One of my favorite reading genres to study with students is the mystery genre. Students are naturally very curious, and they quickly become hooked on the hunt for details that could break open the case. Students love the challenge of engaging their deductive reasoning skills in order to solve the mystery before the main character. There is also a lot of fun mystery vocabulary and lingo to learn, and they become experts at taking notes and studying the patterns of the genre.
So what could be more fun than bringing the genre to life by staging our very own classroom mystery? I love a fully immersive experience, and it’s certainly something our students will never forget! If you are teaching a mystery unit, this is an opportunity with your students that you won’t want to miss!
Every year, I engage in a coaching cycle with the 3rd grade team in my building during our Mystery Genre unit. There are two 3rd grade classes, and each class has adopted a cow as part of the Discovery Dairy program. In addition to 2 real life cows that live on the farm, the classrooms also have stuffed cow mascots, which have become very dear to the students. Because “Oreo” and “Peanut Butter” are so beloved and constantly watched over, I knew they were the perfect victims for my staged mystery. With the team’s permission, I set a plan into motion to kidnap the classroom cows!
I did a little internet sleuthing and came across the incredible and hilarious duo at The Rigorous Owl. In their blog post, they share how they staged a real life mystery and forensics unit for their 4th grade students. I immediately went to Teachers Pay Teachers to buy their Detective and Mystery Unit Bundle. This product has a ton of ideas, and I pared it down to a more manageable mini-unit to do with our 3rd graders. My first step was to get the students very curious and suspicious by creating this bulletin board in our common space. I combined the names of the 2 classroom teachers to create the “Price Detective Agency.” All of the art below is from the Rigorous Owl, with the addition of some caution tape I requested from the custodians. The students could not stop talking about it and asking questions. I knew we had gotten their attention.
Next, I secretly surveyed the other staff members in our school to see who would be willing to play the part of the kidnapper. It had to be someone that all the 3rd graders would recognize and interact with, someone who could keep a secret and a straight face, and someone who would be game for some extra fun. In my first year doing this activity, the guidance counselor agreed to be our bad guy, and the second year, it was our art teacher.
I asked the ‘kidnapper’ if I could borrow a few artifacts that could be left behind as clues at the scene. They needed to be items that were small, connected to the staff member in some way, but not incredibly obvious (like a whistle for the Phy-Ed teacher). The ‘kidnapper’ MUST leave behind something with their handwriting on it. For the guidance counselor, she left behind some fidgets, a post-it note with her handwriting, and a roster. For the art teacher, he left behind some craft supplies and a copy of the specialists’ schedule with his handwriting on it. I also left a partial fingerprint at the scene (from The Rigorous Owl materials), which we would later analyze against our final suspects’ full fingerprints (I’ll explain that later).
Once I’d set up the bulletin board and prepped the kidnapper for their role, it was time to kidnap the cows. I cross checked the schedules for a time when the students would be out of the room (recess, lunch) and when the kidnapper had an opportunity in their schedules. When we analyzed the timeline and alibis later, this was key. I went in, stole the cows, left behind the clues, and then waited for the students to return. They did not disappoint! It was mayhem when they returned to find their beloved mascots……. gone!
As soon as possible, I debriefed with the class. We cataloged all of the evidence we’d collected and we created a timeline of events. That way, we knew exactly when the cows went missing, which we could analyze later. I invited the students to create a ‘Missing Poster’ and ‘Evidence Locker’ to advertise around the school. I created the Missing Poster worksheet on my own, and the Evidence Locker is from the Rigorous Owl materials. I explained that we were all detectives on the case, and I would be their lead detective.
Each student was very excited to create their own super sleuth detective name and badge (Rigorous Owl materials). And of course our mystery case needed a name, just like our books. This one was creatively dubbed “The Mystery of the Missing Cows.” I explained that we would analyze our evidence as a class, and the students could send me on missions to collect information and answers to their questions. We also had a ‘Tip Line’ to receive anonymous tips.
In our detective briefings, I suggested we begin with a staff directly that lists all of the names of adults in the building. Using evidence and deductive reasoning, we slowly whittled down the list over a series of days (about 6 15-minute meetings spread out over 2 weeks). I promised them that when they had the list of suspects narrowed to 4 or fewer staff members, I would go out and collect the suspects’ handwriting and finger prints for analysis (the fingerprint activity is part of the Rigorous Owl materials).
Simultaneously, we continued to engage in the mystery novel read aloud with accountable talk as a class. We studied a mystery book together, plotted our evidence, took notes, created theories, and learned mystery lingo. All the while, I was careful to point out the connections across our book and our real life classroom mystery.
To solve our Mystery of the Missing Cows, students sent me on missions to find out things like which staff members were absent or out of the building on the day in question, to survey staff with specific questions and collect their alibis, to determine which staff members had specific items in their classrooms, and so on. The kidnapper’s alibi typically stood out because it didn’t cover the entire time period in question, or it wasn’t very confident (“I think I was in…”), or they were by themselves and their alibi couldn’t be verified.
We also got anonymous tips in our Tip Line when it seemed like the students needed a nudge. For example, a staff member (aka me in disguise) wrote something like, “I think I saw a male teacher leaving your room…” or “Mrs. W. never showed up to our Second Step lesson on Thursday” or “When I asked so-and-so about it, they got really red and quiet…”).
Every day we took stock of our clues and data to determine next steps. Once we had the list of suspects narrowed to 3 or 4 names, I made a final forensic analysis worksheet that contained the suspects’ handwriting samples I had collected and full fingerprints (from the Rigorous Owl materials). The students cross checked these with the partial fingerprint and handwriting left at the scene.
Based on the forensics, the students were able to name their final suspect, and they were ready to rescue Oreo and Peanut Butter. But the learning did not end here! Each student completed a graphic organizer in which they named the final suspect and provided 3 reasons / evidence to support their claim (starting to sound like a persuasive writing assignment? You’re right!). Then, in strategic small groups or partnerships, the students wrote a persuasive letter to our school’s acting authority, the principal, appealing for help to recover their beloved Oreo and Peanut Butter and bring the culprit to justice.
After careful consideration of the documentation and after interviewing the class, the principal agreed to go to the kidnapper’s room, provide a District Court Application for a Search Warrant (from Rigorous Owl materials), search for and recover the missing cows, and finally to read the culprit their Miranda Rights (Rigorous Owl). Then, I ‘booked’ them, took their mugshot, and posted it on our Mystery Bulletin Board. CASE CLOSED!
There’s just one last step to bring this unit to a close; the students deserved an explanation and some closure from the kidnapper. This explanation would also serve as the kidnapper’s motive. For the guidance counselor, she explained that she needed to borrow the cows in order to teach a Second Step Guidance lesson for the younger students. For the Art Teacher, he explained that he wanted to add it to his soft sculpture collection for a project with another grade. Both teachers explained that they didn’t mean to steal the cows, just to borrow them, and that they were sorry they forgot to ask first or return them. Finally, we “made it right” by bringing in an apology treat, which also served to celebrate closing our case. In the end, the 3rd graders got that this was all in good fun, that no one meant any harm, and that it was all just a big ruse. No cows were harmed!
I hope you enjoyed reading about our annual Mystery of the Missing Cows! I would love to hear how you bring the mystery genre to life, and any tips or tricks you have for enjoying this exciting genre study.
As of today, I am officially OG certified, yeah! I wanted to share my overall experiences with the OGOA and encourage you to learn more and become certified, too.
What is Orton Gillingham?
Orton Gillingham is “a direct, explicit, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy.” In my experience and opinion, it is the gold-standard for teaching explicit phonics. It is also the framework and foundation upon which the majority of successful and popular universal phonics programs and products are built. The OG method falls best in the “intervention” camp. It is not a program with universal materials meant to guide instruction across grade levels. It is not aligned to grade level standards or chronological age, but instead presents a well-researched, developmental progression of skills as a road map for any and all learners; simply diagnose where a learner falls on the road map, and begin intervention at that point. It’s best-suited for one-on-one instruction, and can be adapted for small groups.
As you would assume with an intervention, it’s utility comes into play when traditional instruction isn’t going well and a student exhibits difficulty in reading, writing, and/or spelling. As you may be aware, “dyslexia isan unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader... Dyslexia is also very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and representing 80– 90 percent of all those with learning disabilities” (The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity). Students with dyslexia (and yeah, thats 1 in 5 of your students!) deserve an approach that is designed to meet their neurodivergent learning needs.
The Orton Gillingham Approach was designed by Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham. Dr. Orton, a neuropsychiatrist popularly considered the ‘father of dyslexia research,’ and Ms. Gillingham, a psychologist and gifted educator, combined forces to create a methodology that would guide readers in sorting, recognizing, and organizing elements of language in a multi-sensory progression that builds upon strengths while introducing new concepts.
Why choose Orton Gillingham?
As I mentioned before, OG is referred to as an approach, a framework, or a method. You’ll see products like Lexia and Sonday share that they are “OG-based/aligned.” When I see this, I know I’m going to have a positive experience with a quality product.
The OG approach is effective and unique in its multi-sensory approach. Students with dyslexia and reading difficulties have an inefficient network system in their brain that sends language on the scenic route instead of directly where it needs to go for processing. These students can’t just rely on visual memory to recognize and read words (and NO amount of flash card rehearsal is going to help!). They need muscle memory, such as the OG tapping method, and a multi-sensory approach of seeing, saying, hearing, and touching the word, in order to anchor the word to their more efficient brain network systems.
