Should We Teach with Decodable Text?

  • 25 August, 2018

Teacher question:

Please share your thinking as well as research referencing the occasional use of decodable texts for small group reading instruction in grades K-2. 

Shanahan response:

This is not a highly researched topic. There have been only a handful of studies into the effectiveness of decodable texts since the term was first used back in the 1980s. And, truth be told, they are kind of mess; with little evident agreement about what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what outcomes we should expect to derive from it.

Research has less solved the problem—is it helpful to use decodable texts with beginning readers—than demonstrated how complicated even simple ideas can be. (I’ve longed argued that in the social sciences this is likely the most profound impact of research. It forces us to operationalize constructs which often reveals how squishy soft our thinking is).

First issue… what is decodable text? Originally, the term was used relatively, to suggest a continuum (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985). Basically, phonics-oriented decodable texts used a preponderance of “words where all letters followed their major sound patterns.” The contrast was the basal readers of the time that employed a lower proportion of such words. Words like pet, big, nap, and dot would fit the decodable definition, while words like cow, pear, and come would not (cow follows a common spelling pattern, but not the major sound pattern for o, and pear and come are irregular).

How regular did the words have to be to merit designation as decodable? And, doesn’t decodability change with learning? As children know more and more spelling/pronunciation patterns, then those less frequent patterns become decodable, too, right?

Some researchers tried setting percentages of decodability and others worked with shifting definitions based upon kids’ learning. And, still others simply analyzed texts purported to be decodable and found a preponderance of simple, regular spelling patterns with short vowel sounds (Wolf, 2018).

You see the problem… if we all define decodable text in different ways, no matter what my research findings, someone can reject them simply by saying that wasn’t “what I meant by decodable.”

In that first study (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985), they found that the kids who had worked with relatively decodable texts were more able to decode at the end of grade 1. However, those kids also presumably got more phonics instruction during that time. One can’t tell from that study whether the difference was due to the phonics or the phonics plus decodable text.

Later studies, though with more exact definitions of decodability, found that decodable text either led to advantages or disadvantages. For example, Mesmer (2005) found that kids were more likely to try to decode decodable text (duh), but leveled texts (less decodable) led to greater fluency (Mesmer, 2010). Some studies (Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Compton, 2005) concur with the first Mesmer study, but that’s okay because others support the second (Priec-Mohr & Price, 2017). And, then there are those with mixed results (Chu & Chen, 2014).

The problem with all of these studies is that it is unclear what the right outcome would be. The ones that found the less decodable texts to be superior found that kids were able to read the leveled books more fluently in grade 1. However, phonics early on does bring with a bit of disfluency—because instead of just remembering a simple pattern or reading already known words, the phonics users have to figure out the unknown words (Barr, 1975). Many leveled readers can be read “fluently” even by non-readers because they don’t necessarily depend much on reading. And, the differing degrees to which students in the various conditions are taught phonics is a huge confound in the other direction.

Perhaps the best study of the problem was conducted by Jenkins and colleagues (2004). They compared the effectiveness of text with 85% decodability with text that had only 11% decodability (and these percentages were based on the texts’ match with the patterns that students had been taught). And they found? That degree of decodability made no difference. It made no difference in decoding, word reading, passage reading, or reading comprehension. (The two groups that received instruction with texts at these two levels of decodability both outperformed a group that received no additional instruction, so the teaching was effective in both cases).

Of course, there are a number of studies and evaluations of phonics instruction in which the program under investigation included instruction in decodable text (e.g., Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, et al., 1998; or look at the phonics studies synthesized in the National Reading Panel Report or the various reports of What Works Clearinghouse). These phonics programs were successful, but there is no evidence that they would have been any less successful without the decodable texts. To be perfectly honest, evaluations of phonics programs that lack such a component are usually effective, as.

This lack of positive support may be surprising. If phonics instruction were useful—and it is—one would think that opportunities for concentrated practice of those phonics skills would be beneficial. And, perhaps it is. But proving that is going to require a lot more study—and with much more care in considering the nature of the decodable and less decodable texts (and with more attention to issues like repetition—Mesmer, Cunningham, & Hiebert, 2010).

Two final thoughts:

First, given that there have been no evident negative effects associated with the use of decodable text within some of the successful phonics programs, I think it’s safe to say that it is okay to use such materials as a very small part of instruction. Perhaps there is a small practice effect, and perhaps there isn’t—but such teaching isn’t likely to hurt either, at least when kept minimal.

Second, English is complex and the sounds associated with particular letters and letter combinations depend upon the letter’s position in syllables, morphology, and etymology. That’s why so much is made these days of “statistical learning.”

Readers start to discern that b is more often associated with the /b/ sound in words like big and bad much more often than it will serve as a silent letter (such as in words like bomb or climb), and readers learn to respond accordingly. If unsure of the pronunciation of a b word, go with /b/; you’re more likely to get it right. Presenting students with lots of decodable text, text that’s much more regular that normal text, might mess up some of these cognitive calculations. Dick Venezky and Dale Johnson (1973) long ago showed that adults attribute sounds to letters in proportions more reflective of their appearance in children’s primers than of the actual proportions in which they appear in English more generally. (This is a problem for both leveled readers and decodable texts.)

