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Decodable Texts – How to Unlock the Power and Avoid the Pitfalls of Decodability [episode 57]


Click below to answer the question: What does decodable mean?:

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Overview of episode 57:

The new craze of the science of reading has reintroduced the educational world to utilizing decodable texts. And while elementary teachers use decodable texts, there are many inaccuracies and questions about them that need to be answered. In today’s episode, we’re unlocking the power of decodability and asking the question, what does decodable mean?

Determining the decodability of texts can be challenging because technically, every text is decodable. However, it’s not decodable for every reader, which is why we’d like to change the question of is this text decodable to who is this decodable for? 

We help to break down all the misconceptions and give the truths about decodable texts and what they mean. There are some difficulties surrounding them, but our goal is to always set students up for success. If you’re using decodable texts in your classroom, this episode is for you! 

Want more information and resources regarding decodable texts? Join us for next week’s episode where we’re talking about quality decodable texts and what to avoid. Also, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in our Teacher Approved Facebook group!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:48] Today’s morning message: what’s something you do that non-teachers wouldn’t understand?

[3:38] Resource of the Week: Cumulative Reviews

[6:39] The better question to ask and truths about decodable texts.

[14:04] How to choose decodable texts for your students.

[20:36] Today’s teacher approved tip for writing your own decodable sentences.


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Read the transcript:

Hey there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re discussing text decodability and sharing a teacher approved tip for writing your own decodable sentences.

We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do a morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is what’s something you do that non-teachers wouldn’t understand?

Emily, kick us off here. I think that would have to be spending all summer working on school stuff for free. We used to spend the entire summers working on huge projects for our class that took a lot of hours and yeah, you don’t get paid for that and I think most people would be like, What is wrong with you?

How about you, Heidi? I think being able to decipher beginning spelling. It’s like a foreign language. It is and I really pride myself on being able to read what I come across. When I go into my kids school and their stuff up on the walls, I’m like, I should be able to decipher this. And if I can’t, I’m really disappointed in myself. I do exactly the same thing.

We have some awesome responses from our community to today’s morning message. Marcy said take hours of work home like hours upon hours, gotta love being a procrastinator at the end of a trimester. Oh, that hurts.

Deborah said writing upside down and backwards. And it’s legible. That is a fee. I remember like definite pride in that with my little whiteboard at my reading table. S I could never do s upside down and backwards.

Shreeka said collect garbage for a really cool project: toilet paper rolls, liter soda bottles, bottle caps, other stuff I can’t think of right now, but we’ve all done it. Yeah, we probably all have a cupboard of it. Mm hmm. This is good. I’m gonna keep this I thought we could use this. Oh, I could do something with this.

Kimberly said do more work to take a day off than to actually go in. No joke. Kelly said have a list of names you will never name your child. For sure. Marie said use a cold wet paper towel to cure almost every melody. It does the trick, that is the secret only teachers know. Julia said stealing things from home to take to school.

Hillary said being able to read a story while simultaneously watching the whole class. Also, we can inconspicuously slip in a student’s name to redirect while still keeping the pace of the story. Once upon a time, there was a Johnny keep your hands to yourself princess who lived in a tall tower.

Not to mention the skill of holding a book and being able to I’ve had times when like, I’ve had to read to adults for whatever reason. And there was like, Oh, I love that you can do anything. It just takes practice. Oh, to hold it up? Hold it with one hand. And like of course, still manage to read the text kind of out of the corner of your eye. Every teachers do that 10 times a day.

And Tari said hoard colored pens, markers and sticky notes, all the teachers. We’d love to have you join the conversation over in our teacher approved Facebook group.

Now let’s talk about this week’s resource of the week our cumulative reviews for first and second grade. Heidi can you tell us a little about that? I would love to.

Cumulative review is one of our favorite and of your activities. Which might seem a little strange, but we love that it allows students to retrieve information from their memories that they might not had to have retrieved in a while. And it gives teachers the opportunity to assess where their students are with their skill retention at the end of the year.