The Orton Gillingham approach is also very explicit in the ways they teach patterns and language rules to learners. You’ll find yourself talking about linguistic features you never even knew existed. If you were a person who easily learned to read (as most teachers are…) then you probably have a brain that is not dyslexic, and is in fact very efficient at analyzing language for patterns. You don’t need to know and memorize each and every “rule” – your brain just picks it up after repeated exposure and use in context. Think about how your brain automatically knows to double the ‘L’ if I asked you spell the nonsense word “grell.” Students with dyslexia need more explicit language learning in order to make sense of reading. Through training, you’ll learn about the 6 syllable types (really! there are 6!), the multiple sounds a vowel makes (long, short, and schwa!), and many many fun spelling patterns (H-brothers, soldier rule, FLOSS rule, etc.).
The OG Approach is also very innovative and thoughtful in the way in which new material is introduced to students. First of all, every sound or concept gets a key word to help students anchor it into their memory. The unique system of spiraling includes beginning each lesson with old review (material from 2 lessons ago) and new review (material from the last lesson), as well as incorporating all prior learning into cumulative activities. Students learn skills in isolation, but then have application experiences such as blending, decoding, encoding, and fluency and automaticity practice with a decodable text. Throughout the entire lesson, you are taking notes for what needs to be retaught next time, as well as reteaching on the fly and recycling miscues so students get a second chance to experience success. Students are expected to memorize and repeat concepts and rules, and they have multiple opportunities throughout the lesson to rehearse and repeat as it becomes fossilized.
If you accept the premise that 1 in 5 of your students has dyslexia, and the majority of your striving readers need a different approach in order to efficiently and successfully learn to decode language, then you know you need an OG approach to help your students.
Once you sign-up for Orton Gillingham Online Academy, you’ll be invited to join their Moodle site. You’ll want to print out a few things at the onset (they’ll let you know what is best to print, and what you could save digitally for later – don’t go hog wild and print it all!). I downloaded and printed the course materials, practitioners notebook, and phoneme cards. I bound the course materials and practitioners notebook into a spiral book, and I printed the phoneme cards on card stock for durability. In the appendices, you’ll also get access to all of the lesson plans made beautifully into digital / virtual google slides and powerpoint presentations.
Not surprisingly, all elements of the online training are designed to align to the same principals and accommodations we would offer to striving readers. You’ll have access to everything you need to learn in multiple forms, from visual to video. And to cater to different learning styles, you’ll have a variety of checkpoints and activities to self-monitor and demonstrate your own learning. Across 14 Modules, you’ll take a pre-test to activate your prior knowledge, complete a few scavenger-hunt type assignments to check your knowledge of the materials, complete a midterm and final exam, and complete video observation of an actual OG lesson. This step is so key, because not only are you seeing a model of what your own final submission is going to look like, but you are also going to use the very same rubric to critique them as will be used to assess your work.
The estimation is that the coursework will take you about 30 hours. I found this to be generally true, however I already had a very strong linguistics background and experience in teaching several other OG-based programs. I imagine if this is newer to you, you’d want to watch the sample lessons several times and go more slowly. I am positive you can complete this over a trimester or semester if you put in a few hours a week and keep to a schedule. Leave time before the end of your term in order to select a student and record yourself leading a lesson with them, which is a requirement for certification. If you wait until summer, you might just be calling in a favor from a neighbor or colleague in order to get your recording done 😉
I do think the course is something that should be done slowly, over many weeks, in order to give yourself time to learn and digest. You won’t be able to start teaching with the OG materials until you’ve been “certified,” nor will you want to, because the instructors want to make sure you’ve got good footing and strong instructional practices before you get too far with a student.
If you are taking this course hoping that it will teach you ALL of the things you need to know about phonics and spelling, then you might be a little disappointed. The academy is there to teach you the approach, and to help you acclimatize to the instructional practices and the materials. The best and only way that you will learn all you need to know about phonics is through actually teaching the lessons to a student. I’ve found that to be true of all programs and methods I’ve encountered over the years.
Bottom Line – if you have the time and means to get certification, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. You’ll increase your knowledge of linguistics and phonics instruction, and you’ll become more attuned to the learning needs of your students (especially those 1 in 5 that are probably getting overlooked or undiagnosed for dyslexia!). You’ll learn new ways to reach students, and hopefully give up on visual flash card drills once and for all. Even if you don’t wind up using the OG approach with your students, at least you will have a solid framework and understand of what a highly-effective, research-based, multi-sensory approach to phonics instruction should look and feel like.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing for several coaching positions, and I’m here to share the knowledge I acquired through the process. Interviewing is something that new teachers are officially prepared to do given lots of scaffolding and support provided through their education program. However, it is not something a veteran teacher typically plans to do, and we definitely don’t get any guidance, support, or feedback. We are usually out of practice, low on confidence, high on anxiety, and worried we’ve been “out of the game” for too long. I’m here to hopefully help you come up with a game plan and access the confidence you need for a positive experience.
Before even looking for vacancies, there are a few documents that you’ll need to pull together. I gathered:
3 letters of recommendation
A current Resume or Curriculum Vitae
PDF copies of all of your college transcripts
PDF copies of all of your teaching license(s)
A personal statement / cover letter
In terms of Letters of Recommendation, I would encourage you to ask colleagues who have seen you in leadership roles. It may not always been feasible to ask a direct supervisor, but when possible, seek out people with whom you have collaborated on important projects. When people ask me to write them a letter of recommendation, I will often ask them to provide me a bulleted list that can include their professional qualities, accomplishments, team memberships, and a list of pride points. Consider doing the same for the persons from you elicit a letter, even if you never wind up offering the list (it will help you organize your thoughts and build your confidence!). Be bold and ask people in administrative positions. The worst that can happen is that they say no, or that they write you a letter that is more about what the school or district is currently working on in general without talking about you in specific (that’s my telltale sign that either they don’t know you well, or they don’t have anything positive to say).
A great free platform for making a resume is Canva. Previously, I have used Microsoft Word and Pages, but it’s 2023 for gosh sakes! We can do better! And… it’s free. I’d recommend finding a minimalistic design and removing the picture element. You’ll look so modern and polished! You’ll need a section about your professional teaching experiences, teaching certifications and other professional trainings, and your educational background. I’d also recommend including a section on professional skills. Here’s my big secret for this part – a great place to get ideas is by looking at other job postings! An example of some professional skills from my own resume include:
Advocate for all learners, believing in the positive value of diversity
Highly motivated to use technology to enhance instruction, engagement, and access
You may also choose to have a section for any publications you’ve made, teams you are on, work experience outside of education that contribute to your professional impact on the community, coursework or seminars or networks that you participate in, etc.
Next, plan ahead for getting your hands on your transcripts. This process can take time (and sometimes money), so request them ASAP.
Finally, clear your mind and schedule and give yourself space to craft a powerful personal statement. A personal statement is a vehicle for pulling your thoughts together, explaining why you want/love to be a coach, and arguing for why you are an incredible candidate and valuable member of any team. Remember that bulleted list I mentioned above for your LoRs? It can come in handy here! You get about 3/4 of a page to really sell yourself. Tell about your professional journey, why you love the field of education, what makes you stand out, and the personal philosophies that guide you. This can also be somewhat of a draft that you can use for a cover letter. Those are trickier to write ahead of time, as you’d want to tailor it to the position or district to which you are applying, but having some key talking points or paragraphs pre-written is very advisable.
Once you have all these items pulled together, you’re ready to look for vacancies.
Searching for Vacancies
I have been an instructional coach for the past 6 years, and I have absolutely loved every minute of it. I knew it was a job that was tailor-fit to my interests and skills, and I am positively certain I want to continue in this leadership role. ‘Teacher Coaching’ has many faces and many names, and it seems that different districts have different definitions, expectations, and nomenclature for the position. In fact, even in my 6 years, my position has been revisioned and renamed at least 3 times. That is par for the course, and part of what makes that position so effective; you have to have the flexibility and growth mindset to engage in continuous improvement and adjusting to meet the needs in front of you.
The variety of philosophies, expectations, and terms used to describe an Instructional Coach can turn searching for a vacancy into a fun scavenger hunt. I’ve had success with all of the following terms: Instructional Coach, Literacy Coach, Teacher Leader, Teaching and Learning Coach – as well as different combinations and iterations of any of the following terms: staff development, coordinator, specialist, learning, coach, instruction, literacy, leader.
In Wisconsin, we utilize a platform called WECAN: Wisconsin Education Career Access Network. It is a one-stop-shop for posting vacancies, applying for positions, and recruiting. You upload all of the afore-mentioned documents, and you can apply to a school district directly on the site. Even thought WECAN is popular and widely used, not all districts use it as their primary touchpoint for publicizing vacancies or recruiting future employees. Be sure to check district websites in your area and look for an “Employment Opportunities” page. Even better, you may know someone in your desired district that has access to an internal job postings page, and they can update you on what is coming available. Don’t be afraid to network!
Preparing for an Interview
So you’ve applied for your dream position, and the team has reached out to invite you to an interview. How exciting! Great job!! When you make the appointment, be sure to ask if they’d like you to prepare anything. In the past, these are items I’ve been asked to bring:
A 10-minute presentation of self (Slidedeck on who I am as a person, professional, and what makes me the best candidate)
A 10-minute video answering specific questions such as 1. What are your top professional strengths? 2. What are the key features of an effective instructional coach? 3. What are key look-fors in literacy/math instruction?
