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What Are Decodable Texts? And Should Teachers Use Them?

Early reading instruction remains a hotly debated topic in schools; and sometimes, the debates are among those who generally agree on principles—like the importance of phonics practice—but not necessarily on how to execute them.

That's why I was interested to discover a recent debate on Twitter over the use of "decodable texts" as part of early reading and phonics, all prompted by a blog post in which literacy scholar Tim Shanahan cautioned against the overuse of the texts.

I had never heard the term "decodable texts" before, but they should be familiar to many of us. Generally, they are texts that reinforce and help students practice certain sound-letter patterns taught as part of phonics. (Think of sentences like "the cat sat on the mat," or the title of a short book I can distinctly remember reading in kindergarten, Pig Does A Jig.)

But there is no formal agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a decodable text, and there appears to be a great deal of variabillity in their quality. It goes without saying that some of them can be a bit contrived—partly that's what helped the whole-language movement and its call for so-called "authentic literature" gain steam in the early 1980s. 

Here's what landed Shanahan in hot water with some literacy groups: He wrote that, while there is plenty of research evidence that systematic and explicit phonics instruction benefits early readers, there is far less research on the specific effectiveness of using decodable texts to help kids practice. So, he wrote in the post, it's probably OK for teachers to use them, but that use should be "severely limited" so that students also get to read and listen to books that build vocabulary and content knowledge.  

"What is happening, and why I wrote the blog, is that there are folks who claim kids shouldn't be allowed to read anything but decodable text when they're learning to read," Shanahan said in an interview.

What's potentially bad about that? In Shanahan's view, it's that decodable texts artificially constrain English to certain sound-letter patterns, so if you over-rely on them, you're not accurately presenting how likely they are to appear in an average English-language text. At some point, that might trip up students, he argues. 

A Quick Response

The blog post kicked up quite a lot of commentary and criticism on Twitter (as, it seems, most things tend to do these days on social media), particularly among the dyslexia community, which has been among the most aggressive proponents for phonics teaching in the early grades. Several respondents said they were afraid that it would encourage teachers to return to word-guessing and "cueing systems," two of the hallmarks of the whole-language approach, which has fallen out of policy favor but is still common in American classrooms.

And some teachers who commented on the post just wanted to know the answer to this question: If you don't use decodable texts, then what kinds of books should children be practicing on?

Faith Borkowsky, an academic coach, wrote an extended response on her blog that's worth reading to get a sense of some of these perspectives.

Shanahan said he sympathizes with those concerns.

"I definitely get the fear that somehow I'm saying you shouldn't teach those kids to decode or to practice their decoding," he said, noting the struggle that many parents have faced to secure that instruction for their kids in schools that don't systematically teach the sound-letter codes. But, he added, "it's important that kids see other kinds of texts ... controlled vocabulary readers, books with limited vocabulary and lots of repetition," for example.

"The point is every one of those simplification systems is a kind of crutch. If you expose students to more than one at a time, you're minimizing the chance that one of those crutches does damage." 

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