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Teacher question

Please share your thinking as well as research referencing the occasional use of decodable texts for small group reading instruction in grades K-2. 

Shanahan’s response

This is not a highly researched topic. There have been only a handful of studies into the effectiveness of decodable texts since the term was first used back in the 1980s. And, truth be told, they are kind of mess; with little evident agreement about what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what outcomes we should expect to derive from it.

Research has less solved the problem — is it helpful to use decodable texts with beginning readers? — than demonstrated how complicated even simple ideas can be. (I’ve longed argued that in the social sciences this is likely the most profound impact of research. It forces us to operationalize constructs which often reveals how squishy soft our thinking is.)

First issue … what is decodable text? Originally, the term was used relatively, to suggest a continuum (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985). Basically, phonics-oriented decodable texts used a preponderance of “words where all letters followed their major sound patterns.” The contrast was the basal readers of the time that employed a lower proportion of such words. Words like pet, big, nap, and dot would fit the decodable definition, while words like cow, pear, and come would not (cow follows a common spelling pattern, but not the major sound pattern for o, and pear and come are irregular).

How regular did the words have to be to merit designation as decodable? And, doesn’t decodability change with learning? As children know more and more spelling/pronunciation patterns, then those less frequent patterns become decodable, too, right?

Some researchers tried setting percentages of decodability and others worked with shifting definitions based upon kids’ learning. And, still others simply analyzed texts purported to be decodable and found a preponderance of simple, regular spelling patterns with short vowel sounds (Wolf, 2018).

You see the problem … if we all define decodable text in different ways, no matter what my research findings, someone can reject them simply by saying that wasn’t “what I meant by decodable.”

In that first study (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985), they found that the kids who had worked with relatively decodable texts were more able to decode at the end of grade 1. However, those kids also presumably got more phonics instruction during that time. One can’t tell from that study whether the difference was due to the phonics or the phonics plus decodable text.

Later studies, though with more exact definitions of decodability, found that decodable text either led to advantages or disadvantages. For example, Mesmer (2005) found that kids were more likely to try to decode decodable text (duh), but leveled texts (less decodable) led to greater fluency (Mesmer, 2010). Some studies (Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Compton, 2005) concur with the first Mesmer study, but that’s okay because others support the second (Priec-Mohr & Price, 2017). And, then there are those with mixed results (Chu & Chen, 2014).

The problem with all of these studies is that it is unclear what the right outcome would be. The ones that found the less decodable texts to be superior found that kids were able to read the leveled books more fluently in grade 1. However, phonics early on does bring with a bit of disfluency—because instead of just remembering a simple pattern or reading already known words, the phonics users have to figure out the unknown words (Barr, 1975). Many leveled readers can be read “fluently” even by non-readers because they don’t necessarily depend much on reading. And, the differing degrees to which students in the various conditions are taught phonics is a huge confound in the other direction.

Perhaps the best study of the problem was conducted by Jenkins and colleagues (2004). They compared the effectiveness of text with 85% decodability with text that had only 11% decodability (and these percentages were based on the texts’ match with the patterns that students had been taught). And they found? That degree of decodability made no difference. It made no difference in decoding, word reading, passage reading, or reading comprehension. (The two groups that received instruction with texts at these two levels of decodability both outperformed a group that received no additional instruction, so the teaching was effective in both cases).

Of course, there are a number of studies and evaluations of phonics instruction in which the program under investigation included instruction in decodable text (e.g., Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, et al., 1998; or look at the phonics studies synthesized in the National Reading Panel Report or the various reports of What Works Clearinghouse). These phonics programs were successful, but there is no evidence that they would have been any less successful without the decodable texts. To be perfectly honest, evaluations of phonics programs that lack such a component are usually effective, as.

This lack of positive support may be surprising. If phonics instruction were useful — and it is — one would think that opportunities for concentrated practice of those phonics skills would be beneficial. And, perhaps it is. But proving that is going to require a lot more study—and with much more care in considering the nature of the decodable and less decodable texts (and with more attention to issues like repetition—Mesmer, Cunningham, & Hiebert, 2010).

Two final thoughts:

First, given that there have been no evident negative effects associated with the use of decodable text within some of the successful phonics programs, I think it’s safe to say that it is okay to use such materials as a very small part of instruction. Perhaps there is a small practice effect, and perhaps there isn’t — but such teaching isn’t likely to hurt either, at least when kept minimal.

Second, English is complex and the sounds associated with particular letters and letter combinations depend upon the letter’s position in syllables, morphology, and etymology. That’s why so much is made these days of “statistical learning.”

Readers start to discern that b is more often associated with the /b/ sound in words like big and bad much more often than it will serve as a silent letter (such as in words like bomb or climb), and readers learn to respond accordingly. If unsure of the pronunciation of a b word, go with /b/; you’re more likely to get it right. Presenting students with lots of decodable text, text that’s much more regular that normal text, might mess up some of these cognitive calculations. Dick Venezky and Dale Johnson (1973) long ago showed that adults attribute sounds to letters in proportions more reflective of their appearance in children’s primers than of the actual proportions in which they appear in English more generally. (This is a problem for both leveled readers and decodable texts.)

I think it’s okay to use decodable texts as part of phonics instruction, but such practice should be severely limited, and even beginning readers should be reading more than decodable texts.


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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
August 27, 2018