Check out the Teacher Approved Club! ➔

High Quality Decodable Texts: How to Separate the Trash from the Treasures [episode 59]


Click below to hear what makes a good decodable text:

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher

Overview of episode 59:

We have to be honest. When we first set out to discuss decodable texts, we didn’t anticipate having multiple episodes on the topic. However, as this continues to become a hot topic, we want to continue to share our knowledge and ideas we’ve learned to help you. As we’ve established what decodable means, our final episode covers what makes a good decodable text. 

In previous episodes we’ve established that not every text is decodable for every reader, so there are common pitfalls in decodable texts that you should avoid. We mention the three criteria from last week’s episode, while adding a list of more things to look for when determining what makes a good decodable text. 

With so many texts on the Internet claiming to be good decodable texts, it was important to us to share our guidelines to help you on your journey in identifying what makes a good decodable text.

After listening to our episodes on decodable texts, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in our Teacher Approved Facebook group!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:49] Today’s morning message: what is the most used phase in your classroom?

[3:27] Resource of the Week: DLITE Days Sets

[9:58] A list of common pitfalls with decodable texts

[16:10] Using criteria of a quality decodable text on an example decodable text

[20:02] Today’s teacher approved tip for doing something nice for yourself


If you enjoyed this episode, you’ll love these too:

Read the transcript:

Hey, there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re sharing some common pitfalls of decodable texts that you should avoid and sharing a teacher approved tip for doing something nice for yourself.

We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is what is the most used phrase in your classroom?

Emily, what would be the phrase in your classroom? I think mine would be the teacher classic of, “I’ll wait.” I think we all know from experience that occasionally this will work. And a lot of times you’ll just be waiting a long, long time for your class to be quiet and listen.

And then you have that panic of like, how do I escalate this without looking like I made a mistake? Or not even noticing that setting up here. It always helps if one of your like teacher’s pet students is like, hey, hey, you guys. We need those kids.

How about you, Heidi? I have to go with, “When I say go,” all day long. And then there’s also a lot of sit flat on your pocket. Yep. I feel like I use that one a lot in preschool everyday because there’s always those kids that wanted to sit up on their knees. And then no one behind them could see. Yep, just so not self aware those little ones.

We have some responses from our Teacher Approved community. Shannon said four on the floor or have it no more to stop them leaning back in their chair. I love it when it rhymes. Yep. And I’ve said that one before. Stacy said Worry about yourself. And Christina and Lauren both said, what should you be doing right now? Which I think we can all relate to those ones.

Stephanie said depth is more important than speed. I liked that one. Amber said seriously? Did you really just flippin’ do that? And if you don’t say it out loud, you definitely think it. Vicki said is that a kind or unkind choice? Oh, that’s a nice way to put it. Usually I’m saying make a better choice. Yep. That’s my go-to.

Holly said manage your mind. I like that. Susan said, I don’t have any band aids, you’ll have to go to the office at least five times. Susan get a box of band aids. No, no, they don’t even need the band aids. She knows what she’s doing. She knows it. And if you teach in like second grade or below, you’re getting asked for band aids constantly. We know how it is. I actually didn’t keep band aids for that reason, and just get a wet paper towel and see if that helps.

Valerie said I would love to, but my class is still talking. And Danielle said did you write your name? And they will all say yes, yeah, they will lie. Yep. They didn’t even look after they said yes. 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 DLITE Days sets. DLITE stands for differentiated learning and integrated theme experience. Obviously, what else would DLITE stand for? And of course, we didn’t make up the acronym because we liked the word delight. No. It’s just the only acronym we could probably come up with for this.

Heidi, why don’t you tell us about DLITE Days. So a DLITE Day or theme day is just what it sounds like. We have learning activities and Okay, we’re gonna throw in a couple of fun activities, organized around a theme.

The novelty of a theme is what makes it so successful. These theme days are our secret weapon for the end of the school year. They make planning easier, and they keep kids engaged at a busy crazy time of year. And even though we might be doing a lot of things we do on a normal day, because we’re making those activities part of the theme, it instantly boosts student engagement.

Yes, it really works. We have two DLITE Day bundles, one for a camping theme and one for a space theme. And they’re both so much fun. So each theme bundle includes math and literacy student work packets that are differentiated with three levels of difficulty. So you could pick like for one topic, you might want an easy level for another one, you might want a harder level, you get to decide.

There’s a differentiated around the room review activity. Yeah, we want to be getting that review in at the end of the year as much as possible. A quick quiz to let you know how your students are doing with the topics that they reviewed in these activities. So you know if you need to reteach anything. We’ve got themed brain breaks a differentiated close reading comprehension, passage, the writing activity and lots more.

