Written by Karyn Bruneel, Superintendent of Education, Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board
Word reading and writing instruction begins with oral language development, phonological and phonemic awareness, and then moves into the alphabetic principle along with phonics and spelling. Decodable texts are used once students have developed some high-utility letter-sound (or grapheme-phoneme) correspondences to apply, practise, and generalize their developing alphabetic and blending skills and to develop spelling and encoding skills. This use of connected text serves to support the process of orthographic mapping (OM).
Decodable texts also provide students with accessible text that is used instructionally to make meaning through decoding and to develop comprehension and fluency skills.
What Are Decodable Texts?
Decodable texts are intentionally written to be accessible to early readers along a carefully sequenced and evidence-based instructional path (the scope and sequence of instruction). They are selected by the teacher to match the scope and sequence of grapheme-phoneme instruction in the classroom. These texts are focused on letter-sound correspondence, spelling, and morphological patterns. They are designed to lead students to use their segmenting and blending skills by encouraging sounding out. They use words that can be successfully sounded out and also strategically introduce high-frequency words that cannot be sounded out using the phonics skills that have been taught. These high-frequency words, such as the, this, or said, are sometimes called “Heart Words” because they need to be learned by heart. Decodable texts are one part of a comprehensive early reading instructional program.
Reading consists of making meaning and decoding text. Students can make meaning from text when it is read to them; they can also make meaning from text when they decode it themselves. Language comprehension skills, vocabulary development, and schema (background knowledge) development are needed to support students in making meaning and are an important part of early and ongoing reading instruction. They are key elements of the oral component of effective early reading and writing instruction. Phonological and phonemic awareness, required to hear and isolate the sounds in words and to decode the text, is also an important part of reading instruction and should be the focus of both early reading and writing instruction. Decodable texts give students the opportunities they need to successfully apply the phoneme-grapheme correspondences they are learning about to connected text and to use this accessible text to work on fluency and meaning-making.
Decodable vs. Leveled Texts
Decodable texts are sequential in nature and begin with limited vocabulary and simple stories. The vocabulary and story structures become more sophisticated as a student moves through the sequence. Decodable texts start with simple words containing vowel (V) and consonant (C) combinations, such as CVC patterns, gradually becoming more complex. These texts always use sound-letter correspondences and heart words that are already known by the reader. They are different from levelled texts, also called predictable texts, where making meaning is the priority and word-level reading is not the focus. Therefore, even the earliest levelled texts often have complex word structures that cannot be sounded out. The design of levelled texts builds the habit of using pictures, context, and other guessing clues as the first strategies for reading unfamiliar words. This habit compromises a person’s ability to read and understand text, especially at higher levels. Conversely, decodable texts are designed in a way that builds the habit of using letter-sound correspondences as the first strategy to read unfamiliar words. Unlike levelled texts, decodable texts support necessary reading habits such as word analysis, which are essential to the ongoing development of reading fluency at all stages of reading throughout a person’s life.
Why Are Decodable Texts Necessary?
Early readers are often highly motivated to read independently when using decodable texts, as they experience success applying their new alphabetic knowledge as soon as it is learned. The text is a vehicle for them to see the real-life application of what they are learning, and they help to prevent the development of poor reading strategies. As students develop their word reading skills and are successful at applying them, these texts provide them with multiple opportunities for the independent practice and repetition that they require to build and transfer the skills. To become fluent readers, words and spelling sequences need to be orthographically mapped so that word reading becomes automatic. Decodable texts provide the exposure and the close attention to accuracy at the word level that students need for OM to happen.
Orthographic mapping supports the automaticity skill of fluency in reading. Prior to OM, applying their developing knowledge of the alphabetic code to decoding words and sentences taxes students’ working memory. Decodable texts decrease the cognitive load of decoding, so students can focus their attention on fluency skills like prosody (i.e., expression) for comprehension.
How Can They Be Used?
