The debate is over. Reading words by attending to all of the letter-sound correspondences is how our brain learns to read efficiently. This is not new science, nor is it a pendulum. This is over 40 years of research. The science tells us that students need to focus on the letter-sound correspondences (word reading) to decode. Students should not use context clues or pictures. Are pictures bad? No, they are a great way to check the decoding and comprehension. But encourage your students to read the WORDS FIRST and then CHECK WITH THE PICTURES if they need.
Thankfully, even balanced literacy proponent, Lucy Calkins agrees. She and her colleagues at Teachers College have embraced some parts of the science of reading and encourage decodable books. Lucy Calkins said in her 2020 Postcards from a Journey: “Decodables help young children solidify their phonics by giving them opportunities to apply the phonics skills they’re learning…We recommend that decodables are part of a student’s reading diet.”
SO WHAT ARE DECODABLE BOOKS?
A decodable book focuses on one new grapheme (sh), spelling pattern (the drop e rule when adding a suffix), or morphological unit (prefix re-). It uses a controlled set of vocabulary with spelling patterns and morphological units that have already been explicitly taught to the student.
WHY DO WE USE DECODABLE BOOKS?
Especially in the earlier stages of literacy instruction, decodable books require students to use their phonic decoding skills instead of guessing. While this reading approach has long been used for students with the Orton Gillingham approach and students with dyslexia, current research tells us that this is the correct reading approach for ALL students!
We TEACH reading in different ways; they LEARN to read proficiently in only one way. Teaching is what we do- learning is what their brains do.
— Dr. David Kilpatrick
Reading decodable texts helps lead to orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is the long-term, efficient way that readers seemingly read “by sight.” But in fact, proficient readers do not use their visual memory at all for reading those words “by sight.” Instead, orthographic mapping builds the relationship between letters and sounds to bond the spellings and pronunciations of words in the most efficient manner. Once a word is correctly orthographically mapped, the reader does not have to laboriously decode it each time he encounters the word. Instead, the word becomes permanently stored (“mapped”) as sight words for future, instant recall. This improves fluency and allows the brain to focus its energy on comprehending the text…the ultimate goal of reading!
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DECODABLE BOOK AND A LEVELED BOOK?
Both types of books improve fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. At some point both types should be a part of a reader’s personal library. While a decodable book focuses on one phonic/spelling pattern, leveled books combine many phonetic patterns, sight words, and vocabulary. As the word knowledge, vocabulary, and sentence structure increase in difficulty, the level of the book increases. Depending on the difficulty of these components, publishers “level” the text accordingly. Some companies use letters A-Z and some use numbers to level, but they all increase in text difficulty. Leveled reading texts use the terms Independent, Instructional, and Frustration levels to assess a student’s reading ability within a level.
Teachers use leveled readers most effectively when used as part of a guided reading lesson and close teacher monitoring of student progress. For most students, the use of leveled readers is appropriate after the students have mastered many of the decodable reading strategies for orthographic mapping. Some may ask, “Why we should wait to use leveled readers when they are so engaging?” If we push too many skills at one time in a text, we encourage the student to guess at words. We don’t want them to use memorization, pictures, or context clues to read. We want them to use all of the letters from left to right to attack each word.
So, when students are learning to put sounds together to form simple words, encourage them to use decodable text. Instead of using those early leveled readers A-H for independent reading time, teachers can use them for read alouds to build background knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension. Then once the decoding skills are solid, introduce leveled readers. It’s not an either or approach. But instead it is a balanced “diet” with decodables first and leveled readers introduced later.