7 Reasons to Use Decodable Texts
Decodable books are books that contain words mostly composed of letter-sound correspondences that students have already learned during instruction. Many educators today are using them as an essential part of their early literacy programs.
In this post, I’ll explain some of the best reasons to use decodable texts in the classroom or at home.
1. Build Phonemic Awareness Skills
Decoding builds upon phonemic awareness in the scope and sequence of learning to read. Yes, phonemic awareness activities and learning should go through 1st grade in a general education outline, but we first learn about sounds and how to use them in spoken language. Then, we learn to identify the phonics, or sound-spellings, that match those spoken sounds.
In short, phonemic awareness might not seem to have a direct connection to decodable books. When a child has a decodable book, they’ve already learned phonics and been using those to decode. However, we need phonemic awareness to blend words, isolate sounds to find recognizable words within new words, and blend sounds after the phonics have been identified. Also, the process of identifying and making sounds helps with writing or encoding.
There are easy ways to practice directly with decodable texts by previewing the phonics structures with phonemic awareness activities. Since the makeup of decodable books relies on a specific set of phonics structures, lists of similar word structures are easier to find.
Teachers can also isolate a list of words and do a quick preview activity to warm up students for successful decoding and blending.
Example: In the book Dog’s Big Bag, a teacher could pull a list of CVC words, such as “jug.”
Teachers can say, “I’m going to make 3 sounds. I want you to put those sounds together, blend those sounds, and make a word. /j/–(pause)–/u/–(pause)–/g/”
“I’m going to say a word. I want you to hold up a finger for each sound you hear in the word. Jug – how many sounds do you hear?” (/j/-/u/-/g/ – 3 sounds)
When teachers say a word with the given phonics structure, students can repeat the word and push on the manipulative or button for each sound they hear in the spoken word. By segmenting the sounds in the spoken word, students work to manipulate the sounds in a way that improves accuracy in the pronunciation of the written phonics structures.
Pro tip: Popular additions to many educators’ repertoires are Pop-Its or the rubber mats with “buttons” that can be pushed. Students can also use various alternative manipulatives to complete the same segmenting activity, such as small balls of Play-Doh to push, cubes/small blocks to move, magnets to slide, and more.
“What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word jug?” (/j/)
“What sound do you hear at the end of the word jug?” (/g/)
“Trade the sound /j/ for /m/ in the word jug.” (mug)
2. Help Master Phonics Structures
Have you ever learned a new skill, such as playing an instrument, and needed to practice to make the skill more automatic and easier for you?
That’s how phonics and decodable text interact. Students learn the phonics structure, maybe use that phonics structure in isolation or hands-on activities, and then practice that skill in a safe space, such as a decodable book.
When introducing a new sound phonics structure, it’s important to cement the skill with realistic practice. We also know from a multitude of research that repetition is required for retention, but using material outside of rote memorization of sounds and sound-spellings allows for manipulation and the ability to use material out of the isolated context.
The process of repeatedly using a phonics structure allows for children to map that letter string, letter pattern, or letter combination for orthographically mapping those words (mapping them in the brain for easy and quick retrieval during fluent reading). This helps reinforce previously taught sound-spellings or phoneme-to-grapheme connections.
3. Encourage Effective Learning in Small Group Settings
Decodable texts are very effective when used with a small group of students working on the same phonics patterns or skill sets. Students can connect skills to authentic texts and practice reading for fluency out loud. The teacher can assess and give immediate feedback as students are working.
If you would like more information on why decodable texts are the best choice for small group work, read Benefits of Decodable Books: A Worthy Investment for School Districts.
When students are beginning readers, educators benefit greatly from listening to their students’ reading with more attention. The most profound assessments of reading happen when we’re listening to students read, and small group attention gives educators that opportunity.
Hearing each child sound out or decode words is an informal assessment on a consistent basis. Since students use phonics structures as the pillar strategy for reading, we can hear when they’re omitting, adding, mispronouncing, or confusing specific sounds or phonemes during small group instruction.
Also, by being able to give immediate feedback, in the moment, teachers can encourage effective skills, while swapping out ineffective strategies for those of strong readers.
If quality books are chosen, conversations, direct questions, and discussions are easier to facilitate in a small group, allowing for deeper, more individualized work with comprehension skills, syntax, semantics, and more.
At the very core, as educators, we know that truly looking at the faces and the body language of our children during reading helps us gain insight into their feelings, anxieties, obstacles, and even sources of pride. In a small group, educators have more opportunities to hear each individual child read. By using decodable material that practices what students know, we can observe how this affects the whole child, not just their knowledge of the skill.
4. Allow Multilingual Learners to Unlock New Words
Since multilingual learners, such as English language learners (ELLs) or heritage language learners (HLLs), are learning more than one language at a time, their comprehension skills may be weaker than their native English-speaking peers. That makes relying on meaning-based strategies such as “look at the pictures” or “skip it and see what makes sense” nearly impossible for them.