The cumulative review questions can be used on slides, but our favorite way to do it is to print the questions and post them around the room. And then students can move around at their own pace, answering the questions on their answer sheets on clipboards. Of course, of course, always clipboard. It is just such a good way to get kids up and moving while they work. And of course the kids love it.

After students complete the questions, you can use the review slideshow to go over the answers together and help correct any misconceptions. That’s really helpful to the learning process if students can see their mistakes and have a chance to correct them.

We have cumulative reviews for math and ELA for first and for second grades. Each review has 128 editable questions for eight topic areas. And then you can just pick and choose which questions to use. You don’t need to use all 128 at once, please don’t. But there’s so many questions, you could do the activity multiple times, and use different questions each time.

And they’re editable. So you can do whatever you need to with these slides. It’s such an engaging activity to use as you prepare for end of year tests, you can find our first and second grade math and ELA cumulative reviews at And we’ll put a link in the show notes.

So as people who write reading passages these days, we get one question more than any other. And I bet you can guess what it is. What is it Heidi? Oh, that question is, is it decodable? If you have waded into the science of reading waters even a little bit, you’ve probably heard the word decodable thrown around like confetti recently.

I think the AutoCorrect on my phone went from not recognizing that word to predicting that I want to use it in just a couple of days. That’s how much we’ve been using it lately. Today, we’re going to share why asking if a text is decodable is not going to give you the answers you’re looking for, and offer a question that will guide you to more useful results.

So the problem with asking if a text is decodable is that the answer is always technically yes. Because all text is meant to be decodable. That kind of blew my mind when I first realized it. But you’re totally right. Yep, all text is decodable, texts exists to be read.

If you are writing a diary in a secret code that only you know how to read, that text is still decodable even if you are the only one that can decode it.

So Heidi, what is the better question that we should ask ourselves when we’re looking at the decodability of a text? So instead of asking if it’s decodable, a better question is for whom is this decodable? Ooh, fancy. Or you could phrase it, who is this decodable for? Justice for whom? I am sticking with what I said.

But back to that secret coded diary, it has just an audience of one, it would only be decodable by you, or maybe like a team of secret expert code breakers. So we probably should avoid secret diaries for reading instruction. Okay, fine. But more broadly speaking, who is the intended audience for the texting question?

Is it decodable for a teacher with several decades of reading experience? Who may suddenly be very interested in discovering someone’s Secret Diary? Or is it decodable for a six year old who is struggling to match letters and sounds? Decodable texts for those two people are going to be very different, hopefully.

So if we are asking the question, for whom is this decodable? The answer is that it is decodable for readers who have learned the phonics skills and high frequency words used in that text. That means that not every text is decodable for every reader.

A text with long I words would be decodable for students who have learned about long I, but not for those kids that are just starting with short A, which means no single text is decodable for every reader. So if all text is decodable, but not for every reader, what do teachers mean when they’re talking about decodable text?

In my experience, what they’re typically referring to is a text written using an intentionally controlled bank of words. For that reason, I personally prefer to think of these phonics based texts as controlled text as opposed to decodable texts. Hmm, do you think we could get everyone on board with changing the name? That ship might have sailed, but it would be handy.

And I have read a couple books where like the author’s refer to them as accountable text instead of decodable. Their point is that the text is holding students accountable for the phonics skills they’ve learned. And yet, like I can see what they’re saying. But I think I still come back to control text. And I like that because it describes the text, as opposed to describing the readers.

It’s a text with a controlled word choice and the words are limited to a controlled set of phonics skills and high frequency words. So the goal of a controlled text which we will use that interchangeably with decodable text now is for the words in the passage to give readers an authentic reading experience where they can apply the specific phonics skills they’ve learned up to that point.

And I think authentic is a really important distinction here, right. So how often a passage will be overly contrived in the aim of jamming in as many target words as possible. But being married to a specific skill in the name of decodability is not the best way to help beginning readers grow into skilled readers.

