Do decodable texts kill the love of reading?

Do decodable texts turn students off reading?

Jun 16, 2024

Earlier this week the Victorian Education Minister announced a new phonics mandate for Victorian schools.  Although the details are still filtering through, so far it has been announced that all F-2 classrooms will need to spend at least 25 minutes per day teaching phonics and phonemic awareness from next year.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a range of reactions to this announcement- from relief and celebration, right through to anger and opposition. 

Based on some of these discussions, I thought it would be timely to attempt to dispel some of the most common myths and misunderstandings floating about around phonics instruction.  

In this particular blog, I'll be focusing on one of the most common misconceptions used when arguing against the new phonics mandate: the suggestion that decodable texts turn students off reading.

 

Misconception: Decodable texts turn students off reading.

The misconception:

A common argument against adopting a phonics-focused approach to teaching reading centers on the use of decodable texts.

The worry that’s expressed over and over in online forums and teacher workshops is that the tightly controlled word choice in these texts makes them boring for students to read. The narrative goes on to suggest that reading these ‘boring’ or even ‘senseless’ texts kills students' ‘love of reading.’

The reality:

I too was once worried about the ‘boring’ nature of decodable texts and the impact this would have on students’ motivation to read. Two key considerations in particular have changed my view on these:

 

The quality of decodable texts has come a long way

In the past, it’s true that the decodable texts available to schools were often poorly written, lacked sense making storylines and/or were unnatural tongue-twisters. Thankfully, the quality of these texts has significantly improved over the years.

Many of the decodable texts now available to schools include engaging characters, humourous storylines and a much greater focus on meaning.

 

We’ve been looking at ‘engagement’ the wrong way

When people argue that decodable texts are disengaging and, as a result ‘kill the love of reading’ for students, they’re basing their argument on the belief that reading engagement for emergent readers happens at the level of the text (through engaging storylines etc).

My experience in phonics-based classrooms suggests that this is not the case.

Firstly, it’s hard to argue that the storylines in levelled readers at the emergent reader level are indeed engaging. Take this level 3 text, for example:

Here is Chirpy. Here comes Zac.

“Come here, Chirpy,” said Zac. “Come to me.”

“Chirpy! Chirpy!” said Zac. “Come here. Come to me, Chirpy.”

Look at Chirpy. Look at Zac.

“Here, Chirpy!” said Zac.

“Come on. Come here.”

Here comes Chirpy.

“Chirpy is on my hand,” said Zac.

“Dad,” said Zac.

“Look at Chirpy.”

Is this text really going to hook students onto a lifelong love of reading?

No, because reading engagement in F-2 classrooms doesn’t come from a book’s storyline or even its pictures. It comes from the success students feel when they realise they can actually read the words on the page. The sense of achievement they get when they put their phonics knowledge into practice and see that it works, that they can finally make sense of all the squiggly lines on the page.

For emergent readers, it’s this feeling of success that motivates them to want to keep reading. It's this success that turns them ON to reading in the first place.

In my experience, the turnaround in student attitudes in classrooms that have moved to phonics-based instruction (including using decodable texts) is fast and exhilarating. The students in one school I worked with went from spending their ‘reading’ time doing everything but looking at the text, to -just 4 weeks later- begging me to listen to them read. All because they wanted to show me that they knew how this reading system worked. ‘I get it now!’

Used properly, decodable texts do NOT turn students off reading, they actually them them ON to it.

(Note: I say 'used properly' because there seem to be an inordinate number of ways to misuse these tools. See this past blog to learn about 4 of them).

 

Other things to note on this topic:

  • Yes, there are still some poorly constructed decodable texts out there (I discuss this in my Foray into Phonics course and provide criteria for selecting higher quality ones).
  • No, decodable texts are not the only texts students experience in phonics classrooms (this is a common myth and again, I discuss it in Foray into Phonics).
  • No, students aren’t forced to read decodable texts all through primary school (they can read whatever they like once they’ve learned the basic code).

 

Want to learn more about phonics instruction?

If you want to learn more about what effective phonics instruction entails, check out my popular Foray into Phonics course. The term 3 intake opens July 21st.

Foray into Phonics is designed to help educators move from a Balanced Literacy approach to a phonics-based approach in F-2 classrooms. It will prepare you to meet the Victorian Government’s mandates for next year. (Note: the course is ‘program agnostic’ meaning it doesn’t promote any one phonics program/approach over another, rather, it builds your knowledge to make the best choice around this for your particular setting.)

Click here to learn more and sign up to the waitlist for the next intake.

 

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