I think it’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction, but such practice should be severely limited, and even beginning readers should be reading more than decodable texts.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Meg Galloway Aug 25, 2018 08:18 PM

Can you comment on the use of decidable texts (even ones like Mac and Tab, etc.) for young students who have dyslexia and have already failed to learn to read with classroom levered texts? In my experience, most dyslexia remediation programs include decidable text, though some like the Slingerland Multisensory Language Approach uses “meaningful phrases” (verb or noun phrases) pretaught before reading non-controlled cannneced text to allow words above the student’s level to be read -or at least recognized-with accuracy and fluency. Another reason to get out of decidable texts quickly, perhaps, is the low vocabulary level. Can you comment on that? Thank you.

Meg Galloway Aug 25, 2018 08:19 PM

Sorry for typos! So much for respondents by with a phone.

Jeanette Aug 25, 2018 10:47 PM


Thank you for the interesting post on decodable text. I am curious as to what other kinds of text you would advocate to teach reading to beginners if decodable text should be "severely limited?" I've always learned that decodable text are important so that our students can practice what they are learning in explicit, systematic phonics instruction. (And certainly some students need more of this kind of practice than others). Of course reading aloud to students is important as well, so we are exposing them to more complex text and vocabulary, and helping them improve their listening comprehension. However, if we are talking about getting beginning students to practice reading on their own, what other kind of books besides decodables would you recommend for them to practice their newly learned skills? Also, do you recommend something different for a struggling reader as opposed to a typically developing reader?

Thank you,


Tim Shanahan Aug 26, 2018 12:57 AM

Meg and Jeanette— no matter what you’ve been told or which group of kids you are concerned about, there is no research evidence supporting the idea that decidable text works.


Harriett Janetos Aug 26, 2018 02:03 AM

Thanks for such an interesting blog. This is a timely topic because many K-1 teachers at my school are concerned about the use of predictable text in beginning reading. Here's an excerpt I recently sent to Fountas and Pinnell, whose Benchmark Assessments my district uses.

"I've just read your article in this month's The Reading Teacher, and it's provided me a good opportunity to communicate something I've thought about ever since receiving training in your Benchmark Assessments. You state:

'Most of us have taught in times of shifting literacy mandates and polarizing views that can leave us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, and even cynical . . . We can maintain our equilibrium in the face of these challenges when we are rooted in a set of worthy values, a solid foundation of research and data, evidence from observable reading and writing behaviors of our students over time, and good common sense.'

These sentiments exactly describe my experiences and feelings over the past three years since my district has started using your program. My frustration is rooted in your A-D predictable texts, which I believe do not have a "solid foundation of research and data", and the co-writers of the Common Core Foundational Skills--Louisa Moats and Marilyn Adams--agree.

Louisa Moats, in Learning to Read, says:

'These books are called “predictable” because once the repetitious theme or pattern is learned, the pictures are reviewed, and the child is rehearsed, he or she can memorize and “pretend read” with enjoyment. When the child is excessively dependent on context to read, he or she often cannot read the words of the story if they are removed from the book itself. Predictable books are not suitable for beginning instruction in sounding out and blending words because there is not enough control of the phonic patterns to allow the child to practice what he or she has learned . . . Predictable texts do not support children’s growing understanding of the alphabetic principles of English.'

Marilyn Adams, in an email to me, says:

'The problem with books like these is that there is little -- or in the case of the last word, negative -- incentive for the kids to pay attention to the composition of the words--and first-grade reading is critically about getting one’s arms around same.'

My experiences as a reading specialist working with struggling first and second graders support these views. And now that our K teachers are required to use your assessments, I find that I have to give my own decodable assessments so that I can see whether students can decode connected text and not simply read sight words and pictures."

Jeanette Aug 26, 2018 03:19 PM

Hi Tim,

I understand what you have written about no evidence supporting decodable text, and that teachers should "severely limit" their use. My previous question was, what kind of books do you recommend using instead for beginning readers?

Erin Aug 26, 2018 05:00 PM

Hi Tim,

I share Jeanette's question, and also have a clarifying question about your concluding line. When you say, "even beginning readers should be reading more than decodable texts," do you mean that beginning readers should be reading non-decodable books to build/reinforce word identification skills, or language comprehension? I think everyone's on board with all children "reading" (whether that means independently, with support, or being read to) diverse and rich texts--it seems like the heart of the decodable question is about whether it's useful/necessary/best for word identification. So, to link back to Jeanette's comment--if the jury's still out on the matter, do we have research indicating that other types of books or resources/practices ARE well-suited for teaching/reinforcing word identification?

