One thing that I find myself frequently explaining to parents, students, and other teachers is the rationale for using decodable texts. Students are accustomed to using leveled texts in their classrooms and in many school-based interventions that follow and balanced literacy model of instruction. While engaging, there are important reasons why decodable text can be valuable for your students with dyslexia, particularly during the early stages of their Orton Gillingham lessons or structured literacy intervention.
1. The use of decodable text forces readers to practice their decoding skills instead of relying on pictures or guessing. Brain research tells us this strengthens the growing neuronal connections in the brain. Watch Stanislas DeHaene to learn more in “How the Brain Learns to Read.”
Bright children with a good sense of story and fairly strong memory manage to fly under the radar with their reading problems. They may be really good at using picture clues to guess. These same children will often struggle dramatically when faced with isolated words, text with no pictures, or multisyllabic words. The use of decodable texts helps them to break old habits and utilize their newly learned strategies.
2. It helps strengthen orthographic memory.
Expand your definition of sight words from irregular words to words that are in a student’s long-term memory and are instantly recognizable in reading or instantly recalled in writing. This core of words makes up your student’s reading and writing vocabulary. The larger the sight word vocabulary, the more fluent a reader becomes. As your children are exposed to consistent orthographic patterns with repeated exposures, these patterns become more automatic and students develop a sense of when words “look right”. This is something that takes MORE repeated exposures and practice for students with dyslexia. The utilization of decodable texts reinforces these without frequent irregular or untaught phonetic patterns muddying the waters.
Children learn to apply their knowledge of explicitly taught phonics skills or spelling concepts.
When we first introduce a particular phonics skill, we begin by introducing that phonics skill at the most isolated and basic level. This phoneme makes this sound. We move into reading words that use the pattern, phrases, sentences, and finally using this phonics skill within continuous text. The use of carefully chosen decodable text makes that scaffolding process complete. With the same sort of deliberate structure, we support their writing moving from writing the single grapheme, to isolated words and finally sentences. Seeing spelling rules play out and reinforced through the use of decodable text further reinforces those concepts.
Good decodable text follow a systematic progression and won’t teach specific phonics skills or spelling concepts in a disjointed manner.
It isn’t enough to just choose decodable texts. Decodable texts must be chosen wisely to ensure that concepts that have not been introduced are kept to a minimum. The individualized nature of Orton Gillingham instruction means there is no one-size-fits-all sequence of books or stories. Book choices for a student working on a specific skill. They can vary tremendously based on the student’s knowledge of irregular words and their individual sight word vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are a lot of books that call themselves phonics readers, often with appealing characters from television, but are only minimally decodable at first. A good set of decodable readers will largely decodable text and introduce new concepts in a systematic deliberate way.
Decodable texts are a big step toward fluent independent reading.
There has been significant emphasis on fluency in schools since it was identified as one of the 5 pillars of reading. We measure it frequently and with our knowledge of fluency research, we can see that fluency is not just a component of independent reading, but an outcome of efficient and effective decoding. Ultimately, we want students reading books that are rich in content knowledge and vocabulary. We want them reading books where they can develop and deepen their comprehension skills. Decodable text helps them on that path. Fluency begins not at the passage level, or even with the phrasing of sentences, but at the word level with rapid and efficient decoding and automatic recognition.
A Bonus Research Reason!
To understand the critical nature of word decoding, and its link to fluency and comprehension, I turn to a mathematical model. The Simple View of Reading is a mathematical formula of sorts that is one way of describing the complex interaction of decoding skills, language and background knowledge and reading comprehension. This formula can be summarized as Decoding X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.
The most important component of this equation is the multiplication sign. Note that this is not a simple additive formula in which having decoding skills plus language skills creates reading comprehension. Nor is this a formula that averages the factors. The fact that these skills are multiplicative is incredibly important. This means that a weakness in one of these areas results in a weakness in reading comprehension. Both factors must be strong for strong comprehension to occur. If one variable is strong, comprehension will be equivalent to the weaker variable and if both variables are weak, comprehension will be even weaker than the individual factors.
The typical dyslexic reader is weak in decoding skills and has strong language and listening comprehension skills. Clearly, in order for their reading comprehension to improve, their decoding ability needs to increase. This is best accomplished through the use of decodable texts.
It is a common myth that primary students K-2 are learning to decode and older struggling readers need to work on comprehension or fluency. When digging deeper in assessment, that is frequently not the case. Without adequate information about both language/listening comprehension and decoding abilities, it is impossible to choose the best intervention.
A student that has strong decoding skills and weak language skills would need a different type of intervention. This is probably the least common of all struggling reader profiles and is sometimes seen in the case of hyperlexia, which may occur as part of ASD. A typical Title I student may be weak in both areas. Scores may improve a bit with an intervention that addresses meaning and structure in reading, but they may not make the type of gains hoped for.
With both instruction in decoding, reinforced by the use of decodable text, and language comprehension, these students can and do make significant progress.