With decodable texts, readers are focusing on learned letter-sound patterns. Multilingual learners can decode unfamiliar words and then attach meaning to them, which is how fluent readers read. By teaching our phoneme/grapheme system to ELLs, we give a code to students to figure out a new language, giving them the ability to unlock new words as they’re introduced or as students come across them.
In many beginning decodables, simple language is used which benefits our ELLs and HLLs, allowing them to scaffold vocabulary and have opportunities to ask questions about one or two words at a time, instead of being overwhelmed by many complex words from the onset.
Vocabulary acquisition is essential to learning a new language, but it doesn’t start with the most complex words in the language. By providing access to words that can be decoded on a more basic level, students are given a strong language foundation.
It’s extremely important to note that even if students can decode the English language, students still need high attention to their vocabulary acquisition and assessment of their background knowledge in their first language. However, being able to identify the code behind the words is the first step to learning a written language.
5. Differentiate Instruction
With decodable texts, students are working through an explicit, structured series of phonics patterns. Teachers can differentiate instruction easily by working with students at whichever point they are in the series and tracking progress. They don’t need to estimate book levels or worry that the students’ background knowledge affected their decoding score.
Decodable texts are also excellent for home learning based on the specific needs of each student. As students can take home books with patterns they’ve mastered and read them at home, they grow in reading confidence and enjoy showing off for their families! The more someone reads, the better reader they will become. Decodable readers are an excellent source of extra practice.
By assessing the skills needing practice and giving each student a book that will help meet their individual needs, we can be more precise in the practice requested of each student. On top of working within their skill set, students can go through the same routines and practices, allowing a class to have cohesion during differentiated instruction. An example is one group of students needing more practice or an explicit review of a specific phonics structure, while another group uses the same book, but to address a need for work with fluency and expression.
Decodable books can act like an informal, consistent assessment, as teachers can track progress by following decodable books using the same scope and sequence as their foundational skills program or phonics program. Listening to students read a decodable book helps teachers see which phonics structures are being internalized and used with automaticity and which are not. Also, since the text is often scaffolded for difficulty, students can allow for steady progress of other identifiable skills, such as fluency and expression.
6. Help Struggling Readers Focus Better
Science and research have confirmed that strong readers decode every word as they read. Decodable books allow us to translate explicit, structured phonics instruction into meaningful and enjoyable texts. Repeated practice with these phonics patterns is helpful to struggling readers, while helping them to feel successful.
Overwhelmed with too many skills in practice or too many unidentified factors, students who struggle during reading can suffer negative effects. These include affected reading comprehension, obstacles in oral fluency, internalized symptoms, and reading anxiety.
Decodable texts keep readers focused on one strategy (sounding out words) and one part of the page (the text). In comparison, teaching meaning-based reading strategies, such as looking at picture cues, is especially hard for struggling readers as they take focus away from the words. With comprehension, when sentences are simpler to begin, students can maintain understanding of the entire thought in the sentence. With actual formatting, decodable books tend to have a simpler structure, and the one factor that has shown promise in easing the obstacles for our dyslexic students is spacing between words.
Students who struggle benefit from parents and teachers working as a team to address their needs. Decodable books often identify and point out the sounds being practiced and the words that aren’t decodable, making use at home easier.
As long as parents know what “decodable” means and have a general idea of what their child has already learned in class, parents can play an essential part in their child’s acquisition and mastery of the skills needed to be a proficient reader.
Decodable books can support parents in helping their child to practice reading with the skills that have been taught. This can help remove frustration in the home as much as possible, adding joy to reading as children share their new skills and abilities with their parents, friends, and family.
7. Let Students Practice Reading Comprehension Independently
Without being able to use context clues or picture clues, decodable texts push students to think about the text itself and the words included. Since they won’t be able to guess when reading a decodable, students can understand the words themselves. Any reading comprehension deficits will be more noticeable to the teachers evaluating student needs.
Being able to understand a story read aloud versus a story being read independently differs, and students need to be able to independently read the words to practice reading comprehension. When a child can read a text ON THEIR OWN without help from pictures, there’s a great chance they’re comprehending the words, not based on the provided visual imagery. Students need to come up with the “picture in their head” by attaching meaning to written text without guessing.
Language comprehension happens when we read TO children, but reading comprehension happens when students read for THEMSELVES. That’s why we need to explicitly practice both from early stages. The best way to practice reading comprehension is to remove the struggle with the mechanics of reading so children can focus on meaning-making and understanding. Decodable books and using the skills that students have mastered help explicitly teach students ways to comprehend what they are reading.
Boost Your Students’ Confidence with Decodable Texts
Decodable texts are a valuable tool for teaching children how to read. From the beginning stages of phonics to reinforcing high-frequency sight words, these texts can be used in a variety of ways to support young readers.
So, the next time you’re looking for ways to improve your students’ reading skills, remember the seven times you can use decodable texts and watch as your students’ confidence and literacy abilities grow!