We will provide you with a scenario, and we’d like you to role play and coach a teacher through this specific situation
Other times, I’ve just been invited to show up for a conversation. Let me let you in on a big secret here though: Never, ever show up empty handed or unprepared. It is very possible, and highly effective, for you to prepare for an interview and never go in blind.
In the instance where nothing was asked of me ahead of time, I still spent a good deal of time preparing for the interview by closely reading through the job posting. Look for sections where they list duties and responsibilities, key skills and abilities, position goals, qualifications, etc. Now imagine the interview team turning each of these bullet points into an interview question. Are you prepared to answer it and provide evidence and specific examples to bolster your claim? Start gathering your ideas, make notes or lists, rehearse some of your answers out loud, and get ready to glide in with your head held high.
Here is an example of what I mean. If the job posting says, “Collaborate with school and district literacy teams to develop and provide professional development,” I turn that into several sub questions such as:
Provide examples of times you have effectively collaborated with teams.
What are the key features of effective long-term professional development?
Talk about teams that you belong to and how you go about setting and reaching goals
How do you work effectively with various educators, from paraprofessionals to classroom teachers to administration?
In addition to this strategy of harvesting interview questions from the school district’s own words, you can also plan on being asked some pretty popular or standard coach interview questions. Here are some I have encountered multiple times:
Please give an example of a time you coached a teacher or team around a specific goal. (Be prepared to talk about coaching models or resources you use).
What role does data play in your professional practice?
How do you stay sharp/current in your field?
How would you respond to a student who is significantly behind their peers, or who is exhibiting disruptive behaviors in class?
How do you engage in continuous improvement?
Talk about a time when you handled conflict / pushback from a coworker.
What do you like to see when you walk into a classroom?
It is also very important to do you homework on the district, if you haven’t already. Look at their district website for indicators of any initiatives, a list of curricular resources the district uses (which could provide insight into their education philosophies), and be sure to reach out to anyone you know who is a member of the district. Ask them why they love working there!
Sometimes, you may get a question about your long term life or career goals. Where do you see yourself in X years? Is coaching your end game, or do you have higher career aspirations? And in your current coaching role, how do you plan to grow or extend your own learning (think about your PPG goals you’ve written for this question).
And lastly, you know that every interview ends the same way. “What questions do you have for us?” Always have a preloaded question. My go-to questions are typically aimed at better understanding any district philosophies or initiatives I learned about in my district research. You might ask about any ongoing longterm professional development that the staff are engaged in, or any specific professional learning goals that the school has already identified on the horizon for next year. I also love to ask what coaching models they use, or what a day-in-the-life of an instructional coach might look like. Remember interviews are two way streets, and you also want to make sure they are the right fit for you.
If you’ve followed all my advice above, you will be in excellent shape for your application and interview process. Since you are a high achieving individual and up for big challenges, I’m also going to suggest some extra credit options to really push you to be your best.
Check out local job fairs. I know what you’re thinking; these are for student teachers and recent college graduates. True, that’s who you’re mostly going to see there. However, I can’t think of a better way to get out there, network, meet people, and learn about districts in your area. You’ll likely get a few on-the-spot practice interviews as well to help you warm up. And my favorite part is that when you visit each table, you’ll probably walk away with a one-page flyer that has all the insider info on the district. You’ll get all of their stats, initiatives, pride points, and great material for preparing for your interview and cover letter. Bring plenty of copies of your resume. Before you go, make sure you’ve practiced a firm handshake. If you aren’t sure, ask your dad or grandpa!
Practice coaching with a colleague. Invent a scenario in which an educator is resistant, confused, unconfident, or not in alignment with a best practice or district initiative. Hold a mock conversation and practice coaching moves and strategies you would use to help that educator move past the obstacle.
Listen to this phenomenal podcast on Confidence. I have listened to it multiple times, and each time, I learn new tools for training my thoughts. As humans, we often tend to garner confidence by looking for evidence in our past experiences, actions, or results we achieved. For example, I know I’m excellent at pouring a glass of water because I’ve been doing it successfully for decades – I am very confidence in my ability to pour water. But what happens if I get asked to pour something into a glass I’ve never poured before, like gasoline? Can I be confident in my ability to do so, without any past experiences or results to point to? This is what it can feel like in an interview when you get lobbed a question about something you’ve never done before. You might have a moment of shock or fear, and your confidence might start to slip away. Just remember that confidence doesn’t need to come from evidence, it can come from within you. Have faith in your ability to learn, adapt, try, and not give up. Have confidence in your process, your resources or tools, in your personal drive, and in your ability to problem solve. Take a deep breath, and be the boss of your brain. You’ve already got all the tools you need to solve this, and have confidence in that!
Don’t forget to dress the part. I don’t know if this can be understated. At the job fairs I visited, I was really taken aback at what our newest educators felt constituted professional attire. I fully realize this makes me sound old and crusty, like the “get off my lawn” guy. However, I was not emotionally prepared for the jeans, t-shirts, flannels, tennis shoes, strapless short dresses, flip flops, and unkempt appearances I saw. Personally, I feel best in black slacks, a blouse, and a blazer. And yeah, even saying those 3 words made me feel old, but I still stand by them. I am sure to bring a pad of paper to take notes (even though I prefer to take notes on my phone, I don’t want to look as if I’m distracted by technology). I add some power earrings and nice lipstick, and I feel powerful and confident. Here I am at a recent job fair:
Remember, you’ve got this!! I’d love to hear any ideas or feedback or tips you have for preparing, applying, and interviewing. Please share your thoughts in the comments!
This is part 3 of a series on decodable texts. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 yet, go do your homework! 🙂
In Part 1, I discussed what decodables are and why we need them. In Part 2, I discussed criteria for evaluating decodable texts, instructional implications, professionally developing staff, and potential limitations or considerations.
You likely already have some decodables in your classroom or building, or know where you can get access to them. Be sure to carefully consider the criteria outlined in post 2 to determine if and how you can use them to promote student phonics learning. You might very well decide it’s time to say goodbye to a beloved resource that will no longer serve you or your students.
Over the course of this post, I will discuss the following popular resources:
Benchmark Flagship Decodable Readers
Decodable Fluency Readers
Pioneer Valley “Phonics Storybooks” Decodables
TCM Teacher Created Materials
Reading Rocket suggestions
UFLI decodables – these are free and online! Check out their Toolkit Resource page here and the Phonics S&S here. You’ll see a menu of lesson resources. Beginning with lesson 8, you’ll see you can click to download a decodable passage that is aligned to a phonics concept. Below is a screenshot of a lesson on short o. Notice how it is cumulative and includes short a and i, learned in lesson 10. UFLI is designed to be used universally, and you can purchase their manual for a very reasonable price (only $70!) for use with their generous and abundant free online presentations and resources.
Assets: Very instructive – clearly aligned to a research-based scope & sequence, paired with a targeted multi-sensory lesson and word work (ladders/chain). HIGH percentage of decodable words; the only words you need to pre-teach are the sight words ‘is’ ‘a’ and ‘the’ for this text. And they’re free!
Considerations: This story is not very comprehensible – there is no story structure, and some sentences are just plain silly (A man is not a fan?). It’s definitely not engaging – no illustrations, exciting or even cohesive topic upon which to build a discussion. However, the box is provided for students to illustrate and label (yay writing!) to show their comprehension, which is a very productive and engaging task. This text is very short.
2. Benchmark Flagship Decodable Readers or “BEC Decodables” – Yes, these are written by the guru himself, Wiley Blevins. The books are sold as a set – 39 Kindergarten books and 72 First Grade books. They are available in digital format (free with purchase), Spanish, and as take home B&W consumables (extra cost). There are several titles aligned with each phonics skill, which means students can have multiple practice opportunities. Bottom line: I think these belong in every single Kindergarten and First Grade classroom across the nation. These would be best used for universal instruction and tier 2 intervention.
Assets: Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence provided here, which provides the phonics target skill as well as aligned HFWs you’ll want to pre-teach. The clarity of the S&S means you can easily align it to your existing curricular resources. Each book is at minimum 85% decodable. Very engaging – the topics are fun, illustrations are beautiful and high quality, and the story structures are easy to identify. The inclusion of science and social studies topics means you can provide background knowledge and cross curricular support, as well as have worthwhile material for comprehension and discussion.
Considerations: The Kindergarten books will include a rebus to support students in reading story or content words (like ‘airplane’). In the First Grade set, you’ll encounter more story or content words that students will need to figure out, either with picture support or instruction.
3. Benchmark Decodable Fluency Readers – Another product from BEC vetted by the guru himself, Wiley Blevins. There are 30 titles for Kindergarten, and 54 titles for 1st grade. Just like the Flagship decodables, they are sold only in sets. They are available in digital format (extra cost), and as take home B&W consumables (extra cost). Each title comes with a Teacher Card that outlines phonemic awareness activities, HFW activities (read, spell, write), and discussion questions (literal, inferential, making connections). These would be best used for universal instruction and tier 2 intervention. Why are these called “fluency” readers? From what I surmise, the premise is that strengthening phonics skills via decodable practice (and supporting activities) will help students master and transfer these skills from controlled text to authentic reading. If done well, I believe that is the purpose of all decodable books, so this term “decodable fluency readers” seems redundant. Bottom line: I’d also gladly purchase these for each Kindergarten and First Grade classroom. If I had to choose between these and the Flagship Decodables above, I’d go with the Flagship.