DLITE Days are some of my favorite days of the whole school year, the theme makes a regular day of school memorable. You can find our delight day bundles at the link in our show notes.

So we hadn’t planned to dedicate three podcast episodes to decodable text, but here we are. That’s how it goes. It turns out we had a lot to say about decodable texts. In previous episodes, we mentioned that for a long time, we viewed decodable texts as basically pointless. So we’ve had a lot of unlearning to do. And we want to share what we’ve learned with you.

Yeah, a few years ago, I wrote more than 60 beginning reader passages, and decodability wasn’t even on my radar. In my mind, decodable passages were tongue twisters at best and incomprehensible nonsense at worst, and who needed that? We had the shiny new pattern text to give our beginning readers. And that was, of course, the golden ticket to learning to read. Hey, they told us it was okay. We did what we knew.

But the result of that is that I have ended up using some of our old pattern texts as bad examples in our past podcasts. Oh, it’s sad, but at least we got some use out of those. But just because decodability in a text is good, it doesn’t mean that all decodable texts are created equal.

So to recap what we’ve already talked about, if you listen to episode 57, we did a deep dive into what makes the text decodable and explained that all text is decodable. The important thing to ask is, who is this decodable for? The answer is that is decodable for readers who have learned the phonics skill and high frequency words used in that text. That means not every text is decodable for every reader.

In our last episode, Episode 58, we talked about characteristics of a quality decodable text. It should be comprehensible, instructive and engaging. So if it’s comprehensible, the text should make sense and follow natural sounding English patterns. And most of the words should already be part of children’s vocabularies.

Comprehension really has to be priority number one. It’s pointless to have students reading a text they can’t make sense of even if they can decode the words. We’re also looking to see if a beginning reader text is instructive. That means that the majority, so 51% or more of the words, should be figure-outable based on the phonics skills and high frequency words that the reader has previously been taught.

The point of a decodable text is that it teaches something. So we have to make sure we’re choosing texts that provide plenty of targeted practice for a particular skill, and also reviews previously learned skills. And then of course, we want a text that’s engaging. Any texts we choose for our students should offer some level of interest.

So these guidelines that we shared came from the 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers. Considering the information in that report is almost 40 years old, you’d think that more decodable texts would meet the standard of being comprehensible, instructive and engaging. But that is so not the case, it turns out.

Unfortunately, you are right. Poorly written decodable texts are the rule more than the exception. And it is not just the passages written by teacher sellers on TPT, or self published authors on Amazon. Even big publishers struggle to produce quality decodable texts.

On page 29 of his book, Choosing and Using Decodable Texts, which we highly recommend, Wiley Blevins says, “I began to explore decodable texts widely available from educational and trade publishers. Many of these texts appeared on recommended lists by various educational organizations and still do. What I found was even more surprising. A significant number of these books had issues. These recommended lists seem to be based solely on availability rather than quality, quality matters.”

Based on his deep dive into the world of decodable texts, Wiley highlighted several issues that crop up in lots of texts that claim to be decodable. We’re going to discuss his list and add another issue that we think warrants consideration. So can you kick us off Heidi? Absolutely.

So the first issue with many decodable texts is that they use uncommon words to cram in more words with the target skill. So assume we’re practicing short O. A decodable passage that is trying to squeeze in as many short O words as possible, might read: “The tot did sob for a bit.” Right there, we’ve already violated the comprehensible standard.

We’ve got unfamiliar words like tot and sob that a student reading this level of text isn’t going to be familiar with. And it really doesn’t sound much like natural English. This significantly impacts the readers ability to comprehend what’s happening. Just because a student can sound out the words doesn’t mean they understand the words.

Of course, we want to teach new vocabulary. But when you cram too many unfamiliar words into a passage, it just sounds like nonsense. Wiley also points out the problem of using non standard English sentence structures. And once you’re aware of this one, you will see it everywhere. Oh, it is absolutely everywhere.

Using non standard sentence structure sounds like “Wes did hit it, he did run to get it.” And even that earlier sentence I read, “The tot did sob a bit.” Sometimes authors use these tricks to avoid using the past tense. Something like did catch is more sound audible than caught, or did sob is decodable for a beginning reader, where sobbed is too advanced.

And this is where we’re a bit between a rock and a hard place. Because the decodable text is limited by a controlled word choice, authors don’t have a ton of wiggle room when it comes to favoring natural sounding English over decodability. Now, this is just my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth. But I feel like an occasional did catch or did see isn’t going to hurt any new readers.

Even the best decodable texts sound contrived. So using an occasional did see instead of saw is probably fine. But you definitely want to avoid texts that make a habit of deploying did to get out of a tricky grammar spot.

