As hard as it was, I forced myself to push down all the objections, questions and concerns that were rising from within (potentially the same ones that may be rising within you as you read this), and listened to the remainder of Duke’s comments on the topic.

Duke discussed the idea that decodability wasn’t the only important factor in text selection for beginning readers, citing ‘diversity of genres, natural language and the degree to which the text engaged kids’ as equally important factors.

That panel discussion certainly challenged me, but I left with Pearson’s wise words in my mind: if educators are serious about delivering high-quality literacy instruction to every student, we have to get out of our own comfort zones, listen to other voices and consider all the research.

As a literacy consultant myself, I had an obligation to do the hard work of ‘staying at the table and cutting through the rhetoric’ to develop my own informed view.

I’ve done a lot of reading, engaged in a lot of robust discussion and worked in many classrooms since that panel discussion in 2019. All of which has lead me to my current views on the use of decodable texts in emergent reading instruction. (Note: I say ‘current views’ because I know that the best educators are lifelong learners whose thinking and practice continually evolve over time). 

In today’s blog I’m going to share 3 of the shifts I’ve had in my thinking across time.

What Research Really Says About Reading Instruction panel ILA 2019
The 2019 ILA conference panel that challenged and shaped my thinking.

 

Learning #1: Not all decodables are created equal

One of my biggest worries about the use of decodable texts was the eradication of meaning for young readers.

I was worried that if students read these contrived texts, they’d come to believe that reading was purely about decoding and wouldn’t understand that the whole purpose of reading is to extract meaning. Worse still, they’d be turned off reading all together.

Unfortunately, this worry was confirmed for me time and time again, when I picked up decodable texts in schools only to find syntactically awkward sentences that were hard to follow and didn’t tell a connected, logical or engaging story. (What does ‘Pip on the tip’ even mean!?)

What I realise now is that not all decodables are created equal. Just as Nell Duke had said in her speech: decodability is important, but the quality of these books matters. And the evidence I have seen in classrooms certainly demonstrates that this quality is highly variable.

I now understand though that while there are some really poorly constructed decodable books, there are also some decent ones too – ones that live up to Nell Duke’s criteria of decodability, repetitiousness and engagement- and we therefore shouldn’t judge all decodables on the worst case scenario examples.

Learning #2: Decodables aren’t the only books students have access to in reading classrooms

I couldn’t stand the thought of students having access only to decodable books in their reading classroom. For my whole teaching career I’d learned the importance of rich and authentic texts and couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to immerse children in the wonder of these books.

What I’ve come to realise is that- despite all the shouting that goes on in the space of early reading instruction- absolutely no one is suggesting / mandating / advocating for students to only have access to decodable texts in the reading classroom.

It all comes down using the right tool for the right purpose; If your purpose is enabling students to practise the phonics skills they’ve been taught in the minilesson, practising using decodables makes sense. If your purpose is building your students’ vocabulary, comprehension and /or capacity to talk about texts, then rich picture story books, novels and multimedia texts would be a much better fit.

“Decodable texts play a primary role in early reading. But they aren’t the only type of texts children should encounter. Classrooms need to have a variety of texts for different instructional purposes. The amount of time and emphasis put in each type of text changes at each grade level, but all are necessary for a comprehensive literacy solution.” .

(Blevins, 2021)

I now understand that decodable texts are just one of the many tools available to teachers in the emergent reader classroom; they serve a specific purpose and shouldn’t be the only tool used.

 

Learning #3 Decodable texts aren’t enough by themselves

I’ve often seen decodables sold to teachers and parents as the magic wand solution for getting kids to read. It’s almost a case of ‘get decodables in your students’ hands and they will automatically improve their reading.’

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t knowledge the fact that it isn’t the decodable books themselves that make the biggest difference to emergent reading, it’s the teaching that occurs alongside them. The books themselves don’t teach- they simply allow students to practise what they’ve been taught.

The idea of appropriate book selection isn’t new. Consider this: when we teach comprehension strategies, we usually model the strategy ourselves first, then have students practise the same strategy with their own texts. Of course, we ask students to select appropriate texts for this practice because we want them to implement the teaching we’ve just delivered. E.g. If we’ve just modelled how to use an index to find topics of interest, we’ll ask our students to find a non-fiction book to practise with. There’d be little point in having our students try this skill with a fiction text as it wouldn’t enable them to implement their new knowledge.

Decodable books are tools that can help students practise the phonics instruction they’re receiving in their reading lessons.

If you’ve recently introduced your students to the sounds related to the letters m, a, s, f, i, t for example, then it makes absolute sense for them to have a go at applying their learning to words that will enable them to use that knowledge. It wouldn’t make sense for them to be given a book that says, ‘I like pizza. I like cake. I like parties.’ This text wouldn’t enable them to apply their new m,a,s,f,i,t, letter/sound knowledge.

Again, this doesn’t mean the students will only experience decodable texts, but it does mean that immediately after instruction in letter-sound relationships, they’ll have the opportunity to road test their new knowledge and skills on a text that enables it.


Today I’ve shared just 3 of my learnings around the use of decodable texts in the emergent reader classroom. I’ll be sharing more of my learnings in my next post (to stop this post turning into a novel).