Assets: Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence provided here, which provides the phonics target skill as well as aligned HFWs you’ll want to pre-teach. The publishers claim it is “aligned to the Science of Reading research.” The clarity of the S&S means you can easily align it to your existing curricular resources. Engaging illustrations with a story premise, characters, and a problem.
Considerations: You have to buy the entire set, and can’t pick individual books. These are not available in Spanish, as were the Flagship Decodables. They don’t feel as comprehensible as the Flagship books – a bit looser in terms of premise and story elements. I feel the Flagship books could be used for intervention in 2nd grade and beyond, but these Fluency Decodables are best developmentally for K/1st.
4. Pioneer Valley “Phonics Storybooks” Decodables I’ve already grown to know and love the Pioneer Valley books. They have such beautiful illustrations, high quality books, varying styles, engaging topics, series with familiar and repeating characters, chapter books, and we can count on them to be accurately leveled. Books are available online with Digital Literacy Footprints, which includes accompanying resources like running records and guided reading lesson plans. If you already know you love PV, then you’re going to love these decodables.
The decodables are organized into 4 levels: Level 1 Ready, Set, Go! – Novice Readers Phonics Skill Focus: Initial and Final Consonant Sounds and Short Vowels. Helps novice readers develop concept of print, one-to-one matching, return sweep. Level 2 On Our Way – Beginning Readers Phonics Skill Focus: Short Vowels, Initial/Final Digraphs, and Initial Blends. Level 3 Building Up – Early Readers Phonics Skill Focus: Final Blends, Long Vowels, and Vowel Teams Level 4 Moving On – Transitional Readers Phonics Skill Focus: Vowel teams, Vowel–r Combinations, Trigraphs, and Diphthongs
Considerations: I’m going to start with considerations first, because they will influence the assets that I want to focus on. I really enjoyed levels 1 & 2, and found them to be very clear, consistent, aligned, instructive, and comprehensible. I would be very glad to purchase these to use in my classroom library or sets to use as a shared resource for small group instruction. However, levels 3 & 4 no longer felt like phonics readers. Many even seemed to be the same books I already use from their main library, just relabeled as a decodable with a few phonics words as the focus. As you can see in the picture below, the leap from level 2 (middle) to level 3 (top) is huge, with much more text, punctuation, and content. Out of 85 words on the page, only 4 words (5%) contained the target ‘oo’ phonics skill. The rest appeared to be fair play words – previously learned phonics skills, sight words, and a few story/content words (i.e. “principal”). There is balance or trade-off in all things; to get this highly engaging, quality illustrations and storyline, it is at the cost of phonics practice opportunities. However, you do get a longer controlled text for practicing fluency, as well as review. Consider your goals. Finally, the only genre offered is fiction.
Assets: (Speaking only about levels 1 & 2) Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence which will allow you to easily match up texts with your phonics S&S. The sight words are clearly listed and are cumulative. The illustrations and storylines are very engaging, and readers will appreciate the familiar characters and attention to comprehensibility. Books are also available in digital format, which is great for home connection.
5. Little Blossom Stories – These decodables come from Cherry Blossom Press, which you may have heard of. There are 135 books in the set (which can be purchased individually, unlike all of the sets described above), and the publisher claims that the interest level of these books are Pre-K through 2nd grade. Each book has a Lexile level and a Guided Reading Level (A-C) which I actually find suspicious. As I mentioned in Part 1, decodables have an entirely different purpose and simply do not align to guided reading levels. Decodables are controlled texts aligned to a phonics scope and sequence and meant to provide phonics practice opportunities, whereas Leveled Texts are aligned to the developmental journey of the reader, and gradually become more challenging in terms of literary elements, text features, vocabulary, and longer and more complex sentences and plots. Decodables are meant to be rehearsal for Leveled Texts; they are not the same. I could not find the phonics S&S easily accessible online. The publisher claims that each book contains at least two vowels as the phonics focus. There is a 1-page “Teacher’s Guide” you can download at the top of this page here, which provides some extension activities. Note: I do not agree that making predictions is a best practice for building comprehension, so I disagree with that suggestion in the teaching guide.
Assets: There is a word list at the end of each book to check for identification in isolation. The entire text is rewritten on one-page at the end, which is great for fluency practice, older students who might be embarrassed to read a book with illustrations, or a quick running record for accuracy and WPM rate. The illustrations are adorable, and you could have a discussion around the book.
Considerations: I do not find these books instructive in that I cannot locate a scope and sequence. If you were going to purchase these to support your Phonics S&S, you’d have a lot of work to do to align the materials. There seem to be quite a few non-phonetic and story/content words used to help create a more engaging plot. I cannot comment on sight words as I was unable to locate a schedule for them. The pages are very thin and stick together.
6. Beanstalk Science Decodables – So many decodables are fiction, so it’s kind of exciting to see some intentional nonfiction! After all, students really love learning content, which is a major driving factor for learning to read. There are 60 different science-based titles, which are organized by “Phase” (explained further here). These books should take you through Phases 2-6 as follows: 2. letter sounds (short vowels, most consonants, and double ff, ll, ss), 3. “phonics” (less common consonant sounds, digraphs, common vowel teams), 4. blends (CCVC, CCVCC with short vowels, CCCVC and CVCCC with long vowels) 5. “vowel sounds” (more vowel teams, silent e, diphthongs), 5.5. sound families (more vowel teams, multiple spellings of a sound, r-blends) and 6. affixes. This doesn’t match up to any S&S or developmental progression that I am familiar with. However, each phase set includes 12 books and is only $29.99, so it wouldn’t break the bank to buy several sets and Frankenstein together the books you’d need to cover your own curricular progression. Be careful to match up what’s provided and where your gaps are, as it’s possible that not all of your phonics elements will have an accompanying decodable. Bottom line: I wouldn’t use this as my primary source of decodables, but these would be great additions to my collection. I’d love to see them in student’s book bins, or I might use them for small group instruction and extended practice, especially for Tier 2/3 in upper elementary.
Assets: Science content! Very engaging to students, and could be used to support cross-curricular science learning. This makes great content for discussion and building language. These books provide an excellent opportunity to teach Tier 3 content specific vocabulary. Inside the cover of each book, you’ll find the phonics elements that are the focus of the book, a list of “tricky” words (which can be sight words, HFW, vocabulary terms…), and some instruction ideas for engaging in discussion or language building. These decodables would be very high interest for upper elementary students.
Considerations: Instructive… question mark? I’m not fully on board with the phase organization system. You’ll have to carefully vet the books and cross walk them with your own curricular progression to know where books will line up or where you could find some alignment. I could not find a document that outlines each book with a phonics focus and “tricky word” schedule. You’ll have to be on your toes! But if you are only planning to use these for independent reading, specially designed instruction, or intervention, then this may not be as important to you. This series is limited to the nonfiction genre.
7. Targeted Phonics by TCM Teacher Created Material. This series contains a kit for each grade Pre-K through 2nd grade. You are purchasing more than just books here – you get a student practice workbook and basically an entire Phonics Block. Each kit contains 21 books.
In their own implementation research study, the developers explain that levels Pre-K and K are meant to be used as universal instruction, and 1st and 2nd are designed to be used as intervention (this surprises me, as you would think you’d still be teaching universal phonics at those grade levels, right?). They explain that their kits are aligned to a systematic phonics S&S. Instead of the phonics schedule I’ve come to expect where each skill is aligned to a book title, I was able to find a broader explanation of how kits are designed and progress from easier to more complex elements (kind of reminds me of Beanstalk and their phases).
A specific breakdown of the phonics elements covered in each kit can be found starting on page 18 of this document. The lesson plans provided include phonemic awareness, letter formation activities, ideas for your literacy centers, comprehension activities at higher levels (i.e. retelling, connection, prediction, literal and inferential questions), discussion and oral language practice, vocabulary activities, some grammar and punctuation instruction at higher levels, repeated reading for fluency, and extension and differentiation ideas. The high frequency words come from Dolch and Fry lists, which are listed within the book and in lesson plan. They truly are decodables in that the vast majority of the words are decodable, and there are some story/content words which they call “challenge words.”
There is a lot of research and supplemental materials presented on their website, which means you’ll have access to an entire instructional program. They’re really done their homework, truly. In their Research Base, they cite all of the gurus and seminal works, from Ehri and Blevins and Yopp to ILA and Shanahan and Duke & Cartwright. They’ll also provide correlation studies to your own state standards by grade level.
Assets: It’s a whole program, not just the books. it is very instructive, and carefully researched and designed. The language of the books is aligned to what they claim – the majority of the words are decodable, there are a few clearly identified sight or HFWs, and some story/content or “challenge” words to help drive the plot. The books are colorful, cheerful, and engaging in that there are characters and actions and that connect into a story. A classroom kit is around $900, which isn’t as much as some other comprehensive kits.
Considerations: Books are only sold in kits. This would replace any other phonics materials you have, so you would only need to align this to your reading and writing materials. The books themselves have a lot of repetition and patterned sentences, which you may feel flavors a students ability to decode without relying on context. The lesson plans include running record protocols for your use, which have an MSV error analysis (and you might have big feelings about the cueing system, in which case you could just ignore that part). These really are for early and emergent readers, and won’t be well-tolerated by upper elementary.
