Should We Teach with Decodable Text?

  • 01 June, 2024

Blast from the Past: First published August 25, 2018; updated June 1, 2024

This blog considered the value of decodable text. Since then, there has been more research on the issue, so I thought it a good time to update. There have been several thoughtful reviews of the empirical research over the years, and these reflect a great deal of consistency among the scientists who think deeply about this issue. None of them rules out the use of decodables, but none claims that their use improves reading achievement. Those who recommend a heavy and/or long-term dose of decodable text in beginning reading programs are not doing so based on the science of reading. I’ve updated this piece a great deal and beefed up the research references. You might want to go back to the original blog to see the 45 comments that it elicited, so here is that link: 

 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 responds:

This is still not a highly researched topic. There have been only a handful of investigations into the effectiveness of decodable texts since the 1980s. And, truth be told, this collection of studies is a bit of a mess; with little evident agreement as to what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what learning outcomes should be expected.

Research has done less to solve the problem — do decodable texts advantage early reading development? — and more to demonstrate how complicated even simple ideas can be. (This is typical in the social sciences. Research studies often force us to operationalize constructs and that sometimes exposes how squishy soft our thinking is).

First issue… what is decodable text? Originally, the term was used relatively, it suggested more a continuum than a category (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985): phonics-oriented decodable texts used a preponderance of “words where all letters followed their major sound patterns.” The contrast to this 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.

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

Some researchers have tried setting percentages of decodability, and others have shifted the definitions to consider what the children have been taught at a given point.

If we all define decodable text in different ways then no one can be very happy with the research. No matter what a study finds, it becomes possible to reject research results out of hand because that may not be “what I meant by decodable.”

In that first study (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985), first graders taught with decodable texts outperformed the others in word reading, nonsense word reading, and the ability to read words they had not previously encountered – well, at least this was true when tested in November and February. However, by end of year, there were no differences when it came to either decoding ability or overall reading achievement. It is also fair to point out that the decodable group received more explicit phonics instruction, too. In other words, this study was more intriguing than determinative.

Since then, there have been a handful of empirical studies into the effectiveness of decodables. Sometimes with positive results (a 14 lesson study found that students were more likely to try to decode words in text if they worked with decodables (Mesmer, 2005)), and other times this experience seemed to reduce the likelihood of fluent reading (Price-Mohr & Price, 2018), or seemed to have no effect at all (students who worked with texts 11% decodable and 85% decodable did equally well in learning to read (Jenkins, et al., 2004)).

There are now almost as many research reviews on this topic as there are primary studies. These reviews all draw pretty much the same conclusions (Adams, 2009; Bier, 2007; Birch, et al., 2022; Cheatham & Alor, 2012; Mesmer, 2001). They acknowledge that decodable texts encourage students to apply their phonics skills (though this seems only to be true for most kids during a brief time during grade one). They also conclude that it is most prudent to use both decodables and non-decodables.  

Hammering home that latter point is a new meta-analysis that examined more than 90 studies of early reading interventions. These studies were divided into 4 groups: those that did not employ text at all, those that only used decodables, those that did not use decodables, and those that used a combination of both. The text regime that significantly outdistanced the others in terms of how well they nurtured decoding ability was the diet that included decodables along with other texts.

Of course, there are several studies and evaluations of phonics instruction in which the program under investigation included decodable text (look at the phonics studies synthesized in the National Reading Panel Report or the various reports of What Works Clearinghouse). These phonics programs have been successful, but there is no evidence that without decodables they would have been any less effective. Phonics programs with and without them both seem to do well.

There are still methodological problems that need to be worked out on the research end of this. Researchers have usually failed to control the effects of other text factors. For instance, the amount of word repetition and the frequency of the words in the various texts are important variables that may confound the results of these studies (Mesmer, Cunningham, & Hiebert, 2012).

Finally, English is complex, and the sounds associated with letters and letter combinations depend on the letter’s position in the 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 they learn to respond to this statistical difference 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 language overall. (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 limited, and even beginning readers should be reading (not just listening to) more than decodable texts.


Adams, M. J. (2009). Decodable text: Why, when, and how?” In E H. Hiebert & M. Sailors (Eds.), Finding the right texts: What works for beginning and struggling readers (pp. 23-46). New York: Guilford Press, 2009.