Ria Aug 26, 2018 05:28 PM

I share the same questions as several of the commenters above. In my district, it has been a real struggle to help practitioners understand the research behind phonics that you, Marilyn Adams, Louisa Moats, Seidenberg and others work so hard to share with the our hard to convince field of educators. The flip side, which is rooted in common practice as opposed to research, consists of disconnected reading for young readers-- phonics happens at one block of the day for children, not connected to reading, and when we read we read leveled texts in small groups or independently-- never practicing our phonics lessons in context. This is VERY common in every school/district I've worked in over the past 22 years. I often cite you, or other reading researchers, in my efforts to try to connect research to practice. I am now worried that because of the inconsistent research, your conclusion supports the disconnected practice I'm trying to avoid. In the absence of a concrete research base, why severely limit students from a chance to practice phonics skills in connected texts? Why not have them practice with each new phoneme/grapheme correspondence they learn? Many struggling readers that I encounter already have severely limited practice with decodable text- I'm struggling to understand why that should be the case. I do hope you'll better help me understand your conclusion. With appreciation, Ria.

Pat Stone Aug 27, 2018 01:37 PM

Enjoyed reading this.
In England 'decodables' means books that use only GPCs that have been already taught. They are presented to children in an order that takes account of what they have learned in previous 'books' plus today's items, and they have the newly introduced items flagged up on the covers.
In England children are supposed to only, yes only, read these decodables until they know and can use simple and complex code and all the alternative spellings for sounds. And then they are said to be fluent readers. There is no guidance about which 'non-decodable' books they should move onto, nor when. It would seem children are supposed to spend upwards of 3 years on decodables, rigidly supervised, and after that it's a free for all. It takes 3 years because the whole class has to move forward together. Children who can already read because they have learned at home have to stick with the programme. This is excused by the notion that they are also learning to spell. Nobody says anything about those children who can already spell well as well as read well.
Advocates of systematic synthetic phonics also have a penchant for assessing children's reading skills using spelling tests because these are a 'better measure of literacy than book reading', and word list reading age tests. They don't seem to believe in assessing reading by asking children to read sentences, passages or books.
Notions of comprehending and developing a love of reading and reading tastes are dealt with as a side issue - teachers are supposed to share and discuss quality picture books that the children are hardly allowed to touch, in case they attempt (and fail) to read words containing GPCs they haven't yet been taught.
I am interested that you say there is no research in support of using decodables? Why do you suppose so many SSP advocates, scheme writers and salespersons insist that there is?

Tim Shanahan Aug 27, 2018 02:10 PM

First, I said it is okay to give kids some highly concentrated practice of their phonic skills, but that this should be limited because if the bad impact it may have on the statistical learning. In the old days we talked about the difference between building a mental set (expectation) for consistency vs. a mental set for diversity and the conclusion was that diversity was the best way to go.

That means don’t just have kids reading decidable, but other kinds of text too. For example, how about controlled vocabulary readers with lots of repetition? Or, language experience stories where there is no control on vocabulary or spelling patterns (kids depend on memory to make this one work).

All approaches to beginning reading are a kind of crutch that changes the system a bit to allow early success. Too much reliance on a crutch can be debilitating. By using different beginning supports one prevents that over use.

Pat describes an approach specifically found to be ineffective.

Erin Aug 27, 2018 03:24 PM

I'm a little puzzled by the framing of statistical learning as separate or opposed to the use of decodables. I couldn't find many studies on statistical learning and reading, but the abstract of this study ( suggests to me that decodables would *reinforce* statistical learning, not oppose it. While the abstract doesn't use the word decodables, the study design seems very similar to the principles of decodable readers.

In other words, I don't see why statistical learning has to take place implicitly--especially since it's already embedded in explicit phonics instruction. Another abstract ( for a statistical learning study gives the example of /?/ spelled when following and otherwise spelled ...but this is explicitly taught in in-depth phonics programs. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the term, but it seems like statistical learning in reading describes the fact *that* our brains learn what PGCs are more and less likely, and applies those frequencies and patterns when reading and spelling--but is value-neutral on *how* our brains learn those patterns. If statistical learning could only take place through uncontrolled text, wouldn't that be the same as whole language?

Harriett Janetos Aug 27, 2018 07:55 PM

I, too, would like more clarification of statistical learning. It reminds me of Share's "Self-teaching Hypothesis". Thanks.

Joyce SHAW Aug 27, 2018 07:56 PM

I'm stunned and just see this as fodder for Reading Recovery.
Do you not understand how hard it is to get a struggling reader to actually 'read' anything? Those who have difficulty memorising the high frequency words as 'sight words' need to be given some hope that there is a way to read. So what if we give them a 'crutch' to help them get started? We'd give two to someone with a broken leg. It's also the way we teach them spellings with word families as the random word list method has now been abandoned in my part of the UK anyway.

