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:
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.
–> On to Part 3: Decodable Text Sources
Achieve the Core (2018, October 27). Supporting Our Youngest Readers: Teaching the Skills of Reading. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://achievethecore.org/peersandpedagogy/supporting-youngest-readers-teaching-skills-reading/
Anderson, R. C., Hiebert, E. H., Scott, J. A., & Wilkinson I. A. G.(1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading.National Academy of Education
Blevins, W. (n.d.). The Science of Reading Evaluation Checklist Download. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://goto.benchmarkeducation.com/acton/media/34723/the-science-of-reading-evaluation-checklist-download?fbclid=IwAR1uZbSzxO3_XOhkKaRjhq_ClibRt9yuaiQfvn_jO4JKUf4WJ13VEJ1UpJA
Mesmer, H. A. (2022, October 21). The do’s and don’ts of Decodable Books. Just Right Reader. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://justrightreader.com/blogs/news/what-are-decodable-books
OregonRTIi. (2021, October 28). Wiley Blevins – Choosing and Using Decodable Texts [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7bm06Wd43k