The Drudgery (and Beauty) of Decodable Texts

I was determined to undo the bad reading habits my students had developed during guided reading. So, I exchanged a leveled reading program for one with decodables and used a diagnostic phonics assessment to regroup my students.

For some students, cracking the code was easy

Students with strong phonemic awareness linked the sounds they heard in spoken words to the letter patterns I taught. When they came to an unfamiliar word in a text, they sounded it out. 

Most of the time, simply pronouncing the word was enough to trigger the meaning.

Blue group reading: “Sam has a little p.l.ă.s.t.i.c … PLASTIC! ship.

But sometimes they sounded out a word and didn’t immediately know what it meant.

Me: Do you know what a shed is?

Angel: [pause] I think it’s a house where you could put tools and boxes.

Alexa: It’s this! [pointing to the picture]

My students used context and visuals to figure out the meaning of a word after decoding it; the inverse of guided reading, in which they had attempted to use meaning and context to identify words. Linking the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of each newly encountered word (a process called orthographic mapping) made every successive encounter with that word easier.

Some of my students quickly became fluent readers. They grew out of decodable texts and began ravenously reading books from the library.

But it wasn’t easy for all students

I had taught phonics in guided reading, but leveled books had allowed students to use pictures, initial sounds, and context to guess rather than sound out words. Decodable books foiled these guessing strategies by including visually similar words (man/mat, run/ran) and unpredictable sentence structures that required students to look at all the letters in words and all the words in sentences.

To read decodables, we had to actively fight the reading behaviors I had once promoted in guided reading. Progress was labor-intensive and painfully slow for some of my students.

Was this really reading? 

Sounding out each word took so long that by the time they got to the end of a sentence, students didn’t know what they had read. I worried that I was creating “word callers” (and they weren’t even “calling” the words very well!)

I looked for answers 

Dr. John Shefelbine empathized when I told him about the misery of my lowest reading group. He explained: 

“The kindest thing you can do for beginning and struggling readers is to give them the time and encouragement they need to grunt and groan their way through sounding out words. You’re rewiring their brains and it’s hard work.”

I was astounded to learn that scientists had been studying how our brains learn to read for decades and yet none of that research had influenced my teacher preparation or professional development. I watched videos like this, read articles like this, and lost myself in books like Reading In the Brain and Proust and the Squid. I wanted to learn everything I could about my students’ development so that I could make every child a reader.

New learning prompted me to redefine skilled teaching

I had previously thought of teaching as an improvisational art, but as a first-grade reading teacher, I was a neurosurgeon painstakingly practicing a new procedure. I memorized instructional routines, taught each lesson as it was designed, observed my readers’ symptoms, and I collected objective data.

I had been taught that every child learns to read differently and that “no one thing will work for all readers.” But this year, I saw each of my students progress through the same stages of reading development, albeit at different rates. 

We TEACH reading in different ways; they LEARN to read proficiently in only one way. Teaching is what we do- learning is what their brains do.

Dr. David Kilpatrick

The same series of lessons, with varying amounts of practice, resulted in every one of my students learning to crack the code of written English. 

The fastest way to authentic texts

Students need varying amounts of explicit instruction and practice to become skilled at decoding. Guided reading and predictable texts don’t offer many opportunities to blend words, so students who need lots of practice fall farther and farther behind.

“Leveled texts lead to leveled lives.”

-Dr. Alfred Tatum

Differentiated instruction with decodable texts in the primary grades closes an achievement gap that might otherwise become insurmountable. The sooner children learn how to lift the words off the page, the sooner they can access great literature. 

Receiving the instruction and practice their brains needed to become skilled at decoding changed the trajectory of my students’ lives.

6 Replies to “The Drudgery (and Beauty) of Decodable Texts”

  1. Erica says:

    Do you recommend a series or author/publisher of decodable books?

    • righttoreadproject_5dose6 says:

      The Reading League has a list of decodable texts that you might find helpful:
      https://www.thereadingleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Decodable-Text-Sources-updated-Feb-2019.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1ly0vp2nL9nI-3H0Uqa6zA8GvGOODXsVpKnl5rADD3UOAhrjrMDjXwSkg

      We don’t favor books that are not embedded in curriculum because it’s the instruction that introduces/reviews spelling sound patterns that truly makes books decodable for students.

      • Nancy Barth says:

        Could you explain further what you mean by “We don’t favor books that are not embedded in curriculum?” What curriculum do you mean? Thanks!

        • righttoreadproject_5dose6 says:

          In some classrooms we’ve noticed students attempting decodable books that they can’t decode. Sounds crazy, right? It’s what happens when a text is technically decodable, but students have not yet been taught all the spelling patterns a text contains.

          For example, the teacher might teach final-e and students need to practice with a text that contains words such as “bake,” “hope,” and “ride.” But some of the texts a teacher has on hand might follow a different scope and sequence and the books may have various spellings for long-a in one book, long-e in the next book, etc. A book in that series might provide practice for a_e (“bake” <- which would be great) but also "rain" and "play" which the students would not know how to decode. We suggest that teachers follow a scope and sequence for phonics instruction to ensure that the instruction and decodable texts are aligned. The easiest way to do that is to pick a good curriculum, but there are certainly teachers who have worked hard to develop their own and that can work, too.

  2. Gail Timmer says:

    I found some old readers ‘Laughing Letters’, ‘The Toy Box ‘ etc. published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, limited of Canada. It is old and dated but decodable and not the hated paper photocopied books.

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