Because decodable texts offer accessible reading, teachers and students can use them in myriad ways:
- modelling and think-alouds about blending and word reading
- practising choral and/or whisper reading
- focussing on comprehension while decoding
- facilitating buddy reading
- progressing from finger-pointing at words to eyes-only tracking
- building fluency skills like automaticity and prosody
- providing the practice and repetition an individual student requires for orthographic mapping to happen
- providing students with corrective feedback
- and much more
Listening to students read decodable texts can help teachers to identify needs and zero instruction in on target spelling patterns that are not automatic for the student, teach specific idioms and semantics when a student is struggling to go beyond literal comprehension and support students in using comprehension to confirm what was read. They also provide connected and accessible text so that instruction on the skills of fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension can be provided while decoding in a real-life context. Repeated reading of decodable texts can develop fluency and ensure that the skills are not lost over time. These texts can be used as mentor texts to support student writing. They provide examples of proper syntax, spelling, simple and complex sentences, vocabulary, and paragraph structure that can be imitated by students to develop their writing skills. For example, they can be prompted to use the words, structures, and spelling patterns they come across in decodable texts in their own writing. Students could also respond in writing, using words from the text with the target phonics pattern to support the development of both their decoding and encoding skills. These texts can also provide an opportunity for students to apply their handwriting skills. Wiley Blevins (2021), a reading specialist and author, believes that half of a lesson should be focused on application. Decodable texts support this kind of focus on the application of skills.
How Do Decodable Texts Fit into the Larger Literacy Program?
These texts hold an important place in the early reading phase in the larger literacy program. Once the alphabetic principle is secure, decodable texts are less important, and students should move on to other texts where they will continue to successfully and independently apply their skills to decode unfamiliar words. Decodable texts are a stepping stone to fiction and non-fiction texts like chapter books and articles, etc. These other texts also serve to give them opportunities to enjoy complex stories while providing exposure to more diverse vocabulary and language structures, background knowledge, genre, and text features. It is critical to understand that decodable texts are a tool to support the development of the skills discussed in the sections above, but they are only one part of an effective literacy program. Educators also need to read high-quality literature to students during the literacy program, even when students are in the early reading phase. The oral and listening programming provided at the same time as early reading and encoding programming is essential to early and ongoing reading development. Students need to be exposed to, without having to decode, literature with more complex sentence and vocabulary structures, genres, and reading expression. Accessing these texts orally and participating in think-alouds and discussions that build their understanding of these aspects of literature while they are simultaneously learning to decode other simpler texts, supports students to further develop their vocabulary, schema, and ultimately their comprehension. Decodable texts support the encoding part of writing, but these rich oral lessons, focused on listening comprehension, modelling, and language comprehension for reading and writing, need to occur throughout the development of decoding and encoding skills.
Because the early reading phase of literacy development can happen at any age, teachers of all grade levels benefit from understanding early reading and encoding instruction and the role that decodable texts play in developing early reading and encoding skills for students. Some of the most important outcomes of using decodable texts are their capacity to build students’ confidence, accuracy, and automaticity, as well as the scaffolding they provide to support the process of orthographic mapping. Because they are so accessible, decodable texts also provide an important vehicle to develop reading fluency, comprehension, and writing/encoding skills - even when students have not yet secured their decoding skills. They also support neurodiverse students by providing structured opportunities for the repetition and corrective feedback they need to consolidate their decoding and encoding skills.
Karyn Bruneel is currently a Superintendent of Education with the Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board. She previously completed secondments as principal of Amethyst Demonstration School and as Executive Director of the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch. Prior to this time, Karyn worked as a teacher and as vice-principal and principal in French Immersion schools.
Blevins, Wiley (2021). Choosing and Using Decodable Texts: Practical tips and strategies for enhancing phonics instruction. New York: Scholastic.
Key References that have developed my understanding:
Dehaene, Stanislas (2009). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. New York: Penguin.
Kilpatrick, David A (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey : Wiley.
Moats, L.C. (2010). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers (2nd ed. edition ). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.