8. Lerner “Phonics Fun” Books: These caught my eye as I thought about particular students and the kinds of books they enjoy reading. First of all, please know that there are only 8 books (however, peruse Lerner and you’ll find many more phonics and decodable options). An entire set of paperback will cost you only about $70. You can also buy hardcover and e-book multi-user versions. The books are meant to be funny, silly, and engaging with cute rhymes. They focus only on short vowel patterns, and they are only available in fiction. This would not constitute a comprehensive series of decodables to build your curriculum or intervention by any means. However, these would be affordable and cute books to add to your classroom library and book bins. I see these appealing to students universally in grades K-1, and in small group or intervention in grade 2. Below is their published S&S.
Lerner publishing offers many free teaching resources you could peruse to support instruction.
Assets: Engaging – silly, funny, highly appealing to specific students, probably even striving readers in 2nd and beyond. Colorful, high quality books. Instructive in that they accomplish what they promise – highly decodable and focused solely on the phonics patterns listed. Lots of picture support. There are plenty of teaching resources if you have the time to peruse and choose. The title is a pretty accurate communication of which phonics skill you’ll be learning about.
Considerations: There are only 8 books, so this is meant to be seeded into your classroom library and book bins. These aren’t systematic or sequential, as they are not really a program. You’ll get to align them and fit them in as they best suit you and your students’ needs.
9. Reading Rocket suggestions – On their website, RR shares a list of “Decodable Text Sources” that might be worth checking out. I see BOB books top of the list, which are very popular among family libraries at home. The list is organized by age, which is very useful. Check it out!
10. UFLI suggestions – On the UFLI website, the very generous researchers have provided this google sheet to help you find resources and see how they align to their own phonics scope and sequence. Need more resources on the /sh/ digraph? Just head on down to row 60 (item 45) and you can find about 16 different publishers that have materials to suit your needs. I will list all of the resources below that I haven’t already covered in this blog post, and add a star if they are also referenced by Reading Rockets in the list shared above. You may want to check them out!
I hope this review has given you some food for thought and some direction to help you make some purchases. If you are a classroom teacher, perhaps you’ve found some ideas above for using your classroom budget to seed your classroom library, and/or collaborate with your peers to build a collection of shared resources. If you are in a leadership position, hopefully you’ve found some inspiration to foster a clear universal phonics program that includes carefully vetted and intentionally selected decodables that align with your S&S, philosophy, and student needs.
Hopefully, you’ve read my previous post about the purpose and features of decodable texts. You get it, you’re on board, and you’re ready to make some choices and purchases, or just weed your own collection.
Decodables have come a long way in the past 5-ish years, even though we’ve known for a long time that the products on the market have needed a serious spit-shine. Back in 1985, in “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” the Reading Commission acknowledged that “American people ought to expect and should demand better reading primers for their children” (p. 48).
In fact, the report identified three essential features of Reading Primers (decodable texts). They must be: 1) interesting 2) comprehensible 3) instructive
These seem like very straightforward and simple criteria. Let’s break them down: I’ll assume “Interesting” is self-explanatory. “Comprehensible” means that the books should tell ‘complete, interesting stories.’ The report explains that, given the limited word selection in a typical early phonics reader, comprehension can also be built through the use of pictures, information that the teacher supplies, and through discussion (I’m taking this to mean lots of inferencing, guided reading questions, and thoughtful extension questions). “Instructive” implies that the book contain an abundance of words that showcase learned phonics patterns, giving students ample practice opportunities with the target skill.
The report urges decodable authors to use not only familiar and high interest topics, but also familiar sentence structures that mirror speech (Goodbye weirdly constructed sentences like “See the van.”). We should also reasonable expect familiar story elements such as characters, setting, and a problem. Since children very quickly pick up on story structure, even before formal schooling, this is also what makes the decodable texts “interesting.”
Before you begin to review decodable books, I urge you to consider sit down with your team and discuss what qualities and criteria matter most to you (and perhaps align to district initiatives or your personal philosophies). Do you feel strongly about equity of representation? How important is it to balance fiction and nonfiction selections?
Wiley Blevins has created a thorough and SoR aligned rubric for evaluating decodable texts, which is published through Benchmark Education. You can find the rubric here. Check out section II on the 2nd page: Phonics/Decodable Readers. We see that the categories are designed around the 3 criteria established in the “Becoming a Nation of Readers” report: Comprehensible, Instructive, and Engaging. Blevins has also added some ‘good’/’bad’ examples for comparison.
If you and your team are interested in using this rubric as a starting point, but want to add additional criteria, I’d really encourage you to develop an extended rubric that considers the following:
Does the sequence of phonics patterns ‘mostly’ align with our current materials, and/or can we adapt and adjust to any misalignments? (nothing will ever be perfect, but look for any red flags)
Is the series cumulative (all prior patterns are fair game), and does it have spiraling and repetition? Is that something we desire?
When we compare the phonics scope of the text set with our main instructional resource, are there any gaps or phonics patterns that are overlooked or missed?
Does the sequence of sight words / HFWs ‘mostly’ align with our current pacing, and/or are we going to need to adapt and adjust to any misalignments? (note: decodables do tend to push up the schedule and introduce words faster in order to make stories more natural and comprehensible)
Is there a balance of fiction and nonfiction texts? Is that something we value?
Do the topics and representations align with our philosophies for equity and developmentally appropriate content?
How will this text set best fit in our instructional practices? Will this resource be valuable as an addition to our classroom libraries, useful for small group instruction, earmarked for intervention, or added as a shared building resource?
How Many Decodable Books Will We Need?
This will largely depend on how and with whom you are going to use them (and how much budget you have!). Additionally, some publishers allow you to mix and match and buy individual books, while others sell books in a set or series.
If I were purchasing for myself to use as a classroom teacher, I’d first choose a product that I know would be great for small group instruction, and I’d aim to order around 5 of each book. I’d also like an additional series that I could flex into my classroom library to become part of book shopping. Typically, I like to see my early readers have a book box with at least 7 books in them, and I’d love it if at least 2 (ideally more) of those could be decodables. Since I like my students to book shop weekly to biweekly, and there are 40 weeks in the school year (times 25 ish students)… this purchase order adds up really quickly! You likely won’t be able to purchase all that you want in one go, but think about how you can slowly seed your collection over time (or collaborate with your colleagues and contribute to a grade level collection in a common space).
If I were purchasing for my entire building and I had a Caviar Budget, I’d aim to purchase a variety of sets that included a) sets that can be incorporated into classroom libraries in Kindergarten and First Grade b) sets of 5 to support small group instruction for Kindergarten through Second Grade c) a specific earmarked set only to be used in reading intervention if one doesn’t already exist and d) additional copies of everything that lives in a shared resource space accessible by special educators and other support staff such as ESL, Speech and Language, etc.
After purchasing your decodable texts, you will need to professionally develop your team around the new resource. You will need to consider the following as you design your PL series:
What is a decodable? How do they compare to other texts we use? (leveled readers, trade books, guided reading or shared reading books)
Why are they experiencing renewed importance?
What is the end goal of using decodables? How do they contribute to student reading success?
When should we use them and with whom? How do they fit in with our universal curriculum and intervention?
What criteria do we value when selecting decodables?
Limitations of Decodables
Let’s consider some limitations of decodables. First, they are not leveled and will not align to a book leveling system. There are several different book-leveling systems (F&P, Lexile, RAZ, DRA, Rigby…) that take various criteria into consideration including quantitative features (ex: word length and frequency, sentence length) and qualitative features (ex: length, language conventionality and clarity, literary elements and text structure, supportive illustrations, knowledge demands, and development or maturity demands). Decodables are designed for a different purpose, and they simply will not align. You may be surprised to see more text per page, new punctuation types, a return sweet, and other features introduced in a decodable that you have not yet covered universally in the reading block. It is okay! Students will adapt and overcome, and you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised. You can either use this as an opportunity to gently recognize some new features or elements, or simply maintain focus on the mission at hand: practicing our phonics features.
Another limitation is that decodables are not designed to develop a student’s vocabulary or background knowledge. (Books have different purposes, and that’s the purpose of our trade books!) That is why we talk about decodables as structured practice and ‘rehearsal’ for the ultimate goal of reading engaging authentic texts. However, instruction with decodables doesn’t need to be a missed opportunity to learn new concepts and words! In his very instructive youtube video linked here, Wiley Blevins shares some innovative ideas for elevating vocabulary and discussion around a text. If you know you are going to be reading a decodable about frogs, let’s say, then why not pair it with a grade level informational text about frogs that you can read aloud to the class? In doing so, you are helping them (and hopefully guiding and modeling for them) to make deeper neural connections and build background knowledge across texts. Then scaffold them to draw upon that knowledge through the thoughtful discussion, follow-up questions, and language activities that you design. Wiley also suggests selecting an academic Tier 2 word to pre-teach and accompany the text set. For the book on frogs, he suggests perhaps ‘habitat’ might fit the bill. It’s not in the story, but can be used to talk about and reinforce the story. A story about a little girl going on a trip? Maybe this is a great opportunity to connect to the word ‘explore’ and make connections.
Instructing with Decodables
So you’ve chosen a decodable book that reinforces the phonics skill you just taught, and you’ve invited 4 students to your kidney table. Now what? What is the best way to go about reading and utilizing this tool? There are several instructional protocols and strategies I will share below. One element they all share are that students are going to have multiple exposures to the same book over a period of time. Over multiple reads, students can transition their focus from automaticity and accuracy to fluency and comprehension.
