Decodable books are books that contain only words that are phonetically decodable that a student has already learned. Decodables are designed to be aligned with phonics instruction that is explicit (lessons in which concepts are clearly explained and skills are clearly modeled, without vagueness or ambiguity)and systematic (teaching a set of useful sound/spelling relationships in a clearly defined, carefully selected, logical instructional sequence, so that the logic of the alphabetic principle becomes evident, newly introduced skills are built on existing skills, and tasks are arranged from simplest to most complex).
The stories include letters and letter-groups in words that the student has learned during this instruction, and because of such great instruction, the student is able to automatically decode all of these words.
So if a student learned that short /a/ sound for the letter /a/, and this is the only vowel the student knows, a decodable would include short /a/ words only.
The BOB books are an example of decodables.
When decodables first hit the education scene in the 1980s, the term suggested a continuum (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985). At that time, basal readers were all the rage.
Remember Dick and Jane? We would see Dick run. We would see Jane run. Then, we would get really wild and see Dick and Jane run up a hill.
Basal readers include a handful of words that are used repeatedly, adding more new words with each new book in the anthology. This approach is built on the belief that the more times a student encounters the word, it will eventually be memorized. So as a student memorized more words and progressed through the series, they are reading more words in more complex sentences that mimic more complex language.
Dick and Jane would get Spot the dog in the next series and maybe a friend named Tim and one named Beth.
Decodables, on the other hand, attempt to limit the number of words to words a student can decode.
This is what a decodable text would look like:
Pam. Pam ran. Sam. Sam ran. Pam and Sam ran.
Decodables will not contain words a student would not be able to decode. Decodables are phonics-oriented decodable texts containing an unusually high number of words with letters that follow a particular sound pattern.
Decodables are sometimes also referred to as controlled texts. This is because the words have been controlled to contain letter-sounds and high frequency words that the student has been explicitly and systematically taught.
The idea behind decodables is that the reader would be able to apply letter/sound knowledge to independently recognize words in text.
But what does the research on decodable texts say?
There have actually only been a handful of studies on the effectiveness of decodable texts on the instruction of reading for students. And that handful of studies dates back to the 1980s. Oftentimes, the studies were impacted by an inability to agree on one definition for a decodable text, what outcomes should be expected from reading decodables, and what the studies should compare decodables to.
Another issue is that even though initially the decodable text definition expected that decodables contain 80% of previously-taught words, close analysis of decodable text proved that 80% is actually unattainable in most “decodable” materials (Foorman et al., 2004).
Among the handful of studies, one study found that a strong phonics curriculum, delivered in 25 one-one sessions can negate the impact of text on a reader’s progress (Jenkins, Peyton, & Sanders, 2004). The study looked at two groups of first graders receiving one-on-one tutoring using the same scripted phonics curriculum. The only variable in the tutoring was whether instruction included more or less decodable texts. One group read texts consistent with the phonics program while the other read texts without phonetic control. The study concluded that the degree of decodability used in the reading instruction did not matter. It had no significant impact on students’ decoding, word reading, passage reading, or reading comprehension skills.
But other studies have suggested some real benefits from using decodables in your instruction. Research has found that decodable texts prompt students to use letter-sounds during connected reading (Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985; Mesmer, 2001, 2005; Vadasy, Sanders, & Peyton, 2005). This means that after learning the three-letter blend /spr/, my student can get a chance to practice reading this blend in the context of sentences and paragraphs in a decodable text. If I taught this three-letter blend and then, asked my student to read a grade level text, my student may not get a chance to encounter this blend in their reading. It may take a few days of reading this text before my student ran into the word spring or sprint. But with a decodable text, I am guaranteed that my student will get a chance to practice the three-letter blend /spr/. I’m actually guaranteed that my student will have multiple opportunities in the decodable text to read words containing the three-letter blend.
Because of these guarantees with decodables, students are able to develop robust decoding abilities and retain words they have read in text.
And if you're a teacher - or a parent - who uses decodables in your instruction, you have seen their benefits. Decodables are a great tool for practicing to read taught and learned phonics skills in connected text. They are great for practicing the prosody and expression of fluency in connected text that the reader can be automatic with. And decodables are a great way to build your students’ confidence. I mean think about it - don’t you feel great when you get to achieve with a skill that you have been practicing. Well, decodables allow your students to get a chance to do just this!
Knowledge is power! So given what the research says and what we know about learning to read, do we use decodables in our instruction?
Yes! But let’s talk a little bit more about it!
When should we use decodables in our reading instruction?
Use decodables to support phonics instruction. Decodables help students learn to apply their knowledge of explicitly taught phonics skills or spelling concepts.
So after you introduce a new phonics skill, have your students practice the skill by reading in the context of a decodable. Reading this decodable text will support our students' success because the text is being controlled to only include a newly introduced skill cushioned in previously learned skills. And most importantly, the text does not contain any new skills.
For example, let’s say I introduce the digraph /ch/ and its corresponding sound. The decodable text will only contain any letters and letter combinations that have been taught before the digraph /ch/ was introduced. The text will also include those letter and letter combinations in words that contain the new skill of /ch/. High frequency words that have been taught to the reader before learning the digraph /ch/ will be in the decodable as well. But that’s it! Those are the only words the text should contain. This is why systematic (following a scope and sequence) phonics instruction is so important.
If you are using a research-based program, a systematic approach will be provided to you. If you are providing Specially Designed Instruction, I would suggest following the scope and sequence of the research-based programs. This helps you to make sure that your instruction follows a research-based scope and sequence. Personally, I like Wilson Reading’s scope and sequence and the Sonday level one and level two programs.
Reading decodables strengthens orthographic memory and brain pathways! This is because the use of decodable text forces readers to practice their decoding skills instead of relying on pictures or guessing. Brain research tells us this strengthens the growing neuronal connections in the brain.
As much as I love using decodables to build my students’ automaticity with learned skills and to build their reading confidence, I do have one CAUTION that I will give you about decodables. Do NOT exclusively use decodables!
The problem with decodable texts is that they lack some of the cognitive calculations a reader needs to experience in order to become more automatic with the complexities of the English language. In one study, first graders reading multi-criteria books outperformed those reading literature in word reading and reading level, and other studies have suggested that a student’s fluency may be compromised when only reading highly decodable texts.
Decodable texts lack some of the cognitive calculations a reader needs to experience in order to become more automatic with the complexities of the English language.
It’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction. I would actually encourage you to use decodables! But I beg you to make sure students are reading varying texts in order to generalize and become automatic with learned skills.
Learn more about decodables by checking out this interview with Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a literary expert and reading researcher with extensive experience in working with students with special needs.
And grab my own decodables HERE! My decodables are all aligned with Orton Gillingham and the Wilson Reading scope and sequence - PLUS - my decodables come with additional ways to practice skills from story writing to warm-up activities and games.
Happy & Healthy Teaching!
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