Bier, L. D. (2007). Texts and Beginning Readers. Unpublished paper, University of Delaware.

Birch, R., Sharp, H., Miller, D., Ritchie, D., & Ledger, S. (2022). A systematic literature review of decodable and levelled reading books for reading instruction in primary school contexts: An evaluation of quality research evidence. Newcastle, Australia: University of Newcastle.

Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H.  (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: A review of the evidence. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25(9), 2223-2246.

Jenkins, J. R., Peyton, J. A., Sanders, E. A., Vadasy, P. F. (2004). Effects of reading decodable texts in supplemental first-grade tutoring. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(1), 53-85. doi:

Juel, C., & Roper-Schneider, D. (1985). The influence of basal readers on first grade reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(2), 134–152.

Mesmer, H. A. E. (2001). Decodable text: A review of what we know. Reading Research and Instruction, 40(2), 121-42.

Mesmer, H. A. E. (2005). Text decodability and the first-grade reader. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 21, 61-85.

Mesmer, H. A. E., Cunningham, J. W., & Hiebert, E. H. (2012). Toward a theoretical model of text complexity for the early grades: Learning from the past, anticipating the future. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(3), 235–258

Price?Mohr, R. M., & Price, C. B. (2018). Synthetic phonics and decodable instructional reading texts: How far do these support poor readers? Dyslexia: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(2), 190-196.

 Pugh, A., Kearns, D., & Hiebert, E. H. (2023). Text types and their relations to efficacy in beginning reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 58(4), 710-732.


LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast 





See what others have to say about this topic.

Dr.Patricia Gallery Jun 01, 2024 12:07 PM

When addressing the issue of decodable text it would be helpful if we could talk about the texts that are and have been ubiquitously used in early literacy which are the leveled readers. These particular texts are based on the 3 cueing method of teaching reading and are constructed to have highly predictable sentence stems which flip usually the final word on each page which is highly matched to the illustration. When thinking about what is best for students in early grades mostly k and 1, it is important to discern the best tools. When teaching students how to blend sounds to decode words at the earliest level it is helpful to have texts that include a high proportion of words that students can practice using phonics skills to decode. I'm thinking about the bigger picture it is also critical that students interact with authentic texts so that they can also grow their statistical learning of additional words. However giving students books that are literally designed to facilitate reliance on pictures and contextual cueing is a lost opportunity to facilitate orthographic mapping and builds bad habits that are challenging to break later on...would love to hear your thoughts on this...Please keep in mind that classrooms across the country are filled with leveled readers and have been ubiquitously deployed in classrooms and sent home in book baggies.

Faith Jun 01, 2024 12:26 PM

Do you know if this research also applies to students with dyslexia? Or does this speak more to typical readers?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 01, 2024 12:45 PM


I've written previously about the problems with predictable texts for teaching beginning reading. Indeed, encouraging students to look to the pictures to identify words is not a good approach. But no matter the problems with those texts, the evidence still does not show that the strict use of decodables has any benefit (only potential downside), and their ability to encourage students to focus on the letters and sounds is very brief. Predictable texts are not the only alternative to decodables.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 01, 2024 06:33 PM


I answered it -- no, no one has found any benefit for that population.


johnyoung Jun 01, 2024 06:41 PM

And, truth be told, this collection of studies is a bit of a mess; with little evident agreement as to what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what learning outcomes should be expected.
Over 20 years ago I was doing a masters level paper on reading and did a lit review on sustained silent reading and found the same the research was so poor you couldn't make any strong conclusions. My own theory was that where it was well implemented with a teacher who modelled and knew and loved children's lit it was great for 80% of the class and a waste of learning time for the 20% of children who low motivation to read and low ability - they usually go together.
Would love a Tim Shanahan on the topic

Liz Lightner Jun 01, 2024 06:28 PM

There was an unanswered question from the previous post regarding students with dyslexia that I would be very interested in. Any different benefits or detriments for this population regarding decodable text?
The majority of my career has been in first grade but recently I am working with K-5 students needing intensive intervention, many with a dyslexia diagnosis. Our district has adopted a multi sensory approach program which routinely includes decodables. I like them enough but question spending my limited time hunting and highlighting words with the phonics pattern before reading them. Anything in the research supporting this practice?

