Foundational Reading Instruction: Decodable Texts or Levelled Texts?
The following piece draws on and summarises various articles, papers and discussion threads on the best types of texts to build a strong foundation for early readers.
Question 1: What is phonics?
Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has often emphasised that "the alphabet is a code that puts sounds into visual form." As we read, we turn these random shapes on paper – letters – back into sound!
Anyone who has the skills to read and comprehend this article may not be able to grasp the gravity of that definition. To help you along, have a look at this Phonecian alphabet. Each of these squiggly lines represents a sound. If you were able to attach a sound to each of these lines, you would, in short, be able to read this alphabet.
Here, it is important to mention that the very first step of learning to read is NOT phonics or decoding – the very first step of learning to read is developing oral language skills, that is, understanding spoken language and being able to speak in that language. Keep in mind that babies learn language right from birth – and even before their first birthdays, they are able to understand a lot of what is said to them, especially if their family talks to them and around them abundantly, as well as reads to them regularly. So, babies and toddlers already know words and sentences. What we've done is made the building blocks of these words and sentences into a written code – and the task is to help children connect this written code to the words they already know. The task is to help them decode. Phonics instruction is exactly that.
To make it clearer, phonics instruction is teaching kids the relationships between letters and sounds, and teaching it in a particular order – beginning with the most common letter-sound pairs first, and then going from there.
Question 2: Is explicit phonics instruction important?
There has been a lot of debate around this question – is it better to teach kids the code explicitly, or is it better for kids to be immersed in authentic texts and they pick up the code along the way? To understand more about these two approaches, simply Google the term Reading Wars.
What we need to keep in mind is that reading is not a natural skill, like walking, eating or speaking. Reading was an invention, just like playing the violin or swimming – this is important to keep in mind. If we can't reasonably expect a child to simply learn the violin by handing her a violin or simply learn how to swim by putting her into a swimming pool, we can't reasonably expect her to simply learn to read by handing her a book. Learning to swim requires us to learn how to float, how to move our hands and our legs, and how to regulate our breathing; and learning to read requires us to learn spoken language, to learn letters, to learn relationships between letters and sounds, to learn how to put those letters together to make words, to learn the meanings of new words (... and then to learn grammar, to learn how to read between the lines, to predict, to compare, to connect... phew!).
There is a lot of evidence to show that robust phonics instruction greatly benefits children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children whose home language is different from the medium of instruction at school. The benefits might be less evident for children from advantaged backgrounds, who have been exposed to rich conversations and texts right from birth, and receive a lot of language support at home as well as at school – but what we can be certain of is that it does benefit each child.
Now, onto the main question: What kinds of texts should we use in trying to build foundational reading skills for our children? There are two types of texts that are widely used – decodable texts and levelled texts.
Question 3: What are decodable texts?
Decodable texts are written specifically for beginning readers who are first learning how to sound out words using explicitly taught decoding strategies, rather than using context or picture clues to guess words.
Here is an example of two pages from a decodable text by InitiaLit Readers:
This text focuses on CVC words with short a and short e sounds. Children use strategies of segmenting and blending to read the words, and repeated reading or practice leads to them being able to recognise and read these words quickly as well as effortlessly – what is otherwise known as reading with automaticity, which is the goal.
Decodable texts are created sequentially so that children are able to build their phonics skills gradually – so other decodable texts will focus on other vowel sounds, both short and long, multi-syllable words, digraphs and diphthongs.
Some decodable texts try to cram in as many words that follow the rule/structure being focused on as possible, or as many words with letter-sound relationships that children have already learnt as possible, which creates nonsensical texts with no storylines (pin the tin in the bin); while other decodable texts repeat the same words several times over for practice which, again, makes for a boring read (ten red hens, ten red pens, ten red beds).
The best decodable texts are those that weave focus letter-sound relationships into authentic, engaging storylines that children can understand and enjoy.
The pictures above have been taken from the early reader books I See Sam, found here. These texts weave words with focus letter-sound relationships into engaging stories with a lot of scope for discussion and questioning. For example, as we read this particular story with kids, we can have the following discussion: Which one is Sid? How do you know? And Mat? How do you know? Do you think Sid is mad at Mat? Why? What is Mat doing? Would you be mad if you were Sid? Have you ever been mad at anyone?
For decodable text resources, check out this padlet: The Kastner Collection
Question 4: What are levelled texts?
Levelled texts contain "high frequency words, predictable sentence structures, and pictures that emphasize meaning" and are "rated on a difficulty scale," called a level. Teachers then match each student to a book level, and students move up from one level to the next as they gain reading skills.
Levelled readers don't focus on words with particular letter-sound relationships and may or may not be aligned to students' phonics abilities. Most importantly, they require students to use context as well as picture clues to guess words.
Here is an example of a Level D text for the 27th-36th week of Kindergarten:
Texts are assigned levels based on vocabulary, figurative language, sentence length and text complexity. You can read more about levelling of texts here.
Question 5: Which kind of texts will ensure a strong phonics foundation: decodable or levelled?
The answer to this question remains an issue of immense debate. However, there is ample evidence to show that decodable texts serve as the right training wheels to help students develop strong decoding skills for the following reasons:
They are simple to read and therefore build children's confidence and motivation to read.
They are excellent tools to build fluency and automaticity.
They provide targeted practice of letter-sound relationships.
They do not require children to rely on external clues but ensure that students are able to decode and read each word in the text.
At the same time, it is important to choose the right decodable books – those with authentic and engaging storylines. It is also essential to keep in mind that decodable books are simply one tool to build phonics skills and cannot be all that a child is exposed to – shared reading of fairy tales, singing of nursery rhymes, bedtime storytelling and lots and lots of conversations play a crucial role in building children's reading abilities.
unboxED is based on multi-disciplinary learning. It offers the child and parent resources to build a growth mindset at home while exploring Literacy and STEM concepts through conversations and creation, and letting kids be kids. These educational boxes have been built keeping in mind the academic and cognitive skills needed at various stages of the child’s development.