The Reading League Aug 28, 2018 06:05 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
We were glad to read your blog entry on the question related to teaching with decodable text. The topic is of great interest to us because, as you point out, research designed to tease out the influence of different text types on beginning reading is sparse, the research that has been done hasn’t isolated the influence of text types very well, and for this and other reasons, study findings are murky when we try to make use of them. We’ve recently received questions from others who read your blog entry as they try to make meaning of your recommendations, so we wanted to respond to them within the context of your blog so our questions, discussions, and recommendations remain linked.
To lay out some initial logic, if one accepts that teaching phonics to beginning readers is well-supported by research, then the value of decodable text can be tied to this research, as well as tied more broadly to learning theory research (and as a bonus, to logic!).
To first draw on research directly related to beginning reading before we go broad, if beginning readers learn that letter “a” says /a/, “m” says /m/, “n” says /n/, etc., and we initially give our readers texts mostly constrained to these learned letter-sound correspondences, this will help them apply what they have learned to sound out words, where accuracy should be pretty high. As children learn new letter-sound correspondences, these can be distributed among the previously learned letter-sound correspondences, thus broadening the word selection used in the texts while still promoting high word reading accuracy. Although there is a temporary phonetic restriction in the words featured in these decodable texts, the payoff is a “high signal, low noise” instructional condition where guessing at words isn’t required, and cues outside of the words themselves are generally not needed. This initial groundwork for learning to read is important, but of course, it is only a short step on the continuous trail in the development of literacy. This is the logic part of how children are taught to decode words.
The research supporting the use of decodable text then relates to a broader foundation of research related to learning theories that include the value of controlling the complexity and organization of knowledge introduced to beginning learners, the facilitation of deliberate practice in assimilating component skills, etc. So back to the point made above. If there is a strong research base to teaching beginning readers letter-sound correspondences – then deliberately choosing texts to facilitate readers in applying this knowledge only makes sense. The alternate plan is to deliberately avoid this sort of application, which seems neither logical, nor supported by learning theory research, even if the use of decodable texts isn’t yet unequivocally backed up by study findings. The question isn't which text type is better per se, but which text has value related to accomplishing a given learning objective. If the objective is to teach children how to blend letter-sound correspondences to read words in connected text, then decodable text seems the way to go - at least at the beginning, until the code is learned. Of course, students should have access to richer literature (read aloud, shared reading, etc.) at other times of the day in order build vocabulary, background knowledge, and the value of literature.
In the absence of studies we'd want to see that would unequivocally support the claimed benefits of using decodable text, teachers need to make decisions based on what research there is and the learning objectives they have. We think the recommendation from your blog “to severely limit” the use of decodable texts is what is kicking up the dust. Out of context, it could imply that the use of any decodable text may be harmful, but your recommendation is embedded within a complex sentence where you make a few points simultaneously, so it's worth untangling the sentence. It’s one of those times when a close read is warranted, along with a comprehension check from the author, provided he’s still available for comment.
The first idea to be parsed from the aforementioned dust-kicking sentence is that using decodable texts as part of phonics instruction is okay. You do make this point, so teachers who teach phonics where the use of decodable text is considered an active ingredient can collectively heave a sigh of relief. The second point - that teachers should severely limit the use of decodable texts – means (we hope) that you want teachers to know that decodable text should comprise a small portion of the instructional day. In an attempt to define this point in a way that is useful to instructional decision-making, we’ll speculate that this limit could be 10-20 minutes or so of reading decodable text per day linked to phonics instruction, which is in line with many well-designed reading intervention studies yielding positive effects.
A final point - We agree that a lack of an operational definition for decodable text makes the research-to-practice road even bumpier, but no text type is really well-operationalized in research, so in the absence of this, we'll still need to rely on researchers to describe what they mean by decodable texts, leveled texts, etc. and then make inferences based on those pesky details related to the operationalization of constructs, research design, and all those other abstract things that unfortunately do matter to our understanding of how to teach beginning reading.
Here is a link to one of our free teacher education events about the topic of Lesson-to-Text Match:
The Reading League

Tim Shanahan Aug 29, 2018 02:12 AM


The point if statistical learning is that learners need to grasp the probabilities of particular pronunciation/spelling patterns, the patterns of the English language. If you present kids with texts that highlight particular patterns instead of revealing the actual patterns in the language, you are misleading kids in ways that lead to later reading problems. Appropriate language patterns that would support the probabilities of a English spelling would be English language text, not texts that emphasize the patterns you want to emphasize instructionally.


Tim Shanahan Aug 29, 2018 02:16 AM

Joyce is correct that crutches can be helpful, but any good orthopedist can tell you about the damage that too much use of a crutch can do. The willingness to do damage because you like prescribing the crutch is not acceptable practice. It’s interesting how some people rely on research when it supports their practices and reject it when it doesn’t.


Darci Aug 29, 2018 02:41 AM

Is there research evidence that supports the idea that leveled texts work?

Tim Shanahan Aug 29, 2018 02:43 AM

Reading League— Your logic is impeccable, but your empiricism is weak.