Achieve the Core is a nonprofit organization the provides resources and support for implementing standards-based best practices. You can download their protocol here. I read this graphic starting on the right end of the spectrum and moving left.
Depending on the needs of the students I’ve placed in my small group, I’d likely start with a book preview, but I’d skip the “Teacher reads, students follow.” I love Heidi Ann Mesmer’s perspective on her blog post “The Do’s and Don’ts of Decodable Books.” She explains, “If the texts are matched to knowledge, there has been some decoding practice, and a book walk is done, students should be ready to read.” Avoid the trappings of past practices, and let our students engage in productive struggle!
Wiley Blevins protocol contains many of the same elements, including:
Whisper Read (circulate and listen in)
Choral Read (together)
Echo Read (provide extra support and/or model an aspect of fluency, i.e. expression)
Reread to build fluency
Focus on comprehension (ask for an inference, find a detail and support with evidence, elicit the use a Tier 2 vocabulary word you’ve pre-taught)
Writing follow-up and Encoding (often a huge missed opportunity! Retelling, extend the story, write to a prompt about the story, complete a sentence stem that forces the use of the target phonics skill.)
Encoding: Use Elkonin boxes, word building with word ladders, and dictation)
A week schedule in Wiley Blevins class might look like this:
In a phonics system such as Orton Gillingham, decodable texts are part of the daily lesson plan. After each new phonics concept is taught, readers have the opportunity to read a short paragraph. There are no illustrations and, in my opinion, also a lack of story structure – it’s simply a contrived paragraph designed to provide the maximum opportunity to practice the target phonics skill. In the first read, the student is focusing on accuracy. In subsequent reads, they are focusing on improving their fluency and comprehension. There are follow-up questions for which the reader will need to revisit the story and possibly reread yet again, including completing a sentence stem with a word that showcases the target skill. There are also explicit questions that require the reader to draw upon details from the text, as well as inferential and connection questions. I would not consider the OG decodables to fit into the ‘decodable reader’ category of what you want to purchase for universal use with your students. It is part of an intervention system, not your classroom library. I do want to highlight for your consideration how phonics systems may align with the structures discussed above by Achieve the Core and Wiley Blevins in their shared goals of phonics application within a text, multiple readings, fluency practice, and comprehension.
Some considerations or cautions for decodable instruction:
Don’t forget to review! We can get so micro focused on the phonics skill highlighted in this week’s lesson and decodable that we forget to hold ourselves accountable for all previously learned skills. In a phonics program like Orton Gillingham, each lesson includes an “Old Review” of the concepts learned 2 lessons ago, and a “New Review” of the concepts learned in the last lesson. This is a great framework to consider when designing your lessons! Whenever a previously learned phonics pattern pops up, think of it as an opportunity and a gift.
I have had the pleasure of watching a fellow reading specialist deliver a ‘short a’ phonics lesson that included application practice with a decodable text. The students were on one of their first of several rereads of the book, and I noticed they were making quite a few errors. The urge to stop and correct them was palpable – even I wanted to spring into action as an observer. And yet, the reading specialist was calm and quiet, and let students finish an entire sentence. Put yourself in the student’s shoes, and think about what it must do to not only your cognitive processes but to your confidence to be constantly interrupted and forced to recon with your many errors. Furthermore, these are students who have been pulled for an intervention, and the may have already built emotional walls with reading. The reading specialist explained to me that over the years, she has learned to suppress her urge to correct every mistake, and instead carefully listens and prioritizes her feedback to focus on the phonics skill at hand, or any egregious patterns that need correction (ex: consistently missing a HFW that you have taught, or forgetting to tap/swipe which results in missing words).
In my next blog post, I will put all of this learning into action as I share with you my insights about a few different decodable products that I’ve recently reviewed.
Have you noticed an uptick in the use of the word ‘decodables’ recently – whether in the media, your professional learning, or in the teachers’ lounge? You’re in good company! Decodables (also called Phonics Readers, controlled texts, basal readers, or primer readers) are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in education, due largely to the prevalence of new research on how the brain learns to read and what this means for best practice in literacy instruction.
This topic is going to be covered across 3 blog posts. In the first post, I want to review the features and purpose of decodable texts, discuss why we’re hearing so much about them in media and research these days, and explain why they are such an important tool that we need to incorporate into our instruction. In the second post, I will discuss how you (and your team) can make a game plan for reviewing and selecting the best decodables to use in your classroom or add to your shared building resources. In the third post, I will share my insights about a few different decodable products that I’ve recently reviewed, and hopefully give you some ideas to make some thoughtful purchases.
Depending on how many years you’ve lived on this planet, or how many years you’ve been in education, I’m willing to bet you’ve had experience with decodables in the past. Perhaps you’ve read (or at least heard of) ‘Dick and Jane’ books like the sample below.
What are some words that come to mind when you think about decodables? For myself as an early reader, I categorized them as boring, contrived, nonsense, fake or ‘practice’ books. The words used were overused (“Why is every book about a cat? I don’t even like cats.”) or of low-utility to me (How often do you have the chance to use words like ‘hex’ or ‘jut’ as a 7-year-old?). I did not find them engaging, and I was much more interested in getting my hands on a colorful picture book. I know there are many attitudes and experiences that readers can have with decodable books, which can also elicit a positive sense of comfort and pride for emerging readers. Equally, classroom teachers can also have a wide range of attitudes, experience, and perceived value in using decodable texts in their instruction. For myriad reasons, decodables have taken a backseat in classroom instruction over the past several decades, and were no longer considered a standard resource.
The impact of Science of ReadingResearch
These past few years, the phrase “Science of Reading” has worked its way into every aspect of education from professional learning (I’m personally taking a “Science of Reading” book study seminar with my local Cooperative Educational Service Agency), and university course offerings (I’ve had to update and realign several syllabi and course objectives to align with new research) and resources (“Buy this Science of Reading aligned product!”) to movies (“The Truth about Reading”) and podcasts (“Sold a Story”), Facebook groups, and everything in between. I have friends who don’t have children or aren’t even in the field of education reaching out to ask me what I know and what I think about SoR. In short… unless you live in a remote village without wifi access, you’ve been punched in the face with the Science of Reading topic.
What the Science of Reading refers to is this new body of research about how the brain learns to read – it taps into findings from linguistics, cognitive and educational neuroscience, and educational psychology. It is not a program or a method or an agenda – it’s simply a body of knowledge that is engaging the field of education to reexamine what we believe and how we teach reading. It has drastically shifted our focus to the importance of systematic and sequential phonics instruction for early and emergent readers, from Kindergarten through about 2nd grade (and likely beyond).
In my tenure as an educator, I have seen the focus on emerging and early reading as primarily focused on using engaging, authentic books, language and conversation, and modeling reading strategies in a Workshop Model. The goal is to get books in student’s hands and to help them see themselves as successful, confident, skilled readers that can think about, talk about, and enjoy reading. And to that end, we’ve been using tools like highly engaging trade books with patterns ( “See the ___. See the ___.”) and teaching students to use initial sounds and picture clues (“Hmm.. it starts with /f/ and it’s green. What could it be? Yes, a frog!”) to help them get up and running with books and persevere past tricky parts. We teach students to automatically recognize the most useful “Snap Words” or High Frequency Words (“the” “and” “what”…) that they are likely to encounter in their books. As we learn letter sounds, we guide students in noticing the first letter and identifying the sound it makes to “get your mouth ready” to say the word. We model and guide their practice with strategies like previewing a text, making connections, asking questions, and retelling. (It should be noted that new research has shown us that using strategies like “Sammy Skip It” and come back to it, and over reliance on picture clues, is actually a harmful habit to teach students and should be avoided in reading instruction).
You might be thinking, “That all sounds great, but what about phonics instruction? Didn’t you just say that new research tells us it’s like… super important?” Yes! Children HAVE been getting phonics instruction all along. Reading, Writing, and Phonics study are a tripod – three legs that are balanced and hold up Effective Literacy. I still strongly support the workshop model as described above, and I believe the ultimate goal of reading IS to get students talking about and loving great books that challenge and excite them. I ALSO understand and agree with the movement to incorporate more deliberate, systematic, and sequential phonics instruction into literacy. Through workshop, students are introduced to phonics patterns that are then deliberately reinforced during Reading and Writing blocks.
In order to get the most leverage out of our phonics skill practice, we need students to linger in the transition between phonics and reading where they can apply what they’ve learned with controlled texts (decodable books) and encoding practice (phoneme grapheme mapping, spelling) of that same skill. This rehearsal or sheltered practice must happen BEFORE they are able to be successful with any other kind of book (authentic, trade, or leveled book). The goal of reading engaging authentic texts has not changed, but the path must become reinforced with more deliberate phonics practice.
Features of Decodables
What are some features of controlled texts or decodables? How are they different from other kinds of books? There are three categories of words that readers encounter in a decodable, ranked in order or prevalence: 1) phonetically regular words that are able to be sounded out based on phonics skills that have been taught (ex: CVC words, final e words…) 2) high frequency words (HFW) or sight words that have irregular patterns (ex: what, you) 3) story or content words (ex: chair, bicycle). You’ll see a lot of different opinions on the ratio or percentage of the categories of words in a book, but all researchers agree that the majority should be from category 1: phonetically predictable words that follow the focus pattern. This gives students the maximized opportunity for practicing the target skill.