When a text is full of very uncommon, but decodable words, words like you know, NAB, or keg, the reader often struggles to make sense of the words, even if they can technically read every word. Which leads to the question of how many of the words in a text need to be decodable for the reader for the text to be considered decodable? Does it need to be every single word?

And that’s a very important question. And I haven’t seen it discussed in a lot of places, maybe, I mean, there’s probably corners of the internet I have not dived into, but I don’t see a lot of conversations happening around that question.

And to answer that, let’s travel back to the year 2000. Some of you probably weren’t even born. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. About that time, California and Texas started requiring textbook publishers to include decodable text in their reading programs. Okay, sounds like a good requirement.

And it was until they decided to go one step further, and define what percentage of the text had to be decodable. So in this case, they meant a student could sound out the words using phonics skills. So California decided 75% of the texts had to be sound out-able, and not yet then Texas mandated 80%

These decisions were apparently based on whims, I guess, if the majority, so more than 50% of the words in a text are sound out-able. That text is technically considered decodable. But there is zero research that specifies an ideal percentage of decodability. So to arrive at 75%, or 80%, was just an arbitrary decision with big consequences.

Yeah, since as we know what California and Texas decide determines what education looks like in the rest of the United States, they’re such big states that companies publish materials to align with their standards, and the rest of the country just goes along for the ride sometimes.

And that is exactly what happened here. Soon, we had the good idea of decodability being applied in questionable ways. And it all turned into a numbers game. Publishers were like, Oh, if 80% is good, we will be superior at 100%. It kind of became a competition.

They’re trying to figure out, you know, what can we leave out to get our percentage higher? And that led publishers to exclude the word the from their text. Oh, my God, that is nuts. So the single most used word in English isn’t sound out-able, right? So it was excluded from decodable texts until the middle of first grade. And that is just insanity.

So as you probably can imagine, what we ended up with, were all these books for early readers that are technically sound out-able, but they read like absolute gibberish.

Okay, so it sounds like we need to take a giant step back from the restrictions of a text has to be this certain percentage sound out-able to qualify as decodable. And instead figure out how to give kids quality texts that also give them practice with phonics skills and high frequency words.

And it is also okay for text to include an occasional story word, you can give a beginning reader a book about an elephant and they will be fine. Maybe they’ll even be more than fine. Maybe they’ll be more motivated to read because a book with an elephant might be way more interesting than a book about a hen in a den.

Yeah, if we’re going to have kids read a text, it should be worth reading. We’ve really got to lighten these arbitrary restrictions that we have placed around the definition of decodability, and come back to the question of who is this text for? And how does it meet their needs?

So how do we choose texts for our students? It comes down to identifying the skills our students are learning right now, and being aware of what they have already learned.

So let’s say I have a student who is learning the long O, with a silent E pattern. I might choose a text for that student called the mole and the rose. This book would be full of words like poke nose hole, all of those great long O words so that my student can practice their new skills.

But this text should also include words from previously learned phonics patterns. Yeah, so even for a kid working on long O with silent E, a text for them should include long A words if they’ve learned those and lots of short vowel words like dig and mud, so that the reader is continuing to practice all the skills they’ve developed.

I think that point that decodable text should incorporate previously learned skills is a point that is often missed. If you look around for decodable texts, you will notice that a passage usually goes really hard on a single skill, usually a single word family, and then it is never referenced again. Yeah, and these reading skills are cumulative, and they don’t need to be practiced in isolation. Right.

So when passages teach these skills in isolation, it looks a lot like, “Today we’re reading Tam and Sam get a ham. And tomorrow we’re reading Dan and Van get a van.” But Dan will never get Sam’s ham in his van. Oh, sad poor Dan. If you have a background in guided reading those sentences probably made you break out in hives a little bit, and we apologize.