No matter how carefully you lay out the logic, there must be a reason why studies aren’t finding that, as you propose, if explicit phonics works then decodable text must work, too. You need to explain why phonics programs that dont include decodable text still work (and as far as I can tell work as well as phonics programs without such text), why direct tests of the proposition haven’t upheld it, or why we should ignore research evidence concerning the potential damage it does.

I’ve learned in my life that many things are logical: the earth stands still because I don’t go spinning off of it, the sun goes around the earth because I can watch it come up in the East in the morning and set in West in the evening, and if ships go too close to the edge of our obviously flat earth they’ll be destroyed.

We use systematic study to allow us to get beyond those beliefs in what we find to be logical, but that actually are incorrect. So far, research has not been particularly kind to the idea of only exposing kids to decodable text, though I understanfpd that is upsetting (and while I diasagree don’t think I’m hoping you’ll venture too close to the edge of the earth).

If you decode my blog entry carefully, you’ll see that I defended some brief practice with such artificial texts in pursuit of your logic, but cautioned against the kind of sole use of such text that you espouse here because of the existing empirical evidence. I’m always perturbed by phonics proponents who champion research when it supports their belief and reject it when it doesn’t. That seems more like politics or religion than any science of pedagogy. Who knows? Someday the preponderance of evidence may go the other way and I’ll need to change my mind to be sure I’m serving kids best... it must be more comfortable to know that no matter what the evidence may show you will always be able to support the one true pedagogy and that you don’t need to be concerned about what works best or what does long term harm. I’d love to have that level of self satisfaction... instead I’ll keep trying to get it right, and I’ll trust that science will continue to tease out such answers.

Good luck.

Tim Shanahan Aug 29, 2018 02:44 AM

Darci— No


Pat Stone Aug 29, 2018 09:58 AM

"First, I said it is okay to give kids some highly concentrated practice of their phonic skills, but that this should be limited because if the bad impact it may have on the statistical learning. In the old days we talked about the difference between building a mental set (expectation) for consistency vs. a mental set for diversity and the conclusion was that diversity was the best way to go.

That means don’t just have kids reading decidable, but other kinds of text too. For example, how about controlled vocabulary readers with lots of repetition? Or, language experience stories where there is no control on vocabulary or spelling patterns (kids depend on memory to make this one work).

All approaches to beginning reading are a kind of crutch that changes the system a bit to allow early success. Too much reliance on a crutch can be debilitating. By using different beginning supports one prevents that over use."

Yes, yes and thrice yes!
A mixed diet please. Children are born into this complex world, able to deal with complexity. (Put us in a simpler environment such as a desert or the Arctic and see how we get on.) We are foolish to think they need us to remove that complexity until... when? Some children get a little confused. That's OK. The adults around them who have got to adulthood dealing with complexity, the teachers amongst them presumably able to deal with the complexities of reading and writing, ought to be able to work out how to help them.

Steph Aug 29, 2018 10:13 AM

Surely we have to look at the wider evidence of Reading instruction which shows systematic synthetic phonics instruction to be the the most effective.. So with that in mind, systematic phonics instruction INCLUDES practising decoding words and sentences with learnt spellings and phonic concepts. Whether these are in published ‘decodable readers’ or not is not the point, so limiting the scope of the research studies is a little strange. We know students should be practising decoding and encoding words and sentences within systematic phonics instruction, so the companies who make the decodable readers have just made this part easier and more convenient for us. Also there is no research for the use of levelled readers/predictable texts either so I guess that’s a problem in itself why school’s still insist on PM benchmarking and levelling students

Elena Aug 29, 2018 12:53 PM

Hi! Thanks for sharing this àrticle.
I' m interested in the readability of texts (in greek) and its relationship with children with learning disabilities. Is it related to "decodable texts"? Thank you!

Lisa Butler Aug 29, 2018 02:57 PM

Joyce Shaw- I have actually had to promise a kiddo that there would not be ANY word in a passage that they cannot decode in order for them to feel comfortable reading. They spend most of their time looking at a text with too many "hard words" and don't even want to try. Decodable text is an oasis. These are kids that are still working on specific syllable types. I do not want my kids to have to stop at every "diphthong" syllable and have to be "guided" through it just for the practice of seeing them. When a kiddo has mastered most of the syllable types and have a good introduction to morphology, they are ready to tackle non decodable text. Otherwise, why not just give them "leveled" text and let them use pictures and context to GUESS the word?

Tim Shanahan Aug 30, 2018 01:32 AM

Steph— research still doesn’t support your silly claim that synthetic phonics works better than other kinds of phonics. I suspect you lack the training and credentials to read research. You definitely shouldn’t be interpreting it for others,
Joyce — I think your promise to those kids is terrible, i have wirked with disabled kids for nearly 59 years and would never promise one that I would guarantee that they stay at such a low level. You need to be more ambitious,

Nick Aug 30, 2018 02:02 AM

What is mis-decoding? You wrote that in a tweet and I’m confused:

Elizabeth Nonweiler Aug 30, 2018 11:06 AM to main content

Should We Teach with Decodable Text?