It seems reasonable to expect that a decodable series would follow a clearly defined scope and sequence of phonics features – typically this means starting with short CVC words with short vowel sounds (cat, tin, mop) and progressing to digraphs (ch, th, sh) and so on. Each book should focus on only one target phonics skill. Many series are cumulative, meaning any previously learned phonics feature is fair game in all subsequent books. These books are intentionally designed to promote phonics mastery, and are intended to be used for a limited time during structure lessons.
By now, it should be pretty clear why decodables are a MUST for emerging and early literacy instruction.
They offer students extended practice and application with a phonics skill.
They discourage students from developing habits such as guessing based on pictures or context.
They follow a systematic progression that is mutually reinforced by the reading and writing curriculum.
They hold students and teachers accountable for for transferring and practicing phonics skills in a structured, supportive context.
They are an critical rehearsal step on the road to fluent reading of authentic texts.
They build student confidence and self-efficacy and enjoyment of reading.
Incorporating Decodables into the Curriculum
For what grade levels are decodables helpful and appropriate? Most decodable books or systems will say they are designed for universal instruction in Kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms, at a minimum. Some extend to 2nd grade. Outside of universal instruction, they can also be used to support small group or Tier 2 / 3 interventions for higher grades, as long as the content is developmentally appropriate (not too babyish and won’t cause emotional harm). I really appreciate this image from Wiley Blevins that shows us how decodable texts are most critical in the early grades and phase out as students are more independent and successful with transferring their skills to authentic leveled texts. And all along, we see the importance of trade book read alouds at every grade level. We must always be reading high quality, rigorous grade level material to our students to model and instruct with reading strategies, provide language and thinking practice, and develop cognitive and executive functioning skills agnostic of phonics mastery.
I’m in! Now what?
I’m sure we can all agree that decodables have a primed and welcomed space in our classrooms. And yet, there’s a very real reason why they quietly seemed to disappear from our consciousness over the past several decades. They were of such poor quality, and nobody liked them! I was gifted some really old phonics readers for my own children at home, and I hated them so much that I tossed them. I thought – if I’m going to snuggle and read to my little children at night, at least I want to read them something we can enjoy and discuss. I was clearly very misinformed, and I wasn’t playing the long game of having support materials at home when my children started school. I also don’t blame myself, because they were really, really boring and stilted and… weird.
What you might love to learn, as I did, is that decodables have come a long way in recent years. Publishers are paying attention to the demand and churning out some very high quality readers that you are going to enjoy. In my next blog post, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of what makes a “good” decodable, and how to make selections that will suit your needs.
I’d love to share one of my favorite holiday traditions: Book Advent.
My 2 girls each open one book every night leading up to Christmas. We cuddle and read them before bed, and add them to our ever-growing home library.
I select and save them all year round, gathering from Scholastic book fairs, Books4Schools, Amazon, conferences or workshops, a local bookstore, or wherever life takes me. Last year, our Book Advent was filled with board books, this year with paperback picture books, and next year we will start to see chapter books – I love to reflect on how our family reading life evolves.
If you have a fun family tradition like this, I’d love to hear about it!
I recently attended a seminar entitled “Screens: Success or Sabotage for Schools? A Discussion of Children, Screens, and Learning Confirmation” hosted by our local CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency). The speaker, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, is affiliated with UW Madison, Department of Pediatrics, and UW School of Medicine & Public Health.
As a Literacy Coach for grades 4K – 5, I was excited to engage in a conversation about Screen Usage and learning for our littlest learners, especially in this time of remote “virtual” learning and a Covid-19 world.
I went in with my educator hat on, expected a deep conversation about tablets, apps, and digital learning, but I was surprised to find that I was wearing my parenting hat more often through the conversation. I do believe the presentation was geared toward ages 0-5, and yet I had several important takeaways that will impact how I view digital learning in the school environment.
Perhaps my most important takeaway was learning about the Orienting Response, a term coined by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. In short, OR is a human reflex or response to changes in the environment. For example, if the door to your room suddenly opened, you would engage in OR and be compelled to look. Our youngest children, ages 0-24, may seem like they are enjoying watching digital media, but they are likely in a stunned state of Orienting Response, reacting to rapid changes that compel them to look, but make little sense and do nothing to advance their growth or development.
Other takeaways I made that will impact my work coaching elementary literacy are understanding why digital media is more appropriate in later elementary grades (3-4-5) than early elementary (K-1-2), and a better understanding of appropriate content for young learners – slow pacing, modeling human thoughts and conversation, encouraging language development, and helping children make sense of the world around us.
Research-based findings and historical data:
Dr. Navsaria shared several important statistics to help contextualize screen media use by age, demographic, purpose, and other metrics. I learned the following (based on 2011-2017 data):
What kinds of screens? Children (ages 0-8) are using mobile devices more than TV / DVD.
What are children doing online? In order of prevalence: Watching videos / Youtube, Playing games, Using apps, Watching TV/movies, Reading books.
Why are devices being used during parent/child time? In short, to occupy children or parents (2013 data). In order of prevalence devices are being used…while parents/children are running errands together, while parent is doing chores, to occupy parent while child plays, to occupy child when parent is at a meeting, class, or other activity.
Parents care. Lower income families have higher screen media usage, however all parents (across racial and economic demographics) strongly agree that time should be limited/lowered.
Common Concerns about Screen Time and small children:
Is screen time bad for the eyes? Research doesn’t really support that screen usage damages eyes. Sorry! Personally, I do notice that children don’t blink as much while on screens, so there might be a drying effect, but no long term damage like our parents always warned us about.
Is screen time detrimental to development? Screen time displaces both creative play and sleep. It interferes with human interaction (this includes co-viewing – even when parent and child are viewing the media together, they aren’t necessarily interacting). Remember that interactions are what drive development. Screen usage, even when just on in the background, results in decreased child-directed language.
Does screen time cause ADD/ADHD? In ages 0-3, excessive screen time can raise the risk of inattention later in life. The good news? This affect can be counteracted by quality cognitive stimulation. The key factor is the content of the screen time programming. Consider the following 3 general categories of content: “Educational” content (good) “Entertainment” content (neutral), and “Violent” (negative). Also consider the pacing of the program (ex: rapid scene changes, flashes). Programs like Mr. Rogers that are slow, long scenes, and show conversation and human interaction are considered a gold standard as both educational and slow paced. Programs like Power Rangers with violence and rapid paced scene changes are worth avoiding.
But aren’t some programs “good” for kids?
The term “educational” isn’t protected. Anyone can create a product and call it educational or enriching. There are no metrics for this. Prime example: Baby Einstein.
Some programs (e.g. Sesame Street) have benefits: improved social skills, school readiness. The program structure allows for flexibility and repetition, which leads to increased attention. BUT keep in mind that it’s aimed at the average 4-year-old. Young children (under 18-30 months) learn better from live persons than from video. Not sure why, but that is what research shows. After 18-30 months, children start to pay more attention to screens and the language.
What about e-readers and e-books?
Print is print, regardless of how you consume it. HOWEVER… there are a few things to consider when selecting high-quality e-books for children. Dr. Navsaria encourages making sure the books have high-quality illustrations. He also cautions against e-books with many “enhancements”, or embedded multimodal elements, which can distract from comprehension (e.g. embedded videos, definitions, captions, pop-ups, etc.).
So should we try to discourage screen time with children under 8 years old?
In short…. No. This is a losing battle. There will always be a need for digital media and screen time. Instead of discouraging use, encourage selecting appropriate high-quality content (educational, non violent, slow-paced, conversational, purposeful) and co-viewing – view the media with your child and discuss it with them, during or after, to enhance cognitive development. Encourage conversation and child-led language opportunities. Incorporate what you learn from media into child-led play time and interactions. Help your child make sense of their world.
Final recommendations from Dr. Navrasia and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics):
Avoid screen time before 18-24 months of age. Ages 2-5, limit to 1 hour daily. Keep some environments screen free (bedtime, mealtimes, playtimes) and avoid screens 1 hour before bed.
Have you ever had such an awesome adulting moment when something finally “clicked,” you figured it out, and you just want to SHOUT it from the rooftops?!? I SOLVED OUR BUDGET CRISIS! I GOT US OUT OF CREDIT CARD DEBT FOREVER!!!!! There, I did it!!
As a teacher, I just can’t keep it inside and I HAVE TO tell and help others. I get no kickback from YNAB for this, but I kinda sorta really just want everyone I know/love to use this and make their lives as seamless and awesome as I did for our family. Cuz I love you. And it’s easy. And it works.
A year ago, our family was in major credit card debt and crisis. We had two kids in daycare (HOLY MOLEY! It was more than our mortgage!!!) and a maxed out credit card. I was PANICKING. I mean, one small “oopsie” and we’d have no options – what if our fridge broke? Car accident? Medical trauma? We had no wiggle room on the credit card, and no way to dig ourselves out.
I’m a very frugal person with will power and determination, so I was convinced I could figure this out. My husband suggested we try YNAB, since he had several friends who highly recommended it, and I initially scoffed. $83 a year just to do what I’m already doing with my spreadsheets? Pshaw. How does spending more money help me solve our need for money?? I balked.
Then, I decided to give the 33-day free trial a whirl. Maybe I could learn something new and just cancel my subscription, no money lost. So I signed up, linked our bank accounts, and started “budgeting” on the website. You guessed it – I wound up loving it and staying on for the entire year.