JoAnne Gross Jun 01, 2024 05:53 PM

We are remediators,we see students that read the first syllable and guess the rest.
We see students from grade 1 to high school.
The students are anxious.
They are overwhelmed.
When we test them,they show difficulties with grapheme phoneme gaps and hardship blending sounds.

Without a structured literacy intervention and some decodable text they would remain illiterate.

I have read your stuff for decades.
You made me feel guilty :)
What we do now is we get them out of those decodables after we teach syllables because they need to know how to handle multisyllabic words and stop guessing.
That`s around 35 hours of remediation because naturally,the kids are vocabulary impoverished due to their difficulties, we need to hit heavy on other stuff to get them to where they need to be.

I see the problem with decodables that is now overkill.The kids are kept in them for too long,there`s no question!
'You gotta know when to fold em"
One of our interventionists showed me the pictures of books the school sent home for a grade 4 student. All CVC`S.
After only 3 months of intervention, we put him into real books.
Revolutions in systems are difficult.

Barbara Schuh Jun 01, 2024 01:15 PM

It would make sense that the mix of decodables and non-decodables showed the highest results. Simple view of reading says decoding plus language is reading. Not decoding alone.
Decodables make good practice of skills. The application of those skills in non-controlled text is the goal.
I am curious how reading is measured in these studies. If the students haven't been taught the phonics patterns it is no surprise they cannot read them. Much like testing a student on division if they are only taught addition. This doesn't mean we don't teach addition. I would caution extrapolating this to mean that decodables are not effective.

Lauren Jun 01, 2024 02:58 PM

It is very frustrating to me. Three years ago I literally had an administrator screaming at me that I had to use pure decodables only with no pictures for my primary students. I shut my door and used decodables and regular leveled texts with my students. I ended up making my own decodables because none were really provided for a time, and the ones that were later provided were terrible. Why is our educational system vulnerable to these wild mood swings where common sense leaves the building?

Dr. Bill Conrad Jun 01, 2024 05:17 PM

I can see that you may may not think that a picture is worth a thousand words!

Do you think that Artificial Intelligence will play a role in being able to adapt text that a child read to recognize the degree to which they benefit from decodable text and progressing to more complex text in their reading regimen?

Ann C Jun 01, 2024 05:42 PM

When using early predictable (patterned) text, the teacher is focusing on left to right reading, return sweep, fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension. If the book is Fruit Salad, each page will name a fruit. ‘In goes the…’ children learn the names of fruit, which fruit are peeled or not, and can talk about other fruit the author did not include. In writing about reading, they can sound out words to spell phonetically, practicing phonological awareness. They can consider how writers use the title to tell what they want to write about.
These are all valuable items and add to reading development. That is why predictables are used in combination with decodable text. Early decodables often contain pictures that help children build meaning and comprehend text. Unfortunately, many decodables are written so that language comprehension is more difficult. Beginning readers need text that support decoding and language comprehension and opportunities to write about reading (encoding comprehension.)

Timothy Shanahan Jun 01, 2024 05:48 PM

I think AI already is being used to do such tasks. As AI gains sophistication and is trained up on certain language variables, I think we will see texts that allow us to expose kids not only to particular sound patterns, but to specified lexical, syntactic, and coherence patterns. That will get us more to what i've been arguing for during the past decade-- text centered comprehension instruction.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 01, 2024 05:50 PM


On the studies of decodables, no one has yet shown any advantage to them in terms of reading achievement -- the kids with the non-decodables or less decodables repeatedly have done as well in learning to read as the kids who work with decodables.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 01, 2024 06:45 PM

You are right about the collection of studies, but even the best done of them always has concluded that there are no differences in reading achievement. The best it has done was that with 12 hours of work with decodables the kids were more likely to try to decode words (but even in that, no learning differences). Personally, I have no problem with decodables as part of the phonics instruction -- but that would be their sole use in my classrooms.


Alex N Jun 01, 2024 08:00 PM

This totally makes sense. I’ve noticed that kids who only get decodables in their hands are more rigid and don’t develop set for variability like the kiddos who have access to less controlled texts. Kids become good problem-solvers when they work a text that is high-quality and interesting to them - with motivation and support, they shouldn’t be limited!

