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Decodables Criteria

Reading specialists and reading intervention teachers have long advocated the use of decodable text for struggling, vulnerable readers… especially those in upper elementary, middle or high school, ESL/ELL, special education, and adult literacy classes. Teachers of beginning reading have either favored decodables, leveled readers, or predictable text.

I’m going to present the argument and criteria for decodables. (Full disclosure, I’m the author of a set of decodable readers for older students which I will use to apply the criteria for effective decodables and will promo at the end of the article.) My take is that it seems like common sense that if we are going to teach decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling), our students should practice these skills in the context of authentic text. However, many have argued that decodable are anything but authentic, in that they are written for a contrived purpose. Additionally, we all know that common sense is often a poor substitute for evidence-based practices. Unfortunately, the reading research on decodables is quite minimal, according to noted reading researcher, Dr. Tim Shanahan. Shanahan comments:

There have been only a handful of studies into the effectiveness of decodable texts since the term was first used back in the 1980s. And, truth be told, they are kind of mess; with little evident agreement about what decodable text is, what it should be compared with, and what outcomes we should expect to derive from it (https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/should-we-teach-with-decodable-text

So, in the “handful of studies” mentioned above, are decodables effective or ineffective? How so relative to other forms of text, such as leveled readers with controlled vocabulary, predictable texts etc.?

Shanahan again:

Mesmer (2005) found that kids were more likely to try to decode decodable text (duh), but leveled texts (less decodable) led to greater fluency (Mesmer, 2010). Some studies (Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Compton, 2005) concur with the first Mesmer study, but that’s okay because others support the second (Priec-Mohr & Price, 2017). And, then there are those with mixed results (Chu & Chen, 2014).

Regarding the effectiveness of decodables versus other text constructions, the Ohio Department of Education produced a helpful list and example slides of pros and cons for decodables, leveled readers, and predictable text readers. Note that the advantage of decodables seems clear to me (and them) in their presentation:

http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Learning-in-Ohio/Literacy/Striving-Readers-Comprehensive-Literacy-Grant/Literacy-Academy/1-05-Matching-Text-Types-to-Students-Part-2.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US

Design and Instructional Component Criteria

As mentioned above, I’ll use my own decodable series to exemplify what I consider to be appropriate criteria for decodables for older readers.

Sam and Friends Phonics Books

  • The Sam and Friends Phonics Books consist of highly decodable and systematic text to help readers learn, practice, and develop reliance upon the alphabetic code. Decodable means that a high percentage of words will be phonetically regular. Systematic means that each reader includes and reinforces only previously introduced sound-spellings to scaffold instruction.
  • Each of the 54 books introduces the focus sound-spellings and 2 Heart Words of the daily Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling activity in the author’s two reading intervention programs:
  • The books use the most widely-accepted, research-based instructional phonics sequence.
  • Each book introduces two high-utility Heart Words (high frequency words with one or more phonetically irregular sound-spellings).
  • The language de-emphasizes idiomatic expressions (ideal for English-language learners).
  • The stories use non-predictable, non-repetitious, and non-patterned language to minimize over-reliance upon context clues and knowledge of text structure.
  • The SCRIP comprehension strategies (Summary, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, Predict) are embedded within the text pages, not at the end of the book, to promote reader-author conversations and internal monitoring of text. Many require higher order thinking skills. The books include five higher level comprehension questions for each story.
  • The back page includes 30 second word fluency practice on the focus sound-spellings and sight words with a systematic review of previously introduced sound-spellings and
  • Heart Words
  • Each book consists of eight pages in 5.5 x 8.5-inch booklet form. Books are formatted to be copied back to back on two separate 8.5 x 11 pages for easy copying and collation. Just one fold creates the take-home books. Staple if desired.
  • The books are also formatted for tablet, Chromebook, and phone display.
  • The books are also available as Google slides with comment or question text boxes for interactive monitoring of the text.
  • Collections A, B, C, D, and E focus on remedial sound-spellings and sight words; whereas, Collection F: Syllable Juncture and Derivational Influences Books 45-54 is appropriate for all students reading below grade level.
  • The books have been designed with older students (grades 4 to adult) in mind. Students will enjoy reading about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also Sam’s dog, Pug.
  • The plots for each self-contained story reinforce positive values and character development and feature multi-ethnic teenage characters.
  • Each book is cleverly illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The illustrations do not explain the text. They entertain.