Honestly, I definitely spent a lot of years turning up my nose at the mention of decodable texts. I felt that, at best, they were convoluted and contrived. And at worst, they resulted in nonsensical tongue twisters that students can’t even comprehend. And if you do an internet search for decodable texts, you will receive hundreds of results that are basically nonsensical tongue twisters.

But decodable texts aren’t the only problematic text for beginning readers. Let’s be fair and look at the other side of the coin here, traditional leveled books have their own set of problems.

So instead of being decodable, beginning, guided reading books are typically predictable. So a level A book might follow a pattern where just one word changes in each line, I see the clouds, I see the rain, I see the umbrellas. And then we have a twist at the end, I see the rainbow. We’ve all read a million of these kinds of books. And some of us here today may have written passages that are like that, too.

With predictable text, the word choice is still controlled, it’s just controlled in a way that a beginning reader has to guess at the unfamiliar words. And yes, like I taught with them, I know we, we taught them how to use the picture supports, and we taught them how to look for the letters they recognize. But is that really reading?

Yeah, that realization was the turning point for me in accepting that decodable texts might not be from the devil. I wish I could remember where I read it. But basically, the question was, if a beginning reader comes to word they don’t know, should they be able to sound out the word or have to guess?

And obviously, it just makes sense that our newest readers are given texts with words they can sound out or decode, rather than guessing that. If a beginning reader comes to the line, I see the clouds, and they read it as I see the storm, it’s tempting to think, well, they got the meaning, right. But is that really reading? We know it’s not.

If the author had wanted it to say storm, they would have written storm, understanding that gist if something isn’t the same as reading the words. It is really easy to separate pattern guided reading texts, and decodable phonics texts into two very different camps. But in reality, all texts have some level of both predictability and decode ability.

Yes, and our job as teachers is to know our students well enough to know when the predictability and the decode ability of a text align with our readers needs. Students aren’t meant to read controlled or decodable text forever. Part of recognizing a student’s needs is knowing when they are ready to move on from decodable texts.

Controlled texts are kind of like learning to drive in a parking lot. They give our students a safe space to practice the basics, like figuring out the difference between the gas and the brake pedals. And that is vital practice, right? And we want them to learn that, but you know, eventually they’re gonna have to get on the freeway.

So when students have enough phonics skills to figure out most unfamiliar words, we need to move them into more authentic reading experiences, whether that’s with traditional level passages, and books or trade books.

All of this requires a skilled teacher to guide the process seriously, because it is a lot to be aware of. And it’s a lot to have to adapt to if you have been teaching guided reading for a long time. It’s okay if it feels hard, because it is but of course your students are worth the effort.

If you want to learn more two books, we highly recommend are Choosing and Using Decodable Text by Wiley Blevins and Chapter Six and Shifting the Balance by Jan Birkins and Carrie Yates. Yeah, those authors do a really good job of breaking down the importance of decodeability for beginning readers, as well as pointing out some of the pitfalls.

So to recap when you are looking for the right text to read with your students, don’t ask yourself if a text is decodable. Ask yourself for whom is it decodable? And use that information to help you decide if it is the right text for your students.

Next week, we will talk about how to identify quality decodable texts, and also what to avoid. So be sure to come back for that discussion. We’d love to hear your thoughts on decodable or should we say controlled texts? Come join the conversation in our teacher approved Facebook group.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is write your own decodable sentences.

Heidi tell us about this. So if you do not have access to quality decodable texts, you can easily create your own. Wiley Blevins calls these accountable sentences. The idea is to use the sentences to put phonics skills to use right after a phonics or reading lesson.

There’s really no wrong way to do this, but Wiley recommends writing a numbered list of sentences, maybe five sentences for kindergarteners and 10 for older students. And then each sentence should contain at least one word with the target phonics skill.

But don’t limit yourself to just the day’s target skill. The other words in the sentences can use previously learned phonics skills, and any high frequency words that you have already taught. The key is to make sure you’re limiting the sentences to words the kids already know or ones you’re sure they can figure out. You probably want to avoid story words in this particular situation. Yeah, this isn’t a moment for an elephant.