It seems to be impossible to copy the content.
My response:

First, my definition of a decodable text is a text the reader can decode independently without guessing what the words are. To be realistic, I call a book decodable if the reader can decode almost every word. So, if you can decode almost every word in a text on advanced physics, that text is decodable for you. However, for a five year old and just beginning to learn to read, very few books are decodable.

I know of a small study by Marlynne Grant that showed improvement when decodable books were introduced to a phonics programme that was already successful:
“In 1999 we used structured Snappy Lesson® teaching as before but included the Phonics First Books as children’s first experience of reading books for themselves. The results showed an additional end of year gain of 5 months reading age attributable to the Phonics First Books. Children’s first experience of reading books with their phonics and blending was successful. So that phonics and blending were
being reinforced and established as the primary strategy for reading, without children having to guess or memorise. This avoided the children having to use mixed reading strategies to read their first books, thus developing wrong neural circuits.”

I have anecdotal evidence from my own experience. Here is one example: It is about a little girl I met twice. When she was five years old and had been at school for more than seven months in England, since schools were expected to teach synthetic phonics, I showed a book that was easy to decode at an early stage. She looked at the pictures and made up a story with no relation to the text. I asked her to read some single words out of context and she read them accurately. I found she had been sent home with four books that were not decodable for her, with instructions to parents to talk about the pictures, ask children to think what the text might be and, lastly, to try sounding out simple words, i.e., phonics as a last resort. So, when presented with a story book, she thought she was meant to make up a story. Months later, I met her again and asked her to read another book with words I was sure she could decode. This time she read the first word accurately and then guessed the second wrongly, based on the first letter and the context. Added to the way she had been taught to read texts, she had problems with concentration and was later diagnosed with ADHD. When I asked her to try again, she threw the book on the floor and ran away. I understood. Why would anyone with poor concentration want to make the effort to read a word from beginning to end, if she has been encouraged to guess, found guessing easier than phonics and, as a result, had had little practice using the phonics she had been taught?

So, until reliable evidence proves me wrong, I will continue to promote the use of decodable books for beginning readers.

Elizabeth Nonweiler Aug 30, 2018 11:10 AM

I didn't mean to copy the first four lines of my comment and wanted to edit it immediately. Is that possible?

Lisa Butler Aug 30, 2018 12:20 PM

Tim, that wasn't Joyce, that was me. And I certainly do not promise them that they will stay at such a low level. It is simply practice from what we have been learning. I am just assuring them that the reading I am asking them to do is reading that they will be ABLE to do. As they become more proficient, the reading passages become more difficult. As an aside, I do not teach reading, I work with disordered readers, most in the 4th- 8th grade level. These kids take one look at a grade level passage and 1. push it away 2. shake their head 3. Say "I can't read that."

Harriett Janetos Aug 30, 2018 07:47 PM

Your questions, Tim, asking "How regular did the words have to be to merit designation as decodable? And, doesn’t decodability change with learning? As children know more and more spelling/pronunciation patterns, then those less frequent patterns become decodable, too, right?" are crucial and addressed in an article I've previously referenced, "Rethinking Sight Words" in the May/June issue of The Reading Teacher. Katharine Pace Miles cites research by Linnea Ehri and divides sight words into "regularly spelled", "temporarily irregularly spelled" and "permanently irregularly spelled"--"can, play, to" respectively. For example, once a child learns to recognize the sound attached to "ay" the word "play" is easily decoded. To help my struggling first graders with this recognition, I send home phonics readers (for children to read to a "print partner) with stories like "Jay's Trip", which emphasizes words with the /ae/ sound. Here's the text: Jay the snail has never seen a bay. His home is near trees and plants. One fine day, Jay takes a nap on this big red leaf. While Jay sleeps, he sails a long way. When Jay wakes up, he is at a beach on a bay! Kay gets Jay and sets him in her gray pail. "This snail is far from his home", she thinks. That evening, Kay goes home. Soon Jay is right at home, too!

Barbara Aug 31, 2018 03:34 PM

Hi Tim!

I was wondering what your reply would be to this study:

dave ray Sep 01, 2018 01:04 AM

Very interesting that there is a lack of clarity on the best blend of text type for gen ed curricula. It could be because not all kids require the same phonics practice. A related question would be how important differentiated instruction is through an MTSS/RTI model. I have seen a number of kids greatly benefit from reading interventions like Sound Partners (strong evidence of effectiveness according to the What Works Clearinghouse). It would be an example of explicit and systematic phonics instruction done well. One reason for this is that the development of phonemic awareness and encoding/decoding are also elements of the program. Not all kids need something like this, though.

Tim Shanahan Sep 01, 2018 02:52 AM

Barbara — that study convincingly shows that if you teach particular phonivs patterns to kids, they learn them, and are better able to read texts that are manipulated to only represent those patterns. That’s important because it suggests phonics instruction is effective in eliciting immediate transfer. It tells us nothing about the benefits of decodable text as part of instruction.

