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How Will I Know When It’s Time to Stop Using Decodable Texts?

How will I know when it's time to stop using decodable texts? Picture of corkboard with the word 'when'

We are often asked, “At what skill or mastery level should I stop using decodable texts?” The answer varies based on each student. Before we jump into the answer, there are some basic understandings that must be addressed as to WHY the use of decodable texts in beginning and struggling readers is non-negotiable.

Six Basic Understandings for Using Decodable Texts

  1. The purpose of using decodable texts is to provide opportunities for children to apply their knowledge of explicitly taught phonics patterns in connected text.
  2. The purpose of decodable texts is to help students learn to rely on word solving by using the reading code rather than guessing. Brain research shows that the practice of decoding strengthens neuronal pathways and develops stronger readers.
  3. The majority of the words should contain previously taught patterns. As students’ orthographic memory increases and words are committed to visual memory as sight words, decodable texts will contain an increasing variety of phonics patterns.
  4. Powerful phonics instruction follows a systematic sequence. The corresponding decodable text should match this sequence.
  5. Decodable texts, when applied appropriately, can and should help students develop fluency. Automaticity must initially occur at the word level. Fluent reading is the result of automatic and efficient word reading. Providing appropriately matched decodable text can help develop fluency.
  6. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. This happens as a result of automatic word recognition (orthographic memory/sight words) and fluent reading. If a reader is struggling to decode words, their cognitive energy is depleted. As a result, they have a reduced capacity to attend to comprehension. As the Simple View of Reading below illustrates, reading comprehension is the result of two factors, the ability to decode and language comprehension. A weakness in one factor results in an overall weakness in comprehension.
Decoding + Language Comprehension=reading to gain meaning
If a student’s ability to decode is weak, perhaps they can only decode 50% of the words, but their language comprehension is at 100% then the equation would look like this:
decoding @ 50% x language comprehension @100% = comprehension @50%.

What does the brain research tell us about using decodable text?

Here’s the exciting part (or another exciting part) about teaching code in a systematic way and providing plenty of spelling and reading practice within each phonics element. Drumroll please…

The stronger the neuronal pathways, the more responsive readers become to using orthographic, phonological, and semantic regions of the brain. (See Mark Seidenberg Language at the Speed of Sight p 139.) As these regions become more responsive, reading becomes more efficient.

“Every child’s brain has to change the way it functions as the child learns to read. For most students, instruction and practice during the primary grades is sufficient to “train” the regions in the brain to learn to read. Brain imaging research has revealed anatomical and functional changes in typically developing readers as they learn to read (Turkeltaub et al., 2003 as cited in Eden). Cunningham and Rose note that activation patterns in areas of the brain will be different depending on a student’s reading ability.” credit to Keys to Literacy Blog

So, when is the best time to stop using decodable texts?

There is no one right answer as to when to stop using decoding texts. The answer lies within each student. Here is our take on it.

  1. We always reinforce NEW phonics patterns with decodable text.
  2. Once our students have enough decoding skills under their belts (ie have learned vowel teams and a variety of syllable types) and can transfer understanding in non-controlled text, we will make the shift.
  3. We look at oral reading fluency scores (i.e. DIBELS 8 ORF) to see how they are transferring the skills. If progress monitoring supports that they are on grade level in terms of fluency, we will introduce more non-controlled text.
  4. Keep in mind that decodable texts are a powerful, necessary learning scaffold. There will come a time when it is appropriate to transfer to non-controlled text.
  5. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Teachers can introduce non-controlled text, but still reinforce newly taught phonics patterns with decodable texts.

Reading is a complex system. Therefore, teaching reading is complex. No two students are the same so it’s important to analyze each student’s reading and provide responsive instruction. Some students will need the scaffold of decodable texts longer than others. Some students’ brains adapt quickly to the reading process and generate neuronal pathways with minimal practice. Others will require repeated exposure with corrective feedback until they are ready for the next phonics element.

Foundational reading assessments can help teachers determine mastery.

We designed decodable running records that align with the science of reading. Our specific decodables are NOT based in the debunked MSV method. They are created to help the teacher determine where along the structured literacy continuum their students land.

The Administration Protocol guides teachers how to give the running record. The Guidelines for Analyzing directs teachers in gathering and interpreting the results. The focus of the analysis is on how students approach reading decodable words within connected text. Are the students able to read decodable words with automaticity? Then the teacher can infer that the student(s) have mapped this pattern orthographically and the neuronal pathways are secure. Do the students need to tap through each word? Then the neuronal pathways have not been solidified yet and further instruction in this pattern is needed.

Because structured literacy is NOT only about decoding and it is ALSO about fluency and comprehension, our decodable running records provide an avenue to assess those important skills as well. The science of reading is NOT a program, it is about best practices in reading. Used correctly, these running records align with the science of reading and help address students’ reading needs within a structured literacy framework.

These Assessments are Available in our TPT STore
Decodable Running Record Set 2

A word of caution:

One thing I learned the hard way during the heyday of Balanced Literacy and Leveled Readers is how damaging it can be to withhold books from students. I was proud of my classroom leveled library and the efficient system I had in place for book selection. Every student was expected to choose books within their specified level, and they did. At least up until I had a conversation with my high school son. I asked him why thought he loved to read, yet so many of his friends did not. He replied, “Well, when I was in second grade, I could read so I was allowed to read any book in the class library, but my friends were told, ‘no’. They were told no so often; I think they eventually gave up.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! Thus began my journey into the science of reading during which my approach to teaching was forever changed. The lesson I learned is, we should never withhold books from students because we can inadvertently send the message that reading is out of reach. That’s why read alouds, audiobooks, and access to the school and local libraries are so very important. These resources put coveted books within reach of everyone.

What’s the moral of the story?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ model when it comes to implementing or discontinuing decodable texts. As teachers of reading, we are responsible for watching our students and providing appropriate, responsive instruction. We make the ultimate decisions regarding best practices based on the science of reading and analysis of reading assessments. You can read more about foundational Kindergarten, First Grade and Second Grade assessments in these corresponding blog posts.

Want to know more about how decodable running records can be used to guide your instruction? We’ve written all about in our post about the best way to use decodable running records.


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