But what should it look like? Let’s say for example, that my class is working on short I. I’ve already taught short A and short E, and some basic high frequency words like see and the so my sentences might be the pig sets. I see a big cat. The kid gets a hat. I see 10 cans in the bin.

Yeah, we might not think it’s exciting. But kids love the empowerment that comes from being able to read a whole page of text. The sentences you write can have a connected storyline, maybe the pig and the cat get hats too. But don’t feel like you have to stick with that it’s much easier to write separate sentences than to write a whole story.

Yeah, we’re aiming for effective and doable, over perfected and overwhelming. So once you have your list of sentences, distribute them to your students. And then you can have them take turns reading them to a partner. And look at that your kids are reading controlled decodable text. Lack of access to decodable books doesn’t mean you can’t give your kids targeted decodable text to read.

To wrap up the show we are sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Emily, what gets your extra credit this week? I’m giving extra credit to the recipe storage app called Paprika. It’s an iPhone app, I don’t know if it’s on other phones, sorry. In general, when I’m cooking, I have a recipe from someone’s blog open on my phone.

And anyone who has ever done this can tell you what a pain it is trying to keep your phone awake and navigate through the recipe sometimes when they’ve written like a novel, the recipe, and you’ve got potentially messy hands here. What I like about this app is that you put in the link for the recipe you want to use and it grabs the recipe and organizes it neatly into the app for you.

Even with a picture. If there’s one on the site, that’s cool. And while you have the app open your phone screen won’t go to sleep, which I know you can go in your phone settings and turn that off when you’re cooking. But it’s just annoying to have to like constantly do that. So and I always forget to I’ve been touching the chicken and I’m like, Oh, my phone’s dead. Yep, exactly.

It is a paid app, I think it was only a few bucks. And it has been so helpful to me as someone who doesn’t like cooking, and therefore needs to make the process as simple as possible. And it will save the ones that you come across that you want to be able to find again later or the ones you’ve already cooked. They’re all saved in the app for you to find so you don’t have to go find that blog post again and things like that. So highly recommend. That sounds really handy. I’m gonna have to check that out.

What are you giving extra credit to Heidi? So my extra credit is for Abbott Elementary and I know we have given them extra credit in the past probably more than once. But this is specifically for the episode socket to me.

And if you don’t remember this is the episode where Jacob students are captivated by a YouTube series called The silly sock show. And the show is just a family of sock puppets who talk in a made up language like me, me me, me me like you know Beeker from the Muppets. Okay, it’s silly storyline.

But this episode just made me feel so seen. It took me right back to 2010, which, as you may remember, is the year that Despicable Me came out. You will remember that if you were teaching in elementary school in 2010. Yeah, you know why that matters during those little yellow monsters. I wonder how many times I had to say your kid anatomy can talk like a kid. Probably not with that nice of a tone either.

And it’s just so refreshing to see a TV show accurately portray some of the settler issues that teachers deal with. You know, we lived through Frozen. My first rambling kids were with Lord of the Rings, because it’s been so long, everything was my precious.

It’s so nice. The way that Abbott elementary represents teachers in this way, even if there’s some other issues with the episodes like when they have these like long breaks together and in the break room, or they go to an assembly and like the teachers are sitting together instead of with the students.

I’m always a little like, what is happening here, but I do think it’s worth rolling your eyes at those moments. And laughing because it’s a funny show to get to these moments that really, really get to the heart of what it’s like to be a teacher. So definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

That is it for today’s episode. Remember to ask, Who is this text decodable for? And don’t forget our teacher approved tip to write your own decodable sentences. Do you want to say it again and say whom? No, I think we’ll be okay. Okay.

If you enjoyed this episode, we would love if you shared it with a teacher friend who might enjoy it as well. It’s the best way to help our show reach new listeners. And be sure to check out our show notes for links to anything we mentioned in this episode.

More About Teacher Approved:

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