Studies of learning suggest that when we teach things and give kids this kind of concentrated consistent massed practice such as provided by decodable text, the students appear to learn quickly (but the long term implications of that is that there are fewer later benefits—there is much more forgetting, so that those early gains though impressive are illusory).


Erin Sep 01, 2018 03:14 PM

"If you present kids with texts that highlight particular patterns instead of revealing the actual patterns in the language, you are misleading kids in ways that lead to later reading problems."

Tim, could you point us to research that supports this claim? Or, more generally, to research on statistical learning? I'm still very shaky as to how statistical learning as you describe it differs from whole language instruction.

Also, I think your response to Barbara misrepresents the pitfalls of concentrated massed practice. If I'm teaching times tables, and spend two weeks doing nothing but time tables in math, I can expect to see lots of progress. And I can expect students to forget most of what they "learned" if those two weeks come in June, and the students don't multiply again until September.

With decodables, a few PGCs are introduced at a time with substantial practice, but they don't disappear as the reader progresses. I'd completely agree with you if Decodable Book 1 included /s/ /t/ /a/ /m/ ONLY, and book two included /i/ /l/ /p/ /n/ ONLY, but that's not how decodables work.

Steph Sep 02, 2018 04:55 AM

Your responses to comments questioning and clarifying are condesending. I enjoyed aspects on your blog article and have learnt so much off you in the years but there is no need to be so disrespectful to those of us who are on the ground running these literacy problems, trying to navigate all the research and understanding completely diffefent professional perspectives. Thanks for your articles and information over the years

Timothy Shanahan Sep 05, 2018 08:07 PM

I appreciate that. I’ll try to be cooler.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 05, 2018 08:15 PM

For a nice summary on statistical learning relative to word reading look to the book Reading at the Speed of Sight... for data showing that misrepresenting the frequencies if the spelling patterns look to Venezky & Johnson 1975

In terms of massed practice what the research shows is that it does speed initial acquisition (as you indicate) but it is also associated with greater forgetting over the long term (so the greater initial progress can be more than balanced by the negative ... interval training is more consistent with long term learning.


Catheryn Sale Sep 06, 2018 07:49 AM

Hi Tim
I have shared your blog with Reading Recovery teachers I work with. Our discussions lead us to believe that texts for emergent and early reading (5-8 years) have control of some sort (words, letters, sounds, punctuation, language structures and so on); that writers and publishers produce materials that follow their assumptions about reading acquisition; and the exposure our children have to texts influences how they come to build their reading processing systems. Hopefully our children become literate and can read many different texts. The teachers I work with when asked: what are the characteristics of books do you look for when choosing books for your children to read? in a quick 5 minute paired sharing and 5 minutes bringing ideas together - gave responses in these categories: child experience, language and print. A) Child experience (the child needs to be successful, get enjoyment, make connections with the story, link to a personal interest, some children will needs more natural language structures, the child's experience and subject matter is important, teachers may like to follow a series of characters that interest children (Baby Bear books), some children like humourous books, and sometimes book choice links to classroom topics). B) Language (there needs to be familiar vocabulary, repetitive language structures to encourage fluency, variety of sentence and language structures, variety of text types (genre), repeated vocabulary for early readers). C) Print (There needs to be clear print layout, a variety of fonts - but not overlarge, volume of print, variety of print, use of punctuation - you may choose texts with more direct speech to concentrate on punctuation usage).
Our understanding is that the purpose (intention) of reading is to make meaning and the success (criteria) of reading is to comprehend.
Decodable texts seem to challenge engagement, motivation and the purpose of reading for us.
Of course phonics is taught (even systematically - determined by the teacher's analysis of the child's learning need) probably more synthetically in writing leading from phonology to orthography, and analytically in reading, for example, linking known to unknown. We conclude that we want variety of texts to be used in emergent literacy.
Question 1: What is your position on variety of texts to encourage flexibility in problem-solving?
The teacher, of course, helps the child to co-construct literacy acquisition. We don't have a 'program' we design and teach what we do, under a theory of acquisition selecting from many different procedures.
Question 2: Do you think teachers are capable of being effective with this approach or do we need direct prescriptive instructional programs to follow?

Lauren Thompson, Dyslexia Tutor Sep 07, 2018 03:46 AM

"for data showing that misrepresenting the frequencies if the spelling patterns look to Venezky & Johnson 1975"

1975 was a long time ago. Is there more current research on this topic that supports your claim that slowly increasing the number of spelling patterns in texts for early readers is detrimental to students' overall progress in reading?

Also, is it true, following your claim, that spelling should be taught as a mix of patterns rather than systematically? I believe research has shown that spelling instruction is more successful when differing patterns for identical sounds are introduced separately. Thanks.

