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How Decodable Do Decodable Texts Need to Be?: What We Teach When We Teach Phonics
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

How Decodable Do Decodable Texts Need to Be?: What We Teach When We Teach Phonics

Teacher question: I know phonics should be taught explicitly and we have looked through several sources to determine the patterns to teach in first grade. I have been pouring through leveled texts and have found a high concentration of blends, digraphs, long vowel/silent ‘e’, and predictable vowel teams in text as low as levels 4 and 6. We are not teaching these patterns until well into the year, but expect our incoming first graders to read Level 3/4. 

We are usually about 10 weeks into the year before even starting blends. At that point the text level expectation is around an 8. So, we keep flagging kids for more phonics intervention based on a text level riddled with phonetic patterns we have not even come close to addressing. I am personally having issues with us teaching phonics patterns so far behind our text level expectation and then providing interventions for students without first providing instruction.

Our building data suggest that most of our first-graders are well beyond phonemic awareness and CVC patterns when they start first-grade. Is it really a good idea to spend our first 10 weeks of the year addressing these skills with the whole class? I have nothing against review, but 10 weeks out of 38 seems like a lot of time.

Shanahan’s response:

There are really two questions here… one about how much review is appropriate and the other is about how well texts need match the decoding skills being taught.

I’ll answer the easy one first, and the interesting one next.

If kids can demonstrate that they have a good grasp of a skill, occasional brief reviews would make good sense — but not 50 days!

Carol Connors research is most apt here (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004). Basically, she and her colleagues found that if kids are lacking phonics skills and you explicitly teach them phonics skills, they do better. But if they are already relatively strong in phonics — as your boys and girls evidently are from your testing data — then they can make great progress (even in decoding), by being engaged in other more independent and meaning-oriented/reading-oriented activities.

That suggests to me that you have two legitimate options — depending on local teacher knowledge and management skills.

One reasonable choice would be the one I think your letter implies… there is no good reason to hold these kids back with regard to the explicit phonics instruction. Divide the groups in two and teach PA and CVCs to the lower level decoders and get on with blends and digraphs and complex vowel patterns with the more advanced decoders. Very reasonable approach and one very much in line with research on early readers (NELP, 2008).

A second possibility would be to stay with the current phonics instruction regime, but simply exempt the kids who have already developed the skills that are being taught. The ed exempt kids would do more comprehension, fluency, and writing work — while their classmates are  still working out those earlier developing phonics skills. (One of the cool things Connor and company found was that the kids with the relatively stronger phonics ability continued to make gains in their decoding ability). When the low decoders catch up, you can reunite the whole class for the next tier of phonics instruction.

What you don’t want to do is what you are doing now — wasting 10 weeks of instructional time that could be better spent for significant numbers of kids.

The second part of your question is, to me, the more interesting of the two. Should we allow/require kids to read texts that have spelling patterns that we haven’t yet explicitly taught?

It seems so logical that we would teach a particular sequence of phonics skills and that students would then simply apply these to the words with the spelling patterns that matched the skills already taught. And, it would make great sense to do this if decoding were that simple and that actual reading was just an application of “sounding out” abilities.

What is really going on in early reading is much more complex and wonderful than that.

Fortunately, the decoding system that readers must gain control of is much more complex and dynamic than even good phonics instruction may suggest. We don’t teach decoding as much as we provide useful cues to students that help them to figure out this aspect of reading.

That’s why no particular phonics sequence has proven to be superior to any other (NICHD, 2000). One might expect important learning differences due to the order in which the phonic elements and spelling patterns are taught or to the specific correspondences or patterns that are included in this instruction. But that isn’t the case.

That’s why kids with more advanced first-grade decoding abilities increase their decoding competency faster when working with text than from explicit phonics instruction (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004) and why the spelling patterns in the texts children read can have a bigger impact on their phonics development than the explicit teaching sequence (Guthrie & Seifert, 1977), and why word repetition in these early texts can be more potent (Mesmer, Cunningham, & Hiebert, 2012).

