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The Science of Reading and Leveled Readers

stacks of leveled readers and decodable books

The Science of Reading and Leveled Readers are the crux of the reading wars. If your school district is requiring you to use leveled readers as part of your reading instruction, there are ways that you can incorporate the science of reading within these texts.

Do Leveled Readers align with the Science of Reading?

The short answer is ‘no’. When teaching beginning and struggling readers, science supports explicit, systematic instruction of code and the application of the code using controlled texts. Leveled readers are not backed by science.

However, the use of decodable texts is not meant to be a lifelong instructional technique. The reality is, that students are going to encounter non-controlled texts at every skill level, so it is important to teach students how to navigate these types of texts.

Additionally, a lot of districts have spent oodles of money on leveled readers and they aren’t about to get rid of them. So what’s an informed teacher to do? This post will address the concerns of the early literacy teacher. For teachers of older students, please refer to our earlier post on How to Help Older Students Learn to Read.

Can I still teach phonics even if I have to use leveled readers during reading groups?

YES! In fact, you must teach phonics explicitly, sequentially, and cumulatively. Want to know more about the importance of phonics instruction?

We have lots of posts about the various phonetic elements. We’ll be adding to them regularly, so be sure to follow us and subscribe to our blog.

Below is the start of a suggested sequence of instruction. Click on the link to learn more about each phonetic element.

Closed Syllable

Consonant Digraphs in a Closed Syllable

Bonus Letters

Glued Sounds all, am, an

Suffix -s, -es

Glued Sounds ng, nk

Closed Syllable Exceptions

Consonant Blends

My district still requires me to use leveled readers. How can I incorporate them into a structured literacy lesson?

Take heart. All is not lost. There are Science of Reading practices that could and should be implemented when reading ANY text.

Assuming that you, the informed teacher, are implementing a structured literacy format into your reading lessons, you have set aside time for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. While not ideal, each of these components can be addressed and supported using a leveled reader, if you are thoughtful in your approach.

Vocabulary and Comprehension are the pillars of leveled text (as if decodable texts can’t offer the same – but I digress). In most cases, if you are using something like LLI, then the Teachers’ Manual provides information on addressing these two components.

Phonemic Awareness, if needed, can be addressed by previewing the book and selecting some words that the student will encounter. Remember, phonemic awareness is an oral skill so, if your students are having trouble with blends, choose some words with blends for oral practice of segmenting and blending. Currently, working on r-controlled words? Then preview the text for words containing that phonetic element.

More than likely, the two aspects of structured literacy that will need some careful crafting when using leveled readers are phonics and fluency.

Image depicting building strong neuronal pathways through the use of applying phonetic patterns

How can I implement phonics using non-controlled text?

While not ideal, it can be done. But, by all means, do NOT teach into MSV. (Read more about the detriments of MSV here.) Your main goal is to help students grasp the concept that code WORKS! So, as students read along in a leveled reader, if they stumble on a word that contains a phonics pattern they already know, remind them of that and encourage them to tap out (or sound stretch) the word.

On the other hand, if they struggle with a word that has an unfamiliar phonics pattern you have two choices. 1) tell them they haven’t learned that pattern yet and give them the word. OR. 2) Tell them they haven’t been taught the pattern yet, explain the pattern quickly, and show them how to tap out the word.


Let’s say they haven’t learned r-controlled yet and they encounter the word dirt. You can say, this word has what is known as an r-controlled vowel or a bossy r pattern. R changes the sound of the vowel. In this word the vowel sound is /ir/. Listen to me tap the word /d/…/ir/…/t/, dirt. You try it.

How do I address fluency while using leveled readers?

There are a number of ways that teachers can incorporate fluency lessons within leveled readers that incorporate the science of reading.

First, explain to the students that fluent reading doesn’t necessarily mean FAST reading. Fluent reading means paying attention to punctuation, reading in scoops or phrases, and a ‘just right’ reading rate. Just right means that it’s not too fast and not too slow.

Start by introducing phrasing. Choose some phrases or complete sentences from the text. Type them up on a separate paper. Scoop the phrases (or have students scoop). Then practice reading in phrases/scoops. If students struggle with this, use the ‘my turn, your turn‘ technique. You read it first, then students echo.

Repeated readings are a powerful vehicle for achieving fluency.

Remember, fluency takes time to build, especially with struggling readers. Break the text down into smaller portions, provide modeling with ‘my turn, your turn‘, and give them plenty of opportunities to practice the same text.

When should my students read leveled readers?

For your struggling students and students with dyslexia use caution when asking your students to read leveled readers independently. Because these texts are non-controlled, the indiscriminate use of leveled texts during independent reading time will likely serve to reinforce bad reading habits such as guessing. You’ll know if your students can’t read the book independently if they start building forts with the books or wearing them as hats.

Student wearing a leveled reader as a hat.
Books are not hats.

Ideally, leveled readers should be incorporated into guided reading groups or strategy groups so that the teacher can provide a scaffold.

If you must have students read leveled text during independent reading time (because the district curriculum demands it) then whenever possible, provide an audio component that will allow students to follow along in the written text. Please provide decodable texts alongside these leveled readers. Independent practice in decodable readers helps reinforce the phonetic element AND builds those all-important neuronal pathways.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

Never blame a child for not knowing how to read a word whose pattern they have not been explicitly taught to decode.


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