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For educators and parents looking to support early literacy development, decodable texts have become an increasingly popular tool. These books are designed to help students build foundational reading skills by focusing on phonics and decoding strategies. However, with so many different options available, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together this blog post, which is specifically geared toward those who are new to using decodable books in the classroom or at home. In this post, we’ll be answering 10 frequently asked questions about decodable books, including how to choose the right books, how to incorporate them into literacy instruction, and what benefits they can offer for young readers. By the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of what decodable books are and how they can support literacy development in young learners. So, let’s dive in!

🖥 FREE On-Demand Webinar- Navigating Decodable Texts and Leveled Readers: Are you confused about the difference between decodable texts and leveled readers and how to use them in your classroom? Get answers and insights from Heggerty’s Marjorie Bottari and Erica Suarez in our free on-demand webinar. Learn about the purpose and benefits of each resource and how to make informed instructional decisions that best meet the needs of your students.

Featured Questions

Decodable Texts and Leveled Readers

Q: How do we start to make the shift to measure growth in reading with decodable text if we have typically used letters for identifying students’ reading levels?

A: When making this shift, it is important to be as specific as possible. When making instructional decisions or having conversations about students, ask specific questions. Are they applying decoding strategies to new and unknown words? Can they blend sounds? What phonics patterns do they know? What patterns do they need to learn? Are they applying the phonics skills they have learned to text? As you ask these questions, you will find that using a letter for a level does not give you the information you need to provide targeted instruction in foundational skills. It is important to remember that decodable text is critical for foundational skills, but as students become fluent and automatic decoders of print, you will want to move away from decodable text and offer a variety of text reading opportunities.

Q: In what context would you use a leveled reader to teach vocabulary and comprehension at a K-2 level vs. using a picture book read aloud with more complex sentence structure and richer vocabulary?

A: A teacher may decide to use picture books or leveled readers to build comprehension and teach vocabulary. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. When making a decision about which type of book to use, it is important to consider the instructional goals and student outcomes and then find the best resources to meet those outcomes. Oftentimes picture books are used for whole-class instruction, whereas we have seen leveled readers used in more small-group settings. Both are great resources for teaching vocabulary and building comprehension.

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 Q: Would it ever be appropriate to “vet” a leveled text to use it if it does, in fact, have words containing the phonics patterns they’ve practiced?

A: Absolutely. Just like all decodable texts are not created equal, not all leveled texts are either. As you vet any text, you will want to consider the needs of your reader and the characteristics of the text. Some leveled texts will work great and have repeated phonics patterns, as well as high-frequency words that you have pre-taught, therefore making it a great teaching tool. However, when reviewing the leveled text, be sure to avoid patterns or other characteristics that lend themselves to guessing rather than decoding.

Balancing Decodable Books and Authentic Texts

Q:  How do you handle a situation when a student is reading a text that is NOT controlled for taught phonics skills? For example, if a student encounters a word that does not have a pattern they’ve learned, what should they be taught to do (if not guess based on contact and the letter/sounds that they do represent)? Children will still read at home, get books from the library, etc., that are NOT decodables. How do you handle that scenario without teaching the 3 cueing system?

A: This is a great question! We do want students to apply the skills they are learning to a new text, and we do not need to control every text they read. Instead, think of the purpose of the text we are using. If we are teaching students how to decode by providing explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, we want to provide text that will allow them to apply decoding strategies.

However, we want to teach children to transfer and generalize what they are learning to new text. As students build phonological awareness and phonics knowledge, these skills transfer to new and unfamiliar words. The important thing to remember is that when providing students with uncontrolled text, they should still be applying decoding strategies to decode the words. If they do not have phonics knowledge, we would want to tell students the word rather than encourage them to guess the word.

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Strategies for Teaching Decodable Texts

Q: How many times do you reread a decodable text?

A: The number of times a decodable text is read will depend on individual student needs. However, we do recommend reading a decodable text at least twice. This allows students to apply decoding strategies on the first read and build fluency on the second read. Some students will benefit from more opportunities of repeated reading, while others will be ready to move on to a new decodable text after the 2nd read.

Q: How does teaching high-frequency words fit into this?

A: The teaching of high-frequency words is absolutely essential in teaching foundational skills. High-frequency words are just that – words that we see a lot in reading and writing. Many high-frequency words are regular and decodable: and, in, it, he, this, etc. However, English is not a transparent language, and many high-frequency words have unpredictable patterns. One thing to note is that most of these words have just one tricky sound-letter correspondence. Once we teach students that ‘tricky part’ students can then apply that to the reading of other ‘tricky words’.

Explicit teaching of high-frequency words provides students with opportunities to learn these words and map them correctly in their brains. We want to teach students that even ‘tricky’ high-frequency words such as said, does, love, etc., are still made up of sounds, and it is just one phoneme that we need to remember or “know by heart”. Oftentimes this mapping can connect to additional words following the same pattern. For example, the word love ends in an ‘e’ because no English word ends in a ‘v’. This learning can transfer to other words like, glove, above, dove, or even have.

An image of three decodable texts covers from Heggerty's Frog series. The titles are Theo and Thatcher, Charly and Chuck, and I have Soft Paws, What Am I? They feature bright and colorful illustrations. The text on the covers is written in bold font. The books are decodable and may be used as resources for teaching foundational literacy skills.

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Q: Can you provide a definition for the difference between MAPPED and MEMORIZED?

A: Typically, the reference to memorizing words means students are identifying a word as a visual whole unit rather than processing the individual phonemes. When this happens, students easily confuse similar-looking words. For example, they might read ‘horse’ for ‘house’ or ‘hose’. While we may be able to memorize some words, our brains do not have the capacity to memorize every word they encounter. In order to become a proficient reader, we do want students to store words in their long-term memory. However, that is done by processing each phoneme in a word and understanding the connection between phonemes and graphemes. 

When a student maps a word, they are learning how a word is made up of specific letter-sound correspondences and mapping those patterns in their brain. David Kilpatrick defines this as orthographic mapping, which is  “the mental process we use to permanently store words for immediate, effortless retrieval” (Kilpatrick, 2016, p.31). This allows our students to read and spell new words, even if they are different by only one phoneme. For example, we can see that the words ‘stop’ and ‘spot’ look a lot alike. A student that has memorized the word ‘stop’ as a whole visual unit may read ‘stop’ for the word ‘spot’ in the text. However, a student who has phoneme proficiency and a strong knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships will accurately read the word.

Q: Does the new Heggerty Phonics program have decodables that align with the program’s scope and sequence starting earlier in the scope and sequence than Heggerty’s current decodables do?

A: Yes! Our Bridge to Reading Foundational Skills Kits will have decodable passages as well as decodable books that align to the scope and sequence for each grade level. The decodable books are also available for individual sale via our Heggerty Library! The Heggerty Library is a comprehensive collection of decodable books designed to improve student’s reading skills and fluency. Explore our diverse library, and unlock the joy of reading for every learner.

Strategies for Teaching Decoding Skills to English Language Learners

Q: How can you support English Language Learners in beginning reading? They can decode but cannot understand the language.

A: Teaching ELs to decode is extremely important, especially in the beginning stages of reading.  Once students understand letter-sound correspondences and can read words, they are able to start to crack the code, and the ability to decode automatically allows our students to focus on comprehending the text.  It is important to incorporate explicit vocabulary instruction throughout the day, providing students with opportunities to learn what these words mean.

Whether you are teaching content vocabulary or teaching CVC phonics patterns and asking students to decode, additional vocabulary instruction is essential. Extending the learning beyond just decoding and making vocabulary connections is essential. If students are working on decoding and can successfully read words like ‘bat’, ‘cat’, ‘mat’, ‘rat’, you have an opportunity to now have students make meaning of those words. You can use picture support, realia, and even read-alouds or leveled readers to teach the meaning of these words and build context for students.

An image of three decodable texts covers from Heggerty's Amigos series. The titles are Topos Lombriz, Pez y Foc and Oso y Ave They feature bright and colorful illustrations. The text on the covers is written in bold font. The books are decodable and may be used as resources for teaching foundational literacy skills.

🛒 FREE Download: Amigos- Decodable Books in Spanish! The Amigos series includes 6 decodable fiction books. The books were written for students who already know the letter sounds and digraphs of the Spanish alphabet (A-Z, ñ, ch, ll, rr) and are ready to begin blending sounds to read syllables and words. Each book is decodable, comprehensible, and engaging for beginning readers of Spanish.

Supporting Foundational Literacy Skills for Struggling Readers

Q:  What about the student that can read a chapter book but then scores low on nonsense word fluency assessment?

A: Nonsense word fluency assessments serve a great purpose. They allow us to measure a student’s true ability to decode words because nonsense words are unfamiliar. They cannot be memorized as a whole visual unit. If a student is unable to decode nonsense words, they lack foundational skills.

A student may be able to read a chapter book because they have a lot of background knowledge about the topic, have great oral language, and understanding of syntax. However, if the student was given a chapter book about a topic they did not have background knowledge about and the book included new and unfamiliar words, they would not have the skills to apply decoding strategies. If a student struggles with nonsense word fluency, we want to identify the cause of that struggle. We recommend assessing their phonemic awareness as well as phonics knowledge. This will help you identify what foundational skills they need support in.

Building Lifelong Readers

In conclusion, decodable books are a valuable resource for both educators and parents who want to support early literacy development in children. As we’ve seen in this post, by focusing on phonics and decoding strategies, these books can help build foundational reading skills and provide young learners with the tools they need to become confident, capable readers. By taking the time to understand the benefits of decodable books and how to use them effectively, educators and parents can help set children on the path to lifelong reading success!

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