That’s why studies have found no particular learning benefit from limiting young children’s reading to decodable texts alone (Jenkins, Peyton, Sanders, & Vadasy, 2004), why constraining texts to match immediate pedagogical goals may have long-term, negative, unintended consequences for students’ word reading abilities (Venezky & Johnson, 1973), and why research supports developing a “mental set for diversity” rather than a “mental set for consistency” in young readers (Gibson & Levin, 1975).

That’s why descriptions of children’s actual decoding development are so much more complex than a typical phonics curriculum (Ehri, 2014).  

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.

  1. Explicit phonics instruction is important. Research is overwhelmingly clear that such teaching increases the chances that kids will develop these complex word reading abilities. I certainly wouldn’t delay such instruction until the skills being would match well with the available texts.
  2. We want beginning reading texts to be reasonably simple for kids to read—and amounts of repetition along with relatively easy decodability are valuable keys to ensuring such simplicity (much better than those schemes that encourage kids to guess at words or to rely on the pictures to figure out the words or that are so highly predictable that looking at the words isn’t required).
  3. But as reasonable as it is to provide kids with some reading practice with texts that employ the specific phonic skills being taught, these decoding instruction/text reading connections can be a bit looser than that… having kids reading both decodable texts and controlled vocabulary readers, for instance.

Obviously, the situation you describe cannot be adequately analyzed at this far remove. It is certainly possible that the decoding demands of the texts could be too demanding given these students’ decoding abilities… or it could be, that though those texts use some spelling patterns the kids haven’t yet had the opportunity to study, they still may provide a sufficient amount of support (through tools like frequent repetition of some of these harder words) that would provide a perfectly adequate learning context.

My advice: watch how well the kids do with the texts rather than trying to achieve a particular level of decodability. If the kids are struggling with those early texts, consider finding something a bit more decodable for those initial readings or experiment with accelerating the introduction of new phonic elements a bit. Perhaps a more rapidly paced curriculum would do the trick.

I’m not worried that kids who have only been taught the CVC pattern will confront CVCe words in their texts.

But am concerned if they are struggling to read those texts with a reasonable degree of fluency. I It would certainly be possible to find more decodable texts, but it would also be possible to use texts that do a better job of limiting the proportions of new words that are introduced and that increase the amount of word repetition (see: Text Project (opens in a new window)).

We teach phonics… and kids learn to decode. Those aren’t exactly the same thing. Like with all complex learning there is usually not a simple one-to-one relationship between what we teach and what the learner has to actually do to implement or imply that knowledge. Phonics instruction reveals to kids that there is a system and that they need to pay attention to it. Such instruction cues them in on what some particularly useful patterns may be (good morphology instruction does the same thing). The sole use of texts that match the decodabilty skills already taught tend to be too much of a good thing. They give kids what is probably useful practice with the skills learned, but they likely discourage young readers from noticing other patterns.

That’s why it is so important that we not overly constrain the decodabilty of the texts that young children read, and why I recommend using a combination of both highly decodable texts and controlled vocabulary readers. We want kids actively looking to see spelling patterns, including ones that have not been taught.


Connor, C.M., Morrison, F. J., & Katch, L. (2004). Beyond the reading wars: Exploring the effect of child-instruction interactions on growth in early reading. Scientific Studies in Reading, 8(4), 305-336.

Ehri, L.C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 6-21.

Guthrie, J.T., & Seifert, M. (1977). Letter-sound complexity in learning to identify words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(6), 686-696.

Jenkins, J. R., Peyton, J. A., Sanders, E. A., & Vadasy, P. F. (2004). Effects of reading decodable texts in supplemental first-grade tutoring. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(1), 53-85.

Mesmer, H. A., Cunningham, J. W., & Hiebert, E. H. (2012). Toward a theoretical model of text complexity for the early grades: Learning from the past, anticipating the future. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(3), 235-258.

Venezky, R. L., & Johnson, D. (1973). Development of two letter-sound patterns in grades one and three. Journal of Educational Psychology, 64(1), 109-115.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 21, 2019