In the meantime, I’m keen to hear your thoughts / questions / experiences in the comments below.

An important note to consider:

I know this topic can be polarising, so I’ll just remind you that discussion is so much more powerful than debate. What’s the difference? When you come to the table to debate, you’re coming to protect and fight for your view. Your mindset is fixed and rather than listening to other voices, you double down on your own.

When you come for discussion, you’re coming with an open mind and heart. You have a view, but you’re happy to hold it lightly and consider other views and ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to change your opinion after listening, but you might.

Let’s open a discussion on this topic to help share ideas, experiences and impact for all of our students.

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15 thoughts on “Decodable Texts- Yay or Nay?”

  1. I agree that decodables have their place alongside rich, natural language texts- my challenge is supporting teachers to teach writing alongside a synthetic phonics approach- any ideas or suggested resources to help?

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  2. That all makes perfect sense. Looking forward to reading part 2. I’m also wondering which decidable texts are “worthy” As a small regional school without access to bookshop samples and I have a very limited budget and can’t afford to waste money on a poor choice.

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  3. 100% agree find the right tool for the job! I was on the anti decodable team then I started teaching at a different school, different students, different exposure to English/language skills and my view shifted. A blend of all text types are needed in a classroom so a range of reading skills can be developed.

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  4. I loved reading this blog! So well written and laid out for everyone to clearly understand their purpose and “best fit use” in the classroom!!
    I LOVE the quote “discussion is so much more powerful than debate”! Perfectly put!

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  5. Fabulous post and I really enjoyed reading about your shifts in your view. I love the term ‘ cherry picking’ research. No resource, nor program teaches children to read, skilled teachers do by selecting the appropriate resource to match their intention. I’m concerned with the prevalence of commercial reading programs available and wonder – if used exclusively, that they may potentially deskill teachers in making teaching decisions at the cost of student interests and engagement. This is a really interesting time in education and what unites us is terribly important work – literacy for all. I’m really looking forward to your next post- thank you.

    Reply
  6. We have found this criteria really helpful when looking at Decodable Texts. It came from the NSW Department of Education in a document called ‘Decodable Texts – the National Literacy Learning Progressions’.
    What to look for when choosing decodable texts
    ■ The sequence of phonemes/ graphemes is clearly shown
    ■ The text is well spaced, adequately sized, and printed clearly across the page
    ■ Punctuation is included
    ■ The target phoneme/grapheme is included many times in a multitude of different words
    ■ High frequency sight words are included
    ■ Standard Australian English is used
    ■ Text is continuous

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  7. Yes! It seems many think it has to be one way or the other. I really see value in using decodables for students to practise their decoding but there absolutely has to be a place for rich, authentic texts to build comprehension and foster a love of reading.

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  8. Thank you Narissa. I would love to hear your and others’ opinions on which decodables are the better choice for our students. We are beginning our decodable journey this year after much work investigating the Science Of Reading with our speech pathologist.
    So far we have invested in Decodable Readers Australia. We like these as firstly as the name suggests, they are Australian but they also have a wonderful online site which means teachers and students can access all the books – to use for shared reading and home reading. The site also has a incredible range of online professional learning videos for teachers and great teaching slides and videos that can be used in the classroom.

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  9. Thank you for this post. I agree that there is a place for decodable texts for our emergent readers. I worry that people who are very pro decodable texts are forgetting about the need for engagement and meaning. Also, there is a lot of rhetoric about Fountas and Pinnell being no good as an assessment any more. This is certainly creating some cognitive dissonance within me…

    Reply
  10. Investigating the science of reading is really eye opening! I find Scarborough’s reading rope a really great way of explaining what is best taught in a stand-alone explicit, structured way (synthetic phonics + phonemic awareness + practice using decodables for early readers) and what is best taught through rich, authentic literature (comprehension, vocab, grammar) etc. Despite people thinking it’s all about phonics, there’s actually a greater emphasis on developing background knowledge, oral language and student engagement. Doing the phonics stuff explicitly and well means fewer ‘craptivities’ and more time for meaningful play and learning about the world. The only thing there is no space for is boring books, particularly the old 0-5 predictable ones that have all kinds of random words and content that is not at all engaging.

    I think the other thing worth remembering is that decodables are really only for early/beginner readers. Once students develop proficiency with the code of English (usually during Grade 2) the focus switches to reading a wide range of real books. No more plugging away with leveled texts (unless they are interesting and useful for explicit teaching of something in particular), students have the freedom earlier to read for pleasure.

    For those asking,my favourite decodables:
    – Decodables readers Australia for wholesome Australian content
    – Little Learners Love Literacy for fun, engaging fiction and some brilliant new non-fiction texts.
    – Sunshine decodables
    – initial Lit decodables readers.
    – SPELD SA free online readers to display as a class big book.
    – The Moon Dog series is great for struggling older readers.

    Reply
  11. Narissa, great article by you. There is a place for good decodable texts, especially to practise the skills as you suggested. I would love to know which decodables are preferred by educators. I just hope that teachers and schools do not omit the beauty and wonder of great picture, fiction and non-fiction books and chapter books. These support many other reading strategies along with pure enchantment. I don’t think individuals will cherish decodables as they grow up but books that take them to another world.

    Reply

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