Brian Pollack, M. Ed. Sep 10, 2018 06:38 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
Great article. I would also suggest that your readers look at the recent work of Wiley Blevins, and his ideas of using an “accountable text” rather than a typical decidable.

Ann Anesta Sep 15, 2018 09:03 PM

Yes! Pair decodable text (controlled and non controlled) with expository/enriched text (read aloud ) same subject on a regular basis to improve vocabulary, comprehension, accuracy along with phonemic awareness. ???? Combine sketching/storyboarding for recall and retell and crush it in the classroom! Second grade on a regular basis is not too early to start.

Mark Sep 15, 2018 10:31 PM

The research supporting synthetic phonics as an effective way to teach reading is overwhelming. Every association committed to helping dyslexic children to read supports the use of phonics. Every effective reading intervention program uses phonics. English is an alphabetic language. Kids need to be taught how to master the code. This blog presents a view point that lacks credibility and certainly does not reflect good reading instruction practices. As a principal I have seen schools with poorly performing students totally turn around when they get literacy right by teaching students to master the alphabetic code and start reading using decodable texts.

Mandy Cuneo Sep 01, 2019 01:12 PM

Learning to decode is one essential part of reading that research shows if taught systematically and explicitly allows nearly all students to learn to read. The joy of reading is in reading books not just words or short phrases. Decodable texts are stories - there should be characters and a problem even at the simplest level, that children will be able to decode and read because they have the knowledge of the letter sound relationships needed to read that book and can understand the situation of the character.
The problem with predictable texts is that a significant group of children use the pictures and the repeated sentence structures to appear to learn to read. These children often have poorer phonemic awareness, difficulty blending individual sounds to make words and looking at pictures and memorising sentence patterns is easier. The familiar contexts of the texts means the meaning is easier to glean. This stops them from developing skills in decoding and masks reading problems. Typically, children with this type of problem will become apparent in Year 3 or 4 when the content is on unfamiliar topics and the vocabulary and sentence structures more complex and reading is expected to be more fluent and independent.
Children who intuitively decode and encode words, they notice letter patterns, syllables, prefixes and suffixes, are more likely to learn to read seamlessly but may not comprehend so well. However, some children will be able to read, retell and comprehend through the process of reading increasingly complex predictable texts until they are able to independently read.
This however is not the only part of literacy and English education, even in the early years. Being read to is an important part of learning to read. These texts would not be decodable texts but rather quality literature. Parents and siblings read to children. They also should not be decodable texts.
Children who intuitively decode will move much more quickly though the decodable texts and will likely simultaneously, begin to read the quality literature available to them in the classroom, library and their home.

Anna Jan 31, 2021 06:23 PM

Thank you for this post! In the science of reading community I keep reading that it should be all decodable text for young readers, until around second grade. You wrote: "I think it’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction, but such practice should be severely limited, and even beginning readers should be reading more than decodable texts." What do you think of using leveled texts with beginning readers? If they would be reading them, how would you suggest they approach words whose phonics patterns they haven't yet learned?

Morgan Feb 28, 2023 08:33 PM

This is a great summary of the research around decodables. Thank you. Given the recent push from the SOR community, are you aware of any updated studies that found different results? Thanks!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 28, 2023 08:38 PM


NOPE. When people believe something strongly enough (and believe it is obvious enough), they are willing to ignore evidence that counters their beliefs and they are not especially energetic about conducting studies that might challenge those beliefs.


Lisa K Jun 02, 2024 11:12 AM


I find it very helpful how clear your blog shows what has been supported by scientific research and what needs to be teased out more. I also appreciate your recommendations regarding a best approach until the issues have been teased out since I know it is hard for me to keep my mind open while research is ongoing.

Dr Kate Rowntree Jun 04, 2024 08:53 PM

Thanks, Tim. I enjoy your posts, and often find myself in a mire of cognitive dissonance after them. I changed that connective from a 'but' to an 'and' because it is good to have that dissonance, and I really appreciate your challenging of our thinking. I am concerned that in New Zealand we are replacing levelled texts (I think you call these basal readers?) with decodable texts - and teachers using them in the same way. I have always advocated their use as a 'tool' (max of 5% of a reading lesson) to apply students' developing reading skills in a text format. And even that use depends on a range of factors.

But, I am particularly challenged by your suggestion that beginning readers should be 'reading' more than decodable texts. Absolutely they should be immersed in much more authentic and rich language, but in terms of the mechanical aspect of reading (bottom of Scarborough's Rope skills) - I would have thought trying to decode a levelled text without controlled phonics would involve moving away from the phonics aspect, and towards the 3 cuing aspect. Or did you make that statement based on the fact that research doesn't support the sole use of decodable texts?

That's my next step, I reckon - doing some research!

Timothy Shanahan Jun 04, 2024 10:35 PM

Controlled vocabulary readers that present mainly high frequency words with lots of repetition are a nice starting place TOO. A mix of decodables and controlled vocabulary texts should both give kids a nice start, but not confuse them in the long run.


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Should We Teach with Decodable Text?


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