· By Jen Jones
5 Practical Applications of Literacy Using Decodables
PHONEMIC AWARENESS WITH LETTERS
One of the hardest research pills for teachers & schools to swallow from the National Reading Panel Report (2000) is the overwhelming evidence that phonemic awareness is more effective "with letters". You may be asking "what the heck does that mean? I thought phonemic awareness is a purely auditory skill." It is, and you can assess phonemic awareness in the dark, but should you instruct phonemic awareness in the dark? No. Once students can read some letters, then phonemic awareness instruction is exponentially enhanced when we incorporate letters into it. For example, let's say students can read the following letters when they see them written on a piece of paper or given magnetic letters to hold.
When shown the written letters:
s a t p i n
The child can decode the sounds as:
/s/ /a/ /t/ /p/ /i/ /n/
And, the child can say the names of the letters as:
s - a - t - p - i - n
This means that our phonemic awareness activities around instruction with blending, segmenting, adding, and deleting phonemes, will have more bang for the buck if we not only say "what word is this, /p/ /i/ /n/?" (student says pin)...but we also say "Now tap and spell pin." (student spells pins).
Using the phonemic awareness skill of blending while decoding words in a decodable is the most practical way to practice the sound skills kids need.
Sound skills = phonemic awareness + nailed with letters
NEW & PAST PHONICS SKILL APPLICATION
If there's one thing research tells us about teaching students how to read, it's that the text we put in front of them matters! Decodable texts are the superior choice when it comes to a practical tool for practicing and applying the phonics skills we have just explicitly taught them. Because the focus of a decodable book is to practice the newly learned phonics skill, many, if not all, the words in the decodable book will contain words using the new skill. For example, if the new phonics skill is long a spelled ai and ay, then many of the words, maybe even the title, will use words with ai and ay.
Take the Hello Decodable Book 41, Sail Away...the phonics skill is long a spelled ai and ay, so it includes names, places, and words like:
Claire Faith Nantucket Bay grain paint crayons train chain
You'll also notice that some of these words include other phonics skills like th, ch, and blends like Cl, gr, cr and tr...it's not a problem for students because those skills were taught prior to Book 41, which means that students are able to decode words that include past skills and newly learned skills...which means the skills are successive, continually building new skills while incorporating the past skills.
Now that we are all aboard the Decodable train, we know students will have more success reading because the skills have been taught. The level of success any student will have with a decodable is dependent on the explicit teaching of the phonics skill PRIOR to reading a decodable targeting the same skill. Decodables don't just work on their own, but enhance the previous instruction and especially when the skills are taught in a simple to complex scope & sequence. (see scope & sequence blog post).
CODE BASED DECODING STRATEGIES
Teaching decoding is hands-down easier with a decodable book because all the words in the book include phonics skills students have learned, so they don't have to look and picture and guess. One on the most problematic issues with level A and B books is the focus of the book is the theme, not a phonics skill. So a level A reader called At The Airport may have words in it like airport, helicopter, hot air balloons, parachutes, and airplane. Do you think by Level A that students would have learned ai, or, oo, u_e, ch pronounced /sh/ and a_e? No. Let's do a Phonics Skill Analysis of the words in At The Airport.
Decoding strategies aim to prompt students to attend at the word, sound and phoneme level. If you have ever taught guided reading using leveled text, you are familiar with M, S, V. Otherwise known as the 3-cueing system. We now know this promotes guessing words for the lack of phonics instruction reason listed above. The decoding strategies we want to encourage and expect from students who are learning to crack the code are:
- Read from left to right.
- Scan all the letters in the word.
- Use your letter pattern and letter job knowledge.
- Find the vowels and split the syllables.
- Tap each sound and blend the sounds together, out loud.
- Ask yourself: Does it make sense?
For a more detailed description of these decoding prompts & decoding strategy posters and bookmarks, see my Decoding Strategies in a Science of Reading Classroom blog post.
BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE & VOCABULARY
Sometimes decodables get a bad rap for not being engaging enough or the B word --"boring" but in my opinion, most often, "boring" is the opinion of an adult, not a child learning to read. All the kids I've ever talked to don't think decodables are boring at all, in fact, the success and confidence they feel in themselves after using a decodable to practice reading far outweighs any "this is boring" notion or inkling a student may have.
Wiley Blevins notes in his book, Choosing and Using Decodables, that it is best to avoid decodable text that is obscure and just not realistic. For example:
The pig did a jig by the rig.
...is an example of a decodable but obscure sentence. Yes, it's decodable but when have you ever seen a pig dance by an 18-wheeler? Never.
Therefore, it was important to me that my Hello Decodables included decodable text that was realistic, something that could happen, might happen, easy for students to envision. However, being able to read a sentence doesn't always mean that you can understand every word that you can read. Here's an example from Hello Decodable Book 19, Dot And The Velvet Dog:
Dot and Dan got their helmets and pads on.
They jet past the bus to campus.
Just because you can read pads, jet and campus doesn't mean you know what pads are or that campus is another name for school. These decodables offer an opportunity to not only learn to decode the phonics patterns students have been explicitly taught, but it's an embedded opportunity to build background knowledge and develop vocabulary around that knowledge.
COMPREHENSION THROUGH ORAL LANGUAGE
While it's important to recognize that the focus and purpose of a decodable book in all the phonics skill practice in reading a book with 95-100% decodable words. Research also tells us that when students are learning phonics, learning the code, that while they read, a lot of their cognitive brain power goes to the decoding task. Decoding is a taxing task until it become more automatic, where less cognition is required to decode, but until then, when a child is putting so much effort and energy into decoding, there is very little energy left to also comprehend what you've just decoded. BUT, this doesn't mean we don't talk about what we've read, we absolutely do. As teachers, we may carry the oral language and discussion load after reading a decodable and that's ok. Every decodable book in the Hello Decodable Series includes some comprehension questions in the back of the book that teachers may or may not use. There is also an important disclaimer and evidence given on that page. Here are the "I Can Talk About the Story!" comprehension questions for orange Hello Decodable book 23, Jill is Ill.
It is important to note here, that as teachers we must develop the listening comprehension of our students until their own decoding skills catch up, and we must do this by reading rich, authentic children's literature to students during our classroom read-aloud and mentor text times of day.