Note: decodable texts, decodable readers, phonics books, phonics readers all refer to the same thing and are used interchangeably. I’ve chosen to use the term ‘decodable texts’ 🙂
Australian teachers are going to start to hear a lot about decodable texts. Systems are beginning to acknowledge the importance of phonics in initial reading instruction (here and here) and the federal government is pushing for a phonics check. A new focus on phonics will mean new professional learning and resources for teachers to accommodate a phonics-based approach.
Decodable texts are a crucial resource for a phonics-based approach. It’s a type of text used at the beginning of reading instruction that carefully incorporates words that are consistent with the letters and corresponding phonemes that have been taught. The books are intended to allow students to use their phonic knowledge to decode new words as opposed to using other strategies derived from context.
Decodable text is compatible with a model of reading called the Simple View of Reading. The problem is, it is currently not the model widely used in schools. Instead, the 3 Cueing System (3CS) takes pride of place in education circles. Schools that use the 3CS use a different type of reader known as predictable text. It’s worth discussing the flaws in the 3CS and its accompanying predictable text to understand why changing to phonics-based approach with supporting decodable text is desirable and necessary if we want all kids to successfully learn to read.
3 Cueing System and Predictable Text
The 3CS is derived from Whole Language, a discredited theory of how students come to read, although its exact origin is very shady. This is the model of reading taught in Australian universities (I don’t know one that does not) as part of a ‘balanced approach’ to reading instruction.
It poses that students draw on 3 cues – semantic, syntactic and graphophonic – to make meaning (to comprehend). Students are supposed to use their phonic knowledge (graphophonic is pretty much a made-up word meaning phonics) in conjunction with contextual clues (semantic and syntactic) to decode text. The approach has been heavily criticised and completely debunked by reading researchers as a viable model for how students come to read. The use of context, as encouraged by the 3CS, has actually been proven to be a habit of poor readers. Good readers, in contrast, pay extreme care to the letters and the sounds they represent (see here).
The 3CS is the model that rationalises predictable text. Predictable text is, well, designed to be predictable so that students can draw on all 3 cues while reading. They give multiple repetitions of words and phrases so that students memorise the text. Pictures are also used as a clue (a context cue) to help predict words. Here is a made-up example of what a predictable reader I’ve titled We Have Fun looks like in the beginning stages of learning to read:
Pages typically continue on in this manner. The next two pages of We Have Fun would have the same sentence with the noun and picture changed to a different place, like a beach (”We have fun at the beach”). The transcript of We Have Fun looks like this:
|We have fun at the park.
|We have fun at the beach.
|We have fun at the shops.
|We have fun at Gran’s house.
|We have fun at home.
|We always have lots of fun!
The problem with predictable text is easy to analyse. The repetitive and predictable elements of the text give off the illusion that children are reading when they are not. After a couple of pages of repetitive text, a student can easily predict and ‘read’ the sentence without even looking at the text by catching on to ‘we have fun at’ and simply looking to the picture to fill in the rest (the rationale being that they are using ‘context’).
The most damning element of predictable texts is the structure of the words included. Let’s analyse the text’s letter-sound correspondences and structure:
If we acknowledge that this type of text is given to students in their first weeks of schooling, it is very easy to tell that the complexity in structure and the number and type of letter-sound correspondences will be overwhelming and inaccessible to almost all early readers. There are polysyllabic words and digraphs in this text, which isn’t appropriate in the early stages of learning to read.
Indeed, it is this sort of approach to learning to read that ends in disaster for a large number of children, some of whom may even leave primary school not knowing all the basic letter-sound correspondences. They learn to rely on context, and that strategy falls apart very quickly – like a house built on sand.
The Simple View of Reading
Despite near consensus levels of acceptance amongst reading researchers, many Australian educators do not know about The Simple View of Reading. It is a formula based on the widely accepted view that reading comprehension (RC) is the product of decoding skill (D) multiplied by language comprehension (LC). This is the model of reading which is most compatible with a phonics-based approach to reading instruction.
Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)
A student’s RC can be predicted if LC and D are known. If a student has a deficit in either LC or D, then reading comprehension will be affected. Most students on entry to school are deficient in decoding skill so phonics-based programs work to strengthen that component. Once decoding skill is sufficiently developed, a student’s reading comprehension is predicted by their language comprehension (hence why an emphasis on vocabulary and oral language skills is also a key component of a phonics-based approach). The key thing to note here is that decoding and language comprehension are two separate processes requiring separate assessment and teaching practices. That’s why teachers using this model of reading teach phonics in isolation as it targets the separate process of decoding.
The Simple View of Reading acknowledges that students must pay close attention to letters and the sounds they represent in order to read (because that’s what good readers do). There is no guessing; no use of context to predict words. This means that predictable text is incompatible with this approach to reading instruction. Rather than using predictable text, decodable text is used so that students can practice their decoding skills in incremental levels as letter-sound correspondences are introduced.
Let’s look at an example. A new student taught under a phonics-based approach will learn a set of letter-sound correspondences pretty quickly. In a typical phonics program, students are taught to blend (s-a-t = sat; p-i-n = pin) and segment (sat = s-a-t; pin = p-i-n) the sounds to a reasonable level of fluency. Once an acceptable level of fluency is reached, the student will then receive a decodable text reader in order to practice their new skills. The reader the student will receive will only contain the graphemes they have been taught along with a few words explicitly taught on the side (e.g. the). This means that instead of being bombarded with the wholly unreadable We Have Fun, the student will receive a text like Bun in the Sun.
No repetition, no predictability and definitely no guessing is needed to read the text. Notice how, unlike We Have Fun, the word structure is restricted to CV, VC and CVC monosyllabic words and no digraphs or other untaught letter-sound correspondences are included. The pictures give little away, too; the student actually has to read the text in order to work out what it says and is able to do this because it is tailored to what they have learnt. As you can see, Bun in the Sun is far less complex and therefore far more accessible to an early reader. A new student will not become overwhelmed with a book like Bun in the Sun like they will with We Have Fun.
So there you have it. Decodable texts are important because they match a student’s level of expertise. There is no guessing when we decide to teach them how to decode text properly. Like I said, with current developments, don’t be surprised to hear more about decodable text in the coming years. They are a very important part of learning to read, especially for the students at risk of failure.