Another common issue with decodable text is using too many pronouns. You might be thinking that we’re being very picky here. What’s the big deal with a lot of pronouns right? But the problem with this is that it obscures the meaning of the text.

So a decodable sentence might be, “She went to get it from him.” Who is she? What is it? Who is him? Right. Pronouns mean, there is a lot for the reader to keep track of. A sentence like “Anne went to get the ice cream from him” is much clearer.

Now we hear you saying wait, ice cream isn’t a short vowel word and you’re not wrong about that. But if you listen to our episode last week, which if you have missed it, you should go back and listen to it. It’s a gem, it’s good. One of our best. We explain that a passage does not have to be 100% sound outable to be considered decodable. It just needs a majority of decodable words.

Ice cream is an example of what we call a story word. Assuming there are enough picture supports a story word or two can greatly increase your readers engagement in the text. And after all, we are looking to keep things engaging. It’s not a win to give your reader a book that is 100% decodable, but has a jumbled meaning. Including a clear noun that might not be decodable is better than a bunch of vague pronouns.

But nouns do not always come to the rescue. Just like too many pronouns as a problem, so is using too many names. And yet again, I’ll say this problem is everywhere, you’re going to see it everywhere. Authors of decodable texts love to use lots of names, particularly unfamiliar names, to increase the number of sound outable words in their texts.

This one really does drive me crazy, because it sounds so unnatural. Just the other day I saw a passage with Rex Mex and Max. And Max is probably okay, because most kids are familiar with Max. But most kids are not going to recognize Rex and Mex as names. Odd names read as nonsense words. And I’m going to say that again because I think it’s important. Odd names read as nonsense words, and they muddy a text meaning.

A problem that’s maybe more sneaky than some of these other ones is avoiding using the word the and other high utility words because they’re not sound outable. We can teach words like the and she and there in meaningful ways so kids can read them before they have mastered the phonics rules for sounding them out. And in fact, we’re doing kids a disservice if we don’t do this.

And we should point out another important issue and that is ignoring the complexity of text features when determining if a text is decodable. So this is just something that has become a bit of a red flag to me lately. In discussions around decodable texts, it’s assumed by most people that letter patterns are the only thing that determined decodability. But words aren’t the only criteria for determining a text difficulty.

There are lots of features to keep in mind. What is the font size? How much space is between lines? How many words are in a sentence? At what point do we introduce dialogue? When do students have the skill for sentences to cross that line break and pick up on the next line? What about things like contractions and plurals? Can students read about 10 cats before they have officially learned the rules for plural nouns?

Text features need to match skill level. But so far, I really haven’t come across a source that’s able to correlate text feature complexity, and phonics skills progression. So when you’re looking at decodable text, it’s important to look beyond just the words.

So now we’re going to use our criteria to evaluate a brief decodable text. Remember, we want something that is comprehensible, so it uses regular language; instructive, so it teaches a phonics skill, and reviews previously learned skills, and it’s engaging, or it’s not dry as dust.

And we also want to avoid the common pitfalls: too many unfamiliar words, non standard English, too many pronouns or unfamiliar names, avoiding high utility words like the, because they don’t fit the phonics skill, and the text not accounting for the difficulty of text features.

So here’s our text: “Nan has a fan. Nan’s fan is tan. Dan bands Nan’s fan. “Bad Dan!” says Nan. Nan is mad. No man can ban Nan’s fan!

I mean, Nan should stand her ground, she can make her own decisions. Very pro Nan. But let’s start with the big three criteria for identifying quality. Is that text comprehensible? Well, it’s not great. It has a storyline, but it’s definitely hard to follow. Agreed.

So how about instructive? Is it instructive? It has a lot of practice of the -an word family, but really nothing else. Assuming you have already taught other word families or vowel patterns, you would want to see those worked in. And we know it’s not engaging. There’s no need to even discuss that.

But how about the pitfalls? Well, it uses the unfamiliar word ban. Most kids won’t know that word and understanding that word is necessary to understanding the whole quote plot of this text. It says, “Dan bans Nan’s fan”, instead of “Dan did ban Nan’s fan,” so I guess that’s a point in its favor. But we’ve got that unfamiliar name like Nan, and very few high frequency words.

There’s has and says, and those are about the only ones. Which brings us to another problem. A short A text is probably written for the very earliest readers. Yet this passage includes possessive nouns, exclamation points, and dialogue. I think those features are too advanced for a reader at this level.

So I think we are agreed that we should ban Nan’s fan sorry, Nan. You may now be thinking that every decodable text is riddled with problems. But there really are quality decodable resources out there. The problem is that it’s difficult to sift through the trash to find the treasures.