Christine Connor Jun 01, 2024 08:06 PM

I concur with your article. I have taught year1-3 chidleren literacy for 43 years in NZ. I have been teaching using Phonics + decodable books for 2 and a half years. I have found that the children transfer their learned phonics knowledge very easily, and that after the first few weeks of using decodables, read just as well using the NZ PM levelled readers, but they read with better phrasing and fluency. My children who struggle, with the longer decodable texts, find the PM's a relief, as they are not having to decode so many difficult words on a page, that is often written with contrived text and words the child has never used in their life, and consequently aremore difficult to understand, especially ESOL children. I use a variety of decodable books: Sunshine, Nelson PM, Beanstalk books- great photos. I use LLLL books after a few months as children are often confused with the cursive font. Thank you for a balanced view in your article. I will be sharing it.

Mary Baker-Hendy Jun 01, 2024 08:55 PM

Ha, about 5 years ago I told all my teachers friends in districts far and wide...”If you see folks getting ride of leveled readers in their classrooms, grab them and use them! I have just seen that baby getting thrown out with the water too many times....
I’ll wait to read that better research on decodable/non decodable readers but in the meantime my experience has taught me that children learning to read, need to read daily. And they need to read both decodable books and non decodable books that increase in difficulty. I taught children with dyslexia to read for 30 years and whether we were using Phonics for Reading, SIPPS or an Orton Gillingham program, we made time to read both everyday. The decodable books are implemented within the scope and sequence of the program you are using, allowing for more orthographic mapping of the newly learned sound-symbol element. Time is made everyday for students to read leveled choice books and easy readers within a structured routine, along with challenging texts to try and read alouds with the class or group. Providing this variety of reading activities allows teachers to develop language, content knowledge and opportunities to develop that all important skill of written expression, all part of literacy.

Mat Jun 01, 2024 10:44 PM

Hi Tim,
Very interesting post. Since the research points to the benefits of using non-decodable texts along with decodables, where do we find these texts?

Are they predictable readers? Are they levelled books? When I try to google such texts I cannot actually find them. Perhaps you don’t want to endorse particular publishers but I’m at a loss to find the texts you are referring to.

Also, did you know that schools in England will fail their educational inspections (OFSTED) if they start using non-decodables along with decodables!

Kate Rosen Jun 01, 2024 11:12 PM

As usual, the answer is not "either/ or," it's "both/ and."

I'm an SLDS, and after 25 years of teaching struggling readers, I've found myself using decodable readers less and less. For one thing, decodable texts sometimes become ridiculous in their efforts only to use a prescribed set of words. What's more, I've found that parents often don't really understand the purpose of decodable books -- they'll play them audio versions, or read them to them as bedtime stories!

When it comes to teaching pure decoding, I've found that using nonsense words is probably the most efficient method, because they teach students to think, rather than to shut down, when they encounter unfamiliar words. You just have to use a lot of extrinsic motivation, because they're hard! And it can be hard to stick with it, because very few programs integrate them into the curriculum.

Vanessa Gee Jun 01, 2024 11:48 PM

When learning music, we practise with the simple over and over to build mastery and automaticity before moving to complex pieces. While doing this, we listen to beautiful music and watch others play, knowing this is our end goal. This makes logical sense to everyone - we can’t play Mozart when we are just learning to play Mary had a Little Lamb.

I see the alphabetic code the same way. We build our knowledge of the initial code, we build automaticity and mastery as we then move to more complex texts.

Children can not access regular texts with multisyllabic words when they still can’t read ‘cat’. Do we have these books in our classroom? YES. Do we let them borrow them from the library? YES. Do we give them simpler, decodable texts, to build automaticity and mastery? YES.

I hope someone studies this soon. I would hate for the debate to take away the important opportunity decodable books give for independent practise of skills. We know that many whole language advocates take any opportunity to dismiss the importance of learning to decode.

Catherine Jun 02, 2024 12:01 AM

Patricia -
We also need to keep in mind the difference between the earliest leveled texts which are predictable as you describe, and other leveled texts which increase in complexity based on however the creators of the series choose to level them. I think leveled texts past the first few levels could be seen more as authentic texts - just shorter and more simple than something an adult would read to a child. Some children will learn to decode perfectly well using leveled texts and some deliberate instruction, whereas others continue to rely a lot on sentence structure and meaning cues, and it's those children who I think benefit most from decodables. I'm interested to look a bit deeper into the research studies and see if they distinguish between children with dyslexia or other reading difficulties and "good" readers.