Your students will love these decodables for older readers: the Sam and Friends  Phonics Books, and more importantly, by using these readers, students and parents will see measurable progress in their reading skills. If interested in the characters, settings, and themes of the books, check out this sister article: Decodables for Big Kids.

The Sam and Friends Phonics Books have been designed to support systematic and explicit phonics instruction, such as is included in the author’s comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies and The Science of Reading Intervention Program.

Intervention Program Science of Reading

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Decodables for Big Kids

The Sam and Friends Phonics Books have been designed to support systematic and explicit phonics instruction, such as is included in the author’s comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies and The Science of Reading Intervention Program.

The Sam and Friends Phonics Books have been designed to support systematic and explicit phonics and spelling instruction. The eight-page books will help your students master all the common sound-spelling patterns and 108 high frequency Heart Words (words with one or more irregular sound-spellings), while improving their reading fluency and comprehension.

What makes these decodables ideal for older students?

For years I served as an upper elementary reading specialist and middle-high school reading intervention teacher. I, like others who teach older, vulnerable/struggling readers, simply could not find decodable stories which specifically helped students practice the sound-spellings I was teaching.

Using the “Bob” books, Dr. Seuss, or the ilk was out of the question. Nothing de-motivates an older student more than primary age-appropriate illustrations and/or story themes in books or in reading curriculum.

Yes, many of these older readers do need to know how to sound out “c-aa-t,” but “there must be better ways to practice the /k/, short /a/, and /t/ sounds and c-a-t spellings,” I thought. I searched high and low, and no… High/Low readers were not the answer. I searched the Reading Rockets decodable links in vain. I wanted targeted, pure (as much as possible) decodables with focused sound-spellings and minimal Heart Words that respected my students ages and maturity levels. There simply are no other decodables I could find that met my personal criteria.

I had to write them.

Of course, I can’t draw an engaging illustration to save my life. But David Rickert, the comic artist, certainly can. A true partnership developed. I wrote the stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also Sam’s dog, Pug. The plots for each self-contained story reinforce positive values and character development and feature multi-ethnic teenage characters. David illustrated each of the 54 Sam and Friends Phonics Books.

Now, David is a high school ELA teacher, in addition to being an illustrator. He found it interesting that I insisted on illustrations which did not add meaning to the stories, but only entertained the readers. If you are knowledgeable about S0R (the science of reading), you will understand why we don’t want developing readers to be overly-dependent upon pictures to explain what the text means.

What are the characters like and what are some of the themes in these books?

The four characters and dog interact in and out of the high school setting. Two of them, Sam and Kit, develop a semi-romantic relationship throughout the 54 books. The multi-ethnic characters run counter to many cultural stereotypes. For example, both Tom and Kit are the athletes. Deb, an African-American, is the smart debate club champion with math and science as her strong suits. Sam’s dog, Pug, is a trouble-making, but lovable, pooch.

The story themes take place in a variety of settings: in school, at the lake, at the ocean, in the forest, at the coffee shop.

In one story, Tom and Sam create a snow tubing business; in another, Deb and Kit run a race; in a story featuring Pug, the dog chases the ice cream truck. In each story, positive values are emphasized. There is nothing overly controversial in these stories… they teach the values of friendship, respect to parents and teachers, loyalty, honesty, etc. However, these aren’t preachy stories, although in one story all four friends visit Deb’s church. The stories won’t elicit any parent or student complaints… they teach your students to read and even enjoy the practice.

Also included in these stories are the focus sound-spellings, Heart Words, 30-second word fluencies, 5 higher level comprehension questions, and comment or question text boxes. Each of the 54 stories connects to the sounds and spellings instructional sequence from my two reading intervention programs. No, I don’t sell the Sam and Friends Phonics Books separately. They are completely integrated into my two programs listed below. Yes, the books are formatted for interactive reading in Google slides, but also may be printed as eight-page booklets or viewed on tablets, Chromebooks, and phones. So many ways to read these stories and practice what you teach!

These phonics books are ideal for guided reading and independent practice in all reading intervention instructional settings. Check out this quick video, featuring one of the Sam and Friends Phonics Books: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6qxzT6OoOI  Now, once you’ve watched the video… if you are a reading nerd like me, you’ll want more technical reading stuff about just how decodable these books are, and just how aligned the series is to the science of reading. Check out Decodables Criteria and nerd out!

Mark Pennington is the teacher author of Teaching Reading Strategies and The Science of Reading Intervention Program.

Intervention Program Science of Reading

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