Now that decodability is a hot topic, people with no understanding or very limited understanding of the nuance of reading development, are jumping into the marketplace offering stacks of decodable readers. And if you act now, you can get them on a discount.

It may sound like we’re being harsh on some of the publishers of decodable texts. And that’s because we are. It infuriates me to see how many corners of the Internet are pumping out poor quality decodable passages. They are taking advantage of teachers who are desperate to do the best they can for their students. And not only is it predatory, but it’s harmful. They are hurting kids with this garbage.

But we’ve given you some great guidelines to help you on your journey here. As you hunt for decodable texts for your students, make sure to select texts that are comprehensible, instructive and engaging. And do your best to find texts that avoid the pitfalls like cramming in unfamiliar language or non standard English, or texts that fail to take into account the complexity of text features for beginning readers.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating the problems with some decodable text. Come join the conversation and 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 do something nice for yourself. You tell us about this, Heidi.

So if there is something small in your classroom or in your life in general, that isn’t working the way it’s meant to do yourself a favor and upgrade. In my second grade classroom, I had a tape dispenser where that like little cutter piece on the front came loose, and I literally had to tape it back on. I didn’t use tape that often so it was only a minor inconvenience.

I didn’t really think about upgrading it except for when I needed to get a piece of tape. It would have been such a simple fix. Anytime I could have replaced it with the dispenser that actually worked. It just felt like more of a hassle to solve the problem and to keep living with it. But you don’t have to be like me, you can live a happier more tape filled life than I did.

If there’s something little like a broken tape dispenser, or loose scissors, those kinds that just don’t cut, or a pencil sharpener that chews pencils, give yourself the gift of upgrading to a tool that does the job it’s meant to. It is such a happiness boost to have a tool that does the job the right way. Yes.

To wrap up the show, we are sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Emily what gets your extra credit? I’m giving extra credit to Daisy Jones and the Six. So fun. I read the book several years ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard the audio recording is incredible. So I kind of wish I had listened to it. But I read it and I did still think it was great.

And now the series just came out on Amazon Prime. It’s been long enough since I read the book that I can’t remember what details have been changed, which I think is the key to being able to enjoy both the book and a screen adaptation. I have multiple times hurried to read a popular book because the movie was coming out and then you see the movie back to back. And that is a mistake because you will notice every single thing they change and if you love the book that will bug you.

But because it’s been long enough, I don’t remember what they changed. So I could just enjoy the series as its own separate thing. And I thought they did a really good job with it wasn’t perfect, and I would probably change some of the casting. Looking at you Sam Claflin. If it were up to me, but otherwise, I thought it was a great watch. And I’ve been listening to the soundtrack a ton ever since I love the soundtrack. It’s so good. It’s so good. I’m only couple episodes into the show, but I’m really enjoying it. Yeah, get on it.

How about you, Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to? My extra credit is much less exciting. It goes to the downtime feature on the iPhone. So I struggle with going to bed at a decent hour, like to the point where every night is a battle. Like I’m three. And I realized that one of my biggest hurdles was getting lost on my phone when I’m tired and I think Oh, what was the name of that one book I liked when I was six, it seems like a good time to dive down that rabbit hole. Oh, yes, I’ve been there.

So a couple weeks go, I set up the downtime feature to turn on at 10pm. And then I selected the apps I wanted to always be available and then the ones I wanted to be kind of turned off during downtime. The thing I like is that you can still access any app, you tap on it and then it asks if you want to ignore the downtime. So it’s easy to open something if for example, you suddenly remember that you need to add something to your grocery list.

But having that little pause before the app opens gives me the chance to reconsider. Do I really want to be scrolling Amazon at 11:30pm? It has been a big help in making better decisions at a time when I am not always making the best decisions.

And if you have an iPhone and you’re interested in this, it’s really easy to find you just go to settings, and then like four or five down is screen time, and then when you click on that downtime is one of the options in screen time. And then you just set a schedule and select the apps that you want to include or exclude.

I love this. I use downtime to schedule when I don’t want calls and texts to come through. But I haven’t put any apps in there that I want to not be available and I think I probably should do that too. Oh, that’s smart to do it like during work time and stuff like that. Multi use tool on the phone.

That’s it for today’s episode. Make sure to avoid these common pitfalls of decodable texts. And do something nice for yourself because you deserve it. Yeah, you do.

If you enjoyed this episode, will you please share it with another teacher friend who would want to hear about decodable texts? Recommendations from friends are the number one way that new listeners find our show. So thank you very much for sharing

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.

Share it: