How decodable texts help beginner and catch-up readers

The new national curriculum now requires teachers to use decodable texts with children learning to read.   Children are now offered ‘controlled’ texts which include words they can decode independently, using the phonic knowledge they have been taught.   These decodable texts enable the pupil to focus on a specific spelling or group of spellings at each level.  He/she can become proficient, confident and independent at each stage of learning to read.

Why is this important?

When teaching children to read with Synthetic Phonics, teachers are trying to achieve two main goals:

  1. The recognition of spellings (graphemes) within words and the sounds (phonemes) they spell.
  2. The use of ‘blending’ to work out words as the primary strategy for decoding new words.

New concepts, knowledge or skills need to be practised so that they are internalised and remembered.  When we teach children number bonds, we give them exercises to practise that specific skill.  We don’t slip in a few multiplication sums as multiplication that they have not yet been taught.  We isolate what we are trying to teach so that the pupil becomes proficient and fluent.  Once the pupil has learned the skill or knowledge, he/she is able to progress to the next level.  This is the scaffolding needed for teaching anything new.

What happens if we offer children books to read with words they cannot yet decode?

Children who cannot decode a word seek other cues on the page:  pictures, context, grammar and initial sounds or part of the word they can read.  This encourages them to guess.  Guessing is unreliable and leaves the pupil stranded once the pictures are no longer there.  It also leads to inaccurate reading and poor comprehension.   Is the word: response? responsibility? responsible? responsive?

Take a sentence like:  “It is the responsibility/response/responsible/responsive/ of the community to provide services for the elderly.”  A pupil who cannot decode the word accurately will not comprehend the sentence.

In the past, there has been a mismatch between the phonics lesson taught and the books that children are then offered to read.  In the lesson, the teacher followed a phonic programme; however the reading books which followed did not reflect the reading level of the pupils. They did not restrict the text to what the pupil could read independently, using what he/she had been taught and therefore, encouraged guessing.

Offering children decodable texts to read is offering them reading exercises.   This is only needed at the early stages of learning to read.  Once they are fluent, they will take off, equipped with good strategies to work out any new word they encounter.

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