What is the role of decodable texts?

As conversations about effective literacy instruction continue in schools and on social media, questions about the definition, use, and purpose of decodable texts inevitably arise. I’ve even heard these books described as a “battleground”.  I recently watched a presentation on literacy to the school committee in a local district, where phonics teaching is currently layered on top of popular balanced literacy approaches.  The literacy coordinator mentioned that they are considering making changes, including the possible addition of more decodable texts in the classroom.  A committee member requested more information and asked, “Do you mean like, books with CVC words?”  The literacy coordinator said, “Yes…there is probably a role for them,” and the discussion then moved on to other questions.

It struck me that attendees at the meeting may not be familiar with the way high-quality decodable book series such as those published by Phonic Books present more complex patterns beyond consonant-vowel-consonant and do so in a carefully sequenced, cumulative progression.  However, setting that observation aside, I’d like to explain why the literacy coordinator should have responded, “If our goal is for all children to learn to read well, then these books will actually play an indispensable role.”

What are decodable books?

Decodable, or phonically controlled books, are written to match the code students are learning so they can apply their growing knowledge and skills.  They are a vehicle for application and practice.  Most educators would agree that practice is useful.  But it’s not only about practice.  Our students are learning to read a very complex writing system.  In English, 1, 2, 3, and even 4 letters can represent a single sound, there are multiple ways to spell one sound, and one spelling can often represent several sounds.  This presents pitfalls for the learner that make the benefit of these books even more profound.

We know that when children grasp the “alphabetic principle,” gain enough code knowledge and blending skills, and begin to consistently apply a sound-based decoding strategy to words, they eventually reach a point when they begin to “self-teach”.  They sound out unfamiliar words using their existing code knowledge and they make adjustments to their pronunciations, allowing them to gain new knowledge of the way letters represent sounds in words.  Through their own decoding efforts as they meet new words in print, they add to their store of familiar words and to their knowledge of sounds and spellings.

Children differ in the amount of instruction, practice, and feedback they need to attain this “self-teaching” milestone, but there is one crucial ingredient they all need in order to get there:

Trust.

They must learn to trust in the code, to trust that their decoding efforts will pay off.  For all the richness of English spelling due to the multiple layers and twists and turns of its history, it is certainly not a system that is forgiving and welcoming to the novice.  If beginners are forced to grapple with all the complexities of English at once, they risk losing trust and resorting to guessing from pictures or context.  This is particularly true for our most vulnerable students; decodable texts are therefore a crucial tool in the prevention of reading difficulties.

It’s possible that the most important benefit of decodable texts is this internal sense of trust which fosters an inclination to decode, which then becomes a habit.  This is borne out by research that shows first-grade students are more likely to apply the phonics they’re learning when given decodable or phonically controlled text.

And for older children who have already adopted a “guess and go” approach, phonically controlled texts can play a pivotal role in repairing trust in the code so they can stop guessing, create a decoding habit, and progress in their reading.

Yes, these books provide an opportunity for practice and consolidation.  But they also, crucially, help all children learn to trust the code so they can develop the skills and habits they need for independence.  Then all books become decodable.

Visit the Phonic Books shop to see the full range of decodable books for both Beginner and older, Catch-up Readers.

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This is a guest blog by Miriam Fein.  Miriam is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners. 

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