Mary Baker-Hendy Jun 02, 2024 04:22 AM

Vanessa, I love your comparison...."we listen to beautiful music and watch others play, knowing this is our end goal. “

Timothy Shanahan Jun 02, 2024 12:22 PM

The trick to beginning reading books is that they have to be easy enough for kids to read -- and that means they usually have to have some intentional alteration of the language to support the kids (but not so much support that they get the wrong idea). Hyper decodability is one of those tools, so using decodables to give kids practice with the skills they are learning makes sense. However, if you overdo it with those texts (as is often recommended these days), then kids learn the alteration you have made which may cause them problems down the road. Another simplification is to use texts with high frequency words (words the students are very likely to have in their oral language -- so no barriers to understanding, but with high amounts of repetition, using those individual words over and over but in different contexts (not the repetitive sentence patterns of predictable books which discourage kids from looking at the words). There are a number of such easy readers (the beginning levels of the Pete the Cat books are an example) and for examples of texts that have both properties -- decodability and controlled vocabualry, I would suggest that you go to the Text Project website. Freddie Hiebert provides such texts for free (and at least some of hers have been used in her research). Those kinds of texts are also an alteration that can become a crutch for some kids but by using both kinds of texts you decrease the chances of kids learning the adjustment rather than how to read.


Jacinta Conway Jun 02, 2024 01:07 PM

Hi Tim,
Thank you for this blog post. I am interested in your thoughts on terminology. In previous posts you have discussed decodable, predictable and controlled readers. (
You now use the terms decodable and non-decodable. Is there a reason for this change in language? Im wondering if I have missed something.
I actually like the change in terminology and it makes more sense.

Miriam Trehearne Jun 02, 2024 08:17 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

With regard to decodable text, evidence suggests that decodability is one important factor in texts for beginning readers. The key words here are “one factor” and “beginning readers”. There is also evidence that suggests other factors in the text are important: “The diversity of genres represented, natural language, and the degree the text is engaging the kids” (Duke, 2019).
To be engaged two important factors are interest and motivation. If students are reading text they are interested in they will more than likely persevere even if the text is challenging! And the more time students spend reading, the better readers they will become. Research shows a significant correlation between high levels of engagement and improved attendance and achievement. “The number one factor that impacts student learning is engaging teaching. Schools must look at changing the culture of education so that teachers are excited about teaching, and students are excited and engaged in learning (Hattie, 2023)”. Highly motivated students who see reading as a desirable activity will initiate and sustain their engagement in reading and thus become better readers.

So let me share a firsthand example of engagement and reading perseverance. Yesterday I was reading with a six-year-old, beginning reader. The teacher had assigned a decodable text to be read and reread daily at home. The student also had a non decodable text that she brought to our session together. She read the decodable text with no interest and little perseverance. She then asked if we could read the non decodable text in which she demonstrated engagement and much more perseverance. Right from Day One we should not ignore the importance of reading engagement and the importance of hooking students on reading.

Notwithstanding, decodable texts, more focus should be on the degree of effective literacy teaching and learning with a strong emphasis on writing. Many students come to reading in part, at least, through writing, which unfortunately is often a curriculum casualty.

This recent study, 2023, is worth a look:
Efficacy of decodable texts and non-decodable texts:
Pugh, Kearns, & Hiebert (2023)

Study used effect size data from three recently published meta-analyses of the effects of reading interventions on reading achievement of students with reading difficulty in kindergarten through third grade.

Effect sizes for interventions with:
• Decodable texts: .50
• Non-decodable texts: .49
• Decodable & non-decodable texts: .66

Thanks again Tim for your ongoing support of literacy educators.

