What Is Set for Variability and Why Is It Important?

What is Set for Variability and Why is it Important with a picture of two black and white sneakers with arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Set for variability is a reading strategy that uses knowledge of stored vocabulary to correct the mispronunciation of a decoded word. First, readers use letter/sound relationships to decode a string of letters within a given word. If a word contains a pattern the reader is unfamiliar with, they may initially mispronounce it. However, if that word is in the reader’s spoken vocabulary, they address the discrepancy by checking their stored word knowledge and adjusting the pronunciation to match the known word. The reader accesses their oral vocabulary to ‘flex’ the pronunciation.

For instance, the student may be learning about the vowel-consonant-e pattern. In the following sentence:

James was done with lunch, so he tossed the trash in the bin.

The reader may initially read the word done as /dōn/ by applying the vowel-consonant-e pattern. Realizing that /dōn/ does not make sense in this sentence, they access their oral vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, flex their word attack skills, and change /dōn/ to /dun/.

What skills do students need to apply the ‘set for variability’ strategy?

The underlying skills a reader needs to use this flexible reading strategy are phonemic awareness, correct letter-sound relationships (the alphabetic principle for accurate and effortless decoding, and a strong oral vocabulary.

In addition, students need texts that provide an opportunity to apply this flexible strategy. It is unrealistic to expect students to read only 100% decodable texts all the time, this is much too restrictive. We want to open up the world of reading, not restrain it. Limiting reading to 100% decodable texts prevents readers from using the ‘set for variability’ strategy.

Strategic choice of texts is important. Decodable texts are necessary for emergent and struggling readers and when introducing a new phonics skill to older readers. BUT, even decodable texts require some irregular words or ‘not yet patterned’ words to ensure that the text sounds like the way we speak. 100% decodable texts result in stilted language and give decodable texts a bad name. So, students must have access to appropriate texts (decodable and/or noncontrolled) to have opportunities to apply the ‘set for variability’ strategy.

Additionally, there comes a time when students will not be dependent upon decodable texts. They will reach a point in learning to read in which they begin to learn by analogy and begin to tackle new patterns on their own. Mark Seidenberg explains this in Episode 10 of the podcast ‘Sold a Story’.

Mark Seidenberg’s research has shown that the brain has a remarkable ability to learn from the statistical regularities in language, such as the frequency of certain spelling patterns in words. Explicit instruction is critical at first – most kids don’t just start picking this up. But research shows that a lot of what a good reader eventually knows about words – and how they’re spelled and what they mean – is stuff they learned implicitly, through reading. Mark says the goal of reading instruction should not be to teach kids everything they need to know. It should be to teach them enough so that this implicit or statistical learning can kick in.” 

Isn’t this just another form of the multi-cueing system or MSV?

No, this is a very different approach. Set for variability requires a phonics first method of decoding. It does not require (or encourage) the reader to look at the picture, think about what makes sense, or use the first letter and guess a word.

Instead this strategy requires students to apply their knowledge of letters and sounds and use a flexible approach to word solving by trying a different sound represented by the spelling pattern.

One first-grade teacher I know explained it to her class this way. She had taught her class the closed syllable pattern and they were venturing into the CVCe syllable type. She held out her hand palm up and said, “Try one sound, if it doesn’t work try another sound.” Then she would flip her hand palm side down. Eventually, all she had to do to cue her readers was to flip her hand palm-side-up to palm-side-down. The visual cue was enough to prompt her readers to use known sounds flexibly.

Set for variability, image of a hand palm-side-down prompting students to try another sound.

Jen explains it another way. She says, “Decoding gets the student’s foot in the door to reading a complex word. Flexible thinking through accessing oral vocabulary opens the door to the correct word.”

Decoding will only get the reader so far. If the word is not in the reader’s oral vocabulary, they won’t be able to access the correct pronunciation. For example, if a student has never heard the word ‘canine’, they may decode it as /can/…/ine/ which reflects phonics knowledge, but is the incorrect pronunciation. This is an example of ‘using but confusing,’ a term used by Donald Bear and colleagues in their research in word study.

The student applied the closed syllable pattern to the first syllable, rather than the open syllable. Some students who have the term ‘canine’ as part of their lexicon may be able to correct the mispronunciation without further instruction.

However, if the word is not part of a student’s oral language, it is up to the teacher to provide the correct pronunciation and teach into the meaning of the word.

Where does ‘set for variability’ fall within the science of reading?

The science of reading is constantly evolving. It is important for practitioners of reading instruction to ‘flex’ our thinking and evolve alongside the science of reading.

Several evidence-based studies support the ‘set for variability’ strategy. Tunmer and Chapman found that “vocabulary and phonemic awareness made independent contributions to variance in ‘set for variability’; that vocabulary directly influenced future reading comprehension and indirectly through both decoding and word recognition…”

Remember, set for variability is not about guessing and checking; it’s about using code to get their ‘foot in the door’, accessing their oral vocabulary, and flexing the pronunciation to solve a word.

For more on ‘set for variability’ check out the following sites.

Reading Rockets


Phonics International

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