The initial set-up is a huge learning curve. It took about 3 months before I felt like “yeah, I’ve fully got this. I’m ready to teach and help others.” It got pretty frustrating at times, but I persisted. There was a lot of trial and error, asking questions, and waiting to see how things netted out. But I stuck through it, and it was well worth it.
Within 9 months of starting YNAB, we were completely credit card debt free and saving for the future.
How? How can one budget app make all that happen? How did it actually save us money? That’s what I’m going to break down for you…..
MAPPING IT ALL OUT – GETTING A LAY OF THE LAND
The very first thing I did was to dig into our bank statements over the past year. At this point, I am being purely descriptive and just NOTICING our trends, not judging or altering them in any way. Notebook/pencil in hand, I made a list of the major categories in which our spending occurs. YNAB gives you sample categories, but obviously personalization is key here. I noted the following categories for our family:
Debt Payments (mortgage, student loans, car loans, home equity line)
Insurances (life insurance, home / auto)
Monthly expenses (daycare, utilities, subscriptions like Netflix)
Variable expenses (groceries, gas, sundries, services like haircuts and dog grooming, medical/dental, vet, home repairs)
Quality of life (dining out, family activities, gifts, clothing, date night, fun)
I also made a list of big time expenses that seem to happen once a year. I put these into a final category called “Budgeting Ahead” Examples: Tax accountant, Amazon prime annual, Costco membership, Furnace tune-up, Glasses/contacts, Birthday parties, Christmas, etc. These aren’t necessarily things I have to pay for or that are due every month, but like death and taxes, they can’t be avoided when it’s time. The goal would be to start socking away money into these categories so that when the day comes, the money is there for it. At first we had no money to actually put into any of these categories, but I made them just the same so that we would be prepared.
RENEGOTIATING – MAKING ADJUSTMENTS
Once I had all our categories set, it was time to take inventory and make some decisions. Once our first round of paychecks hit the app, I gave “every dollar a job” and assigned them to the categories that HAVE to be attended to – debt payments, insurances, and monthly expenses. Suddenly, with all dollars assigned, I could see just how little we had left for those “Variable” and “Quality of Life” categories. Not much! Time to go on a serious Budget Diet and reign in lots of things. Either a) we can’t spend as much money on day-to-day things we enjoy or b) we need to adjust our obligations so we have more money to spend on variables. Honestly, I chose both!
First and foremost, we cut WAY back on discretionary spending. We didn’t eat out for at least 4 months while we got our feet back under us. We started bulk shopping/cooking/meal prepping and packing lunches.
To stop any accidental late payments, we switched completely to auto-pay and online billing. This took a big chunk of time and lots of phone calls, but was well worth it.
We switched some payments to monthly billing instead of annual to help mitigate large annual lump sums.
We switched to shopping at Aldi and saved at least $200/month on our groceries.
We began ordering groceries online and picking up in store to make sure we stuck to my list – no impulse buying!
We became strong meal planners, and we only did a full grocery shop 3 weeks a month. The 4th week was for baby’s milk only, and we had to live off the leftovers/pantry/fridge for the remainder.
We researched best prices for diapers, wipes, and formula and signed up for Amazon auto-delivery for those items.
We cancelled cable.
We noticed that we were getting a lot of overage charges on our cell data plan, so we switched to unlimited and actually saved money!
We refinanced our mortgage and rolled in our home equity line, saving hundreds a month in interest payments.
We cashed in our credit card perks points to get a large sum of money, which we put toward the balance.
We had an almost ‘no-spend’ Christmas with handmade or previously enjoyed items, and we sold things around our house to fund the remainder.
Then we seriously just hunkered down, sold things around the house we no longer needed, did without, reused and reduced, until we finally paid off our credit card in full. PHEW!!! Not only was that a huge relief, but it also recouped for us those hundreds of dollars that were disappearing to interest payments!
PLANNING AHEAD – NO CREDIT DEBT AGAIN EVER
Now without that credit debt looming over us, we could focus on planning ahead so we would no longer even need our credit card. Remember that category I set up called “Budgeting Ahead” that was filled with big time annual charges? I set goals for each of those categories with end dates, and I started putting aside money each month in preparation for the expense. When the time comes, the money is there, and we don’t have to put anything on our credit card.
We also adhere to our monthly budgeted amounts in variable categories. For example, if we set aside $50 for family dining out, we’ll always check it before we make any decisions. If we don’t have the money to go out, we don’t.
And maybe my favorite part (and a major key ingredient for not accruing interest payments) is that at any given moment, I know exactly how much I can and should pay down on our credit card. Since every dollar has a job, I know that I can pay my credit card balance every single day to avoid accruing interest, and I know exactly how much to pay. At the very top of the webpage or app, the first line item tells me how to wipe out my credit balance based on how I’ve spent money and assigned dollars. Before YNAB, I just had to guess? hope? pray? that I paid the balance and didn’t offset any other needs I’d have for the month. To that end, I check it and pay our credit card at least once a week if not more. This practice alone has saved us hundreds of dollars a month in interest, while allowing us to continue using our credit card to earn incentives.
To me, being able to set goals and budget ahead has been the best part of YNAB. Without that, we’d continually be stuck in this perpetual debt cycle. Between carefully observing our habits, adjusting as needed, and planning ahead, it’s been a real miracle for our family. It also helps us to have clear agreements and communication. Since the app syncs to our phones and laptops and doesn’t live in a spreadsheet on someone’s computer, we have constant access and can make informed, team-based decisions in the moment.
In case you can’t tell, I highly recommend YNAB for getting your budget and life together. I don’t ever want to go back to a life without it!
I had the honor of attending the annual WSRA convention for my 5th year. If you’d like to refer back to any of my previous WSRA posts, here they are! I look forward to this very well-organized, professional event year after year because of the amazing, nationally-known speakers that are featured as well as the careful cultivation of trending topics and research in education and literacy. Oh, and all the great friends I get to meet up with year after year!
“Bringing Strategies to Life: Conferring with Individuals and Groups” by Jennifer Serravallo
The first session I attended was offered by Jennifer Serravallo and focused on Conferring. I was very interested to attend this session to enhance my ability to support the educators in my district as we continue to refine our literacy workshop model and our work with Teacher’s College.
After making a strong case for conferring with students (which has a high impact on learning through providing individual feedback, building student teacher relationships, and goal-setting opportunities), Serravallo helped us delve into the steps for establishing a conferring culture in your classroom.
Step 1: Choose a Student Goal
Begin by consulting the “Hierarchy of reading goals” (below). Face-to-face with a student and his/her book bin, work your way down the list with a student, interview style, until you determine where the student needs the most support. Stop at the first level where you notice a need for instruction.
There are several other assessment sources you can reference to set a goal for a student. For engagement: Is the student excited, passionate, and overall engaged with their texts? Observe them during independent reading – what is their time on task? Stamina? For fluency: Take an informal running record and note miscues, rate, inflection, etc. For genre-specific skills, consult the learning progressions of your instruction / curriculum. Additionally, invite students to fill out this form below, which allows them to reflect and self-report on areas they believe they need to advance.
While working to identify a goal for a student, consider engaging in a goal-setting conference, as per the following steps:
Goal Setting Conference Structure
Guided Inquiry – Help the student name a goal (that you already have in mind)
Teach – Offer a strategy to practice the goal
Coach – Provide feedback and support as the student practices
Link – Leave the student with a visual, physical reminder (artifact) of the goal and strategy). This could be a sticky note, copy of an anchor chart, model, graphic organizer, etc.
Below are some Prompts to Use Doing Guided Inquiry to empower students and engage them in their own learning and goal-setting:
What do you think you’re doing well as a reader?
What do you think you might need to work on?
What do you notice about your work?
Can you think fo ways that I can help you grow as a reader?
Look at __ compare it to what you’re doing as a reader.
Step 2: Look for & Reinforce Strengths
Provide “Helpful Compliments” – Notice and name what they are doing. Focus on effort, not ability.
Step 3: Identify and name the students’ strengths.
Resist the urge to focus on deficits! Often, students aren’t even aware of their strengths until we point them out for them. Naming their strengths and skills helps build them up!
Step 4: Think of the Progression of Skills
For example, consider the skill of “adopting new vocabulary” and how students progress through the list below as they master a new word. They don’t jump from “not knowing” to “master” in one fell swoop; it’s a progression! Resist the urge to jump straight to the grade level goal or standard.
Get the gist of the word
Understand the simple definition
Use local context to explain
Use larger context to explain
Consider author’s craft, tone, connotation vs denotation
Research Decide Compliment Teach Conference
Putting all the above together, we land at the R-D-C-T model of conferring. When we confer with students, we engage in the following steps (yes, all within about 5ish minutes!)
Research: Ask questions, have student read aloud, look at artifacts, etc.
Decide: Find a compliment and next step that connect
Compliment: What, why, concrete example of a student’s strengths
Teach: Name the strategy and teach, model, explain (step by step, how to)
Coach / Active Involvement – student reads/thinks/talks as the teacher offers feedback
Link: Repeat the teaching point
Step 5: Group for Efficiency
Develop a strong system of note-taking and management. Group students with similar needs to create strategy groups. Jennifer Serravallo explains that she meets with every student in her class face to face at least twice a week, either through individual conferring and/or strategy groups. This is a great goal!