May 14, 2008

Decodable vs. Predictable Texts

In the last post I described how to tell the difference between a balanced literacy and phonics-based reading program. The difference is in the texts that the students read. In balanced literacy programs, predictable texts are used. In phonics-based programs, decodable texts are used.

Someone requested an example, and before I had a chance to provide one, a teacher who goes by the handle PalisadesK provided not only a great example, but further elaborated on my point. Here's what she wrote.

Here are two examples from the Reading A-Z site, which offers both “leveled” books (balanced literacy approach – sight words and “predicting” from pictures and the first letter) and “decodable” stories, based on letter-sound correspondences that have been taught. In decodable stories, children should be able to work out the words even if they have not seen that exact word before, providing they have learned the letter/sound association, and learned the skill of blending sounds into words.

Both these are from the Kindergarten level, roughly partway through K:

Leveled Book:

(Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Level A)

Maria Counts Pumpkins

(each sentence is on a page by itself, with a detailed illustration)

Maria has one pumpkin. Maria has two pumpkins…. (etc.) up to Maria has seven pumpkins. Maria has too many pumpkins!

Note that most of these words are not “decodable” by the beginning kindergarten student, who would not have learned diphthongs (ou), or how to sound out two-syllable and three-syllable words like “Maria” and pumpkins” and “many.” The number words would have been taught as sight words, and can also be inferred from the pictures. “has” can be decoded, but might also have been taught as a sight word. Many K students learn letter names, but are not taught to decode words, left-to-right, saying the sounds. They are told to use the first letter sound as a “cue” to guess the word.

Now here’s a decodable story which would be appropriate for a child who had learned most of the single consonant sounds and the short vowel sounds (plus the long vowel digraph ay and final y and i-consonant-e as a long I sound)), and been taught to blend them together. Programs like “Jolly Phonics” teach these to four and five year olds in one school term, with a lot of practice in blending new words and spelling by sounds.

Decodable Book:

My Pug Has Fun

(format is the same, but there are several sentences on each page and a detailed drawing. The drawing would help the child confirm that he decoded correctly )

My pug Bud and I like to play. We like to tug on the rug. We like to get a bug. We like to sit on a rug in the sun. (New page, shows pug digging in a sandbox, holding a coffee mug in his jaws, while child takes a nap on a blanket or mat) My pug likes to tug my mug. He dug a pit. He put my mug in a pit.

There are a couple more pages about things the pug and boy do together. It’s not deathless literature, but it’s cute. The child can read it independently.

Many of the “leveled books” at the early stages (you can see some free samples on are quite contrived and boring. It’s hard to imagine any kid staying up with a flashlight to read these things under the covers! Although balanced literacy proponents make a big deal about exposing children to “authentic literature,” it is a sad fact that most of the “literature” the students read is contrived and far from authentic – or interesting.

Decodable stories are no prose masterpieces, either, but they do provide children with a chance to consolidate an important skill. Moreover, children who master decoding early and fluently will soon be reading that “authentic literature” that “whole language” enthusiasts love.


Anonymous said...

Here’s a story from Lippincott Basic Reading’s Exploring, a first grade decodable book last published in 1981. Exploring is the second of three first grade books. The other two are Starting Out and Reaching Higher. The sounds kids learn in Exploring are: ar, er, the three sounds of ed, w-warn, warm, want water, etc., aw, ow, l/ll, b, -le (apple), k, ck, nk, a_e, are (care), ee, ea, ai, i_e, ie, ir, o_e, or, ore, oa, oe, j, and v.

Kids are first taught the sound ‘ar’ and practice reading a list of ‘ar’ words which include arm art car card hard harm farm part start garden, etc. There are also vocabulary and dictation activities. Then the kids read the following story titled “Martin.” (The illustrations are of a young Asian boy, his parents, and a female doctor at the doctor’s office, in Martin’s bedroom, and in the front yard)

Martin must go to Dr. Hartman.
Mom starts the car.
Martin gets in.

It is not far.
Mom and Martin go in.

Dr. Hartman nods at Mom.
Martin has the mumps!

Martin must not get up.
It is hard for him to rest.

Pat sends Martins a card.
Pat did the art on the card.
It has a red star on it.

Grandma sent a card from the farm.
Grandma’s card has a gift in it.

Martin’s dad is in Barton.
Mom and Martin miss him.

A car stops.
It is Dad!

Dad and Martin rest on the grass.
Martin shows Dad his cards.

CrypticLife said...

My older (second-grade) son loved the "Man who could not hear" story in Zig Engelmann's "Teach your child to read in 100 Easy Lessons" -- he couldn't stop laughing about the old man mishearing in various amusing ways. It wasn't hard for him, but I don't think it was worthless as practice either, and was decodable text. The ones I'm going through with my younger son (a line or two, right now) are not thrilling, but I hope to get him to reading more meaningful stuff this summer. He's not in kindergarten yet. And his first language isn't English.

Anonymous said...

I should have said...The spelling of the sounds kids learn in Exploring are...& the kids are first taught the spelling of the sound 'ar.'

Anonymous said...

It is absolutely crucial that children learn to read. Yet the migration from decodable texts to predictable texts has let our children down. That is why California adopted the decodable text approach. You can find detailed explanations of decodable text vs. the Whole Language approach here.

that page lists discussion about why decodable text is better, and also privides about 200 decodable passages that you can use with your children

if you have a child who is struggline, definitely try the decodable text approach. I used it with my child and it worked.

Anonymous said...

Declaring that a text is "decodable" doesn't make it so. As Ken and palis... have explained, "decodability" depends on whether or not a child has been taught/learned how to handle the letter/sound (grapheme/phoneme) correspondences, and the syllabication of the words that comprise the text.

Any text is decodable if a kiddo can handle all of the 170ish Correspondences that comprise the Alphabetic Code that links written and spoken English. There are NO "irregular words"--just some complexity that is a function that there are fewer letters in the Alphabet (26) than there are sounds (40ish, depending upon who's counting).

Sorting out this discrepancy requires the 170ish correspondences, but the good news is that the correspondences that cause the most confusion--the ones used to show how "irregular" English is--are encountered in very few words. This permits the sequencing of instruction, and there are a handful of proven ways of going about the sequencing.

Teaching/learning to read per the Alphabetic Code is THE most parsimonious and reliable instructional orientation. However, some children learn to read without any formal instruction. Others learn despite the mis-instruction of "Whole Language" or WL masquerading as "Balanced Literacy."

The thing is, absent instruction per the Alphabetic Code from the get-go, there is a risk that kids will not learn to read. We're providing "high risk instruction" and attributing the consequences to "high risk kids." The prevail practice is creating academic and psychological consequences that plague later instruction, leading to "dyslexia" (kids who can't read), "dropouts" "watered down instruction" and on down the litany of "failure."

As Ken has said, "It's the instruction, Stupid. But the government-academic-publisher complex is thriving under prevailing conditions, using empty terms such as "reform," "science," "intervention," and bastardizing terms such as "basic" and "proficiency." To date, the media have swallowed and promoted the gobbledygook, and have bought into pinning "accountability" on teachers, kids, and parents.

Sooner or later, the travesty will be recognized At the moment, the odds seem to favor "later," rather than "sooner," but futures are difficult to predict.

Dick Schutz