Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor, recently wrote a blog entitled, “Should We Teach with Decodable Text,” which caused a Tweetstorm on Twitter and lots of discussion in the Dyslexia community. Why? What exactly is decodable text and why should it be controversial? According to Shanahan, “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 [a] 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.”
So what is decodable text?
Decodable text offers beginning and/or struggling readers a chance to practice the phonics skills they have already been taught using connected text. Perhaps the definition of “decodable” could or should be tightened up, but its purpose is clear; decodable books focus on spelling patterns that the reader can decode given his or her existing knowledge of letter and sound correspondences. Decodable readers usually follow a specific sequence of skills and instructional procedures that cumulatively develop with each book. Quality decodable books will not only use simple short vowel words, they will reflect growth into advanced code knowledge and utilize vowel digraphs (vowel teams) and multisyllabic words. The better book series will introduce one or two new concepts at a time while offering lots of practice opportunities with simpler patterns. The structure will be apparent to anyone with or without a teaching degree, and it becomes easy to pinpoint skill deficits. Decodable text is only decodable if children have been taught that particular letter pattern. Decodable text would not (or should not) be handed to a child without the child having first been taught the letter and sound correspondences.
The goal should be to move children into authentic books they can handle independently. Phonics proponents feel that until beginner or struggling readers are ready to read authentic text, they should be given reading material that they can handle themselves without being forced into using ineffective strategies such as guessing, using pictures, or using cues based on context. Phonics instruction is more effective when children have immediate opportunities to apply what they learned to their reading, and decodable books facilitate this learning. Their easily observable progress will determine how long they remain in decodable text.
Contrary to Shanahan’s assertion, the use of decodable text was researched thoroughly. Perhaps the confusion lies in the fact that the term “decodable” was not around at the time. In the 1960s, the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Development and Research (SWRL) was one of a number of educational laboratories charged with bringing research-based programs and procedures to schools. In 1972, SWRL partnered with Ginn and Company to publish the early decodable readers, the Beginning Reading Program (BRP), better known as the “I See Sam books.” The federally-funded research on these little “decodable” books has been in the public domain for years, and their positive results can be found quite easily in any search. This program became the focus of SWRL’s efforts for fifteen years! This would qualify as thoroughly researched by anyone’s standards. “The R&D effort required to design, develop, and field test the Program was, and still remains, unprecedented.” (Durkin, 1990). The studies clearly indicate that teaching kindergarten children using BRP was successful. Children from all backgrounds, including minorities and the disadvantaged, became proficient beginner readers with only 20 to 30 minutes of daily instructional time devoted to teaching reading. Although most children who entered kindergarten with reading skills typically came from advantaged backgrounds, virtually all children were reading by the end of the year. Students who learned to read in kindergarten were found to be superior in reading skills and retained their advantage through high school.
As far as decodable books being a “mess,” it is true that some books are poorly developed, but the aforementioned BRP readers were carefully researched and designed with specific content and sequencing of sounds and letters to help children “gain initial competence in reading.” (Adams, 1990). The BRP books illustrate a superior design structure compared to others that rush through the code or stay in short words for too long. In the BRP books, phonics was taught at the same time as the books were presented, so there was no mistaking the value of its content. Decodable books should be “compared with” what beginning and struggling readers usually receive today, either leveled books or controlled readers. For a typical reader, phonics instruction combined with leveled books for Guided Reading will not harm them, and many children will begin to generalize patterns to non-decodable books easily. The amount of phonics introduced would be sufficient for such children. For the struggling reader, however, decodable books can make a huge difference because they provide much more steady practice. The goal is to break bad habits while forming new habits. The point of the decodable books is for children to apply what they learn and see if the code is being retained.
According to Shanahan, we are robbing children of the opportunity to make “cognitive calculations” by keeping children in decodable text. In other words, he implies many children can begin to internalize the alphabetic principle without the decodable text, or, at least, with very little practice. For a typical reader this might be true, but can a dyslexic child or a struggling reader make these “cognitive calculations”? Practitioners in the trenches, who work with such children, KNOW THAT THIS WOULD BE UNUSUAL TO SAY THE LEAST. Transfer and generalizations of code knowledge are significant leaps that frequently take time and intensive practice to develop. We do not keep children in decodable text if they can easily move through the sequence of skills required. Nobody wants children to only receive phonics and controlled, stilted language instruction. This is the false argument Whole Language proponents use to undermine phonics advocates.
Children should be exposed to more than decodable text – no argument there. But how? Shared reading and reading aloud to children are both necessary for children to build language and vocabulary. Dr. Shanahan does point out that decodable text has a place, but it should be “severely limited,” without giving specific alternatives. We can only get a hint of what he must be thinking by looking at the basal reader series he has authored for McGraw-Hill. In the meantime, school districts will interpret his blog to suit their needs, and this can be unfortunate for all the children in need of decodable books.
Faith Borkowsky, Founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties. Her book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, is available on Barnes and Noble https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/failing-students-or-failing-schools-faith-borkowsky/1128896546 and Amazon https://www.amazon.com/dp/1937615456/