Sam Bommarito Jun 02, 2024 09:32 PM

You said "I think it’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction, but such practice should be limited, and even beginning readers should be reading (not just listening to) more than decodable texts." I couldn't agree more. I view decodables as one of several possible scaffolds that can be used early on- that means they are used for effect (encouraging & practicing the application of decoding skills) and then removed. By definition that's what you do with a scaffold- think gradual release. I recall a while back you said something to the effect folks claiming we need to use decodalbes for years and years were just making that stuff up. Very happy that you are highlighting the research that gives teachers some guidelines on how to make the most effective use of decodables.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 02, 2024 09:49 PM


Sorry for the confusion. Decodable and undecodable are both misnomers. Decodability is not a discrete variable (yes/no, black/white, up/down), but a continuous one. Texts are manipulated for young readers to increase the degree of decodability. Supposedly, undecodable text may actually be quite decodable. The same can be said about vocabulary controls -- how much repetition is there? how many words only appear once or twice in a text? and so on. When studies claim a text is decodable they are either talking about the percentage of words that are spelled/pronounced in the most frequent way or about whether an instructional program had taught the skills needed to pronounce words with those spellings. Undecodable either means that no one manipulated the text to increase its decodability or it really means less decodable (we manipulated these passages to be 70% decodable while these were only 30% decodable by our definition). In any event, by any definition or measure, there is some evidence showing that students will be more likely to sound out words if they are asked to read decodables for a very short period of time -- lessons over 12 days in first grade, and no research showing an advantage when it comes to learning to read.


Victoria Mitchell Jun 02, 2024 10:33 PM

This is an even more complex issue in an English language learning context, especially late arrivals to secondary education, often with interrupted learning and non-alphabet codes. They do not necessarily have access to a wide range of vocabulary nor often Western contexts to rely on to decode. Often also, their language filters are a mix of helpful and hindrance - they struggle to both hear and produce the sounds orally or written. Certainly a blend of bespoke approaches is critical to learn subject matter at the same time as language acquisition AND literacy. Your thoughts???

Timothy Shanahan Jun 03, 2024 12:41 AM


You are absolutely right, that can happen, and those students may need basic phonics instruction along with some practice with decodable texts, perhaps. This is especially true of "newcomers." However, with most English Learners language (vocabulary and syntax particularly) are more likely the culprits. You can't know what the students really need without some kind of assessment. If they are falling short on basic decoding (or on more advanced decoding -- with multi-syllable words) then that should be provided. However, in those cases where that is not the case, a heavy emphasis on building English should be the priority.


Berys Dixon Jun 03, 2024 01:59 AM

To begin with, let's be more precise and call these type of texts "phonically controlled' - a much more accurate description. When you think about it, all books are decodable if you know the code they contain!
As a writer of over a hundred phonically controlled texts, (Little Learners Love Literacy and Pocket Rockets) I feel I have something to offer to this discussion. It really depends on the quality of the decodables as to whether they will be of benefit to the learners.
There seems to be a misconception with many people that phonically controlled texts only contain CVC words. CVC worded texts are just the beginning. In a quality series, the stories are not stilted and build up to contain more and more words with more complex spelling patterns, producing naturally flowing phrases and sentences with entertaining plots and information, so much so that you wouldn't even know the text has been phonically controlled!
The odd unlearnt word here and there is not an issue, but to ask children to read both phonically controlled books along with those containing many words with unknown/unlearnt grapheme/phoneme correspondences makes no sense. You wouldn't give someone a piece of music containing chords they hadn't yet learnt.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 03, 2024 02:21 AM

That’s a nice opinion but we determine quality by the measurable effects the books have on the children’s learning. There are no such data. The claim that one set of decodables is more effective than another is a claim with no evidence.


Gaynor Chapman Jun 03, 2024 03:34 AM

I think it is worth while reviewing what was done in traditional phonics teaching, which was practised in NZ from 1930-50. Children were not expected to be able to read meaningful stories until about half way through the first year (age 5-6yrs). By then students had learned all the sounds of the consonants, the short vowels, twelve of the simple double consonants, the digraphs, the long vowels, oo, ou and ow with which you have a pretty reasonable vocabulary and can then compose real stories . Up to this half way through stage in the first year the reading consisted of mostly simple sentences with some picture reading (drawings of objects in sentences instead of the words) and incorporating a couple of hundred memorized sight words. The rest of the phonemes and affixes are covered in the following 18 months with more sight words but no sight words in the second year for 6-7 year olds.

Somehow this seems more honest to me than attempting to make up contrived stories from only limited phonemes. Also anyone can create these sentences which saves costs in buying books. eg Ann runs on the wet sand, I see a web on a twig. There were several sentences on a page which can be fairly unconnected to begin with but develop into a single simple page story of 70 words, with or without a picture.

England is fond of Jolly Phonics , which was a programme based on an Austrian system and did not initially take account of dyslexics and other strugglers. But English isn't Austrian and we have a whole heap of irregular spellings and basic Anglo-Saxon non- phonic words which unfortunately are also the most frequently used . Dyslexics have trouble with sight (non phonic) words as well as regular phonics according to researcher Anne Castles of Australia . I find the phonic fanatics have annoyingly, turned sight words into bogey-men.

If your school won't pay for the basic readers you want, then make up your own or have senior students in the school do it. The idea that elementary reading books have to be written by famous literary people or companies is silly. There are many free phonic books on line. Copy the words but have the children draw their own pictures in a cheap exercise book or take the pictures off the internet. Don't be afraid of including many sight words to make your little 50-100 word story flow well. Learn Fry sight words well with flash cards : word one side picture on the other. Make your own. These can be used for spelling as well, with the picture displayed first. (Shops will usually provide you with free reject cardboard from their products if you say you teach (handicapped )children to read ). Send the personalized cards home for parents or extended family to revise. Research has shown flash cards are one of the best ones of recalling and memorizing new knowledge ( See your Hechinger Report on teaching times tables 2023).

I wish NZ academics would read your site Timothy . They are stuck on only decodables and predictive texts ! I wouldn't have any dyslexic or struggler read a predictive aka levelled , reader until they have reached a reading age of eight.

maureen Jun 03, 2024 07:49 PM

I have always thought of decodable or phonetically controlled texts as the equivalent of the onramp to a highway. It's an important but short passage that leads to increasingly independent and conventional reading. Early childhood educators must always remember that part of our goal is to build that early skill foundation. Another, equally important part of our goal is to build that disposition toward why we read in the first place-- because it's a rich,rewarding and valuable experience on its own. A strict diet of decodable texts can't serve both these ends at once. Love this blog. Learn from it every time.

Harriett Janetos Jun 04, 2024 02:30 AM

"And, truth be told, this collection of studies is a bit of a mess; with little evident agreement as to what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what learning outcomes should be expected."

Sounds like there isn't what Steve Dykstra calls "bullseye" research in his webinar "An Adaptive, Scientific Approach to Uncertainty." He says “We are not required to be right; we are required to have ‘right’ reasons that we can explain to other professionals . . . Know where the science ends and your best judgment begins.”

I've explained to chatGPT why I choose a variety of texts for my students, including multi-criteria text that have decodability as one criterion--and I was relieved to get the thumbs up. Does this count?

Daniel Ervin Jun 04, 2024 06:45 PM

Long time reader, first time commenter; I've greatly appreciated your clarity, knowledge, writing style, and sense of humor over the years.

I have a question about decodables that relates to some of your previous writing on effective grouping strategies, uses of instructional time, and the lack of evidence for sustained silent reading. The literacy curriculum chosen by my district includes independent reading time, even for our youngest learners. The idea is that as they read, they will be practicing the most important skills they need to learn next, guided by teacher assessment and check-ins. A common problem of practice for our teachers is that when asked to read independently, children who can't yet decode the text may just flip through books without much direction - or find other, less productive things to do.

Our curriculum includes pattern texts for emergent readers in which they are to develop concepts of print and letter-sound automaticity. Once students know their letters and have developed some concepts of print, repeating patterns and using picture clues doesn't seem to provide much practice of the foundational skills students need to master to move toward reading fluency. For these children, who more or less know their letters, are getting instruction in phonics, and are writing with invented spelling, the question is how independent reading time can be used productively. Decodable text seems to provide a better answer than pattern text. There's also value in children choosing their own texts, but the books students would like to read can sometimes be far in advance of their decoding ability.

The questions this brings up for me are the following: 1. How valuable is independent reading with teacher assessment and occasional brief check-ins for students at the stage of development described above? and 2. If we think it is of value, how should we guide students to an appropriate balance of decodable text and other text types?

I realize that the research probably can't answer these questions definitively, and I'm curious about how you might make decisions about how to support teachers and students with these questions. Thanks!

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Should We Teach with Decodable Text?


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