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What Exactly is a Decodable Text?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 17 June 2010

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, TextProject & University of California, Berkeley

In 2010, a central component of beginning reading programs in the U.S. consists of decodable texts. Any text written in English is decodable at some level in that the code never deviates from the alphabetic system. However, the degree to which the letter-sound correspondences within words are common or consistent can vary considerably. Extremes in the commonality and consistency of letter-sound correspondences are evident in the following two sentences: (1) I want one piece of bread and (2) Brad’s ram nabs his big hat. All of the words in Example 1 have at least one letter-sound correspondence that deviates from common, consistent associations. By contrast, all of the letter-sound correspondences in Example 2 are among the most common and consistent associations.

Jeanne Chall (1967), in the popular book, Learning to read: The great debate, identified the numerous variations in how texts offer opportunities for young readers to become more adept at decoding. In a future column, I will describe some of the differences in texts that support children’s facility with the code. My emphasis in this column is on the use of the single phoneme/grapheme(s) as the driving criterion for forming texts. It is the prominent one used in American reading textbooks today because of mandates of the nation’s two largest states, California and Texas. The program that provided the “gold standard” for California and Texas—the decodables of Open Court (2000)—had a unique interpretation of the phoneme/grapheme(s) association. All of the current core reading programs in 2010 (Scott Foresman’s Reading Street, MacMillan/McGraw Hill’s Treasures, Harcourt’s Storytown, and SRA’s Imagine it!) have sets of decodables modeled after those of Open Court (2000).

There had been previous beginning reading programs that had used the individual phoneme/grapheme(s) model for creating texts. However, in at least one important dimension, the texts differed from those of the current decodables. The data from this previous generation of reading programs is offered as scientific evidence for the current decodables. On one dimension, however, the current decodables differ substantially from old decodables. This difference has a substantial bearing on children’s learning experiences.

What is this difference? The current decodables introduce as many different words with the target phoneme/grapheme(s) as possible. There appears an underlying assumption that the word is not a significant learning unit in reading acquisition. The rationale, in all likelihood, is that current decodables are guarding against children’s memorization of words.

The linguists and psychologists who developed the old decodables were also highly critical of students’ memorization of words. Indeed, the developers of the old decodables were responding directly to the problems of the “look-say” method that was dominant during the period that they developed their texts. However, these earlier developers recognized that at least a modicum of repetition of words with shared and/or particular features is needed for children to learn to read.

To illustrate what this difference in philosophy means for children learning to read, I have taken a similar number of words from texts at the same point of four reading programs. Three of these programs are the “old” decodables; the fourth is a new decodable. [Note: While the Reading Mastery program has a 1995 copyright, the texts emanate from the 1970s.] An excerpt from each of the programs is provided in Table 1 and features of the texts are presented in Table 2.

The number of unique or different words per 100 words of running text is an index of the degree of repetition of individual words. The figures in Table 1 indicate that the old decodables had from 22 to 39% fewer different words than the current decodable.

The appearance of the single-appearing word is another indicator of difficulty for beginning readers. The third row in Table 2 shows that the old decodables had substantially fewer single-appearing words than the current decodable.

The final index is the number of words that come from the 300 most frequent words. This figure is an indication of how common or familiar words are to students. Less than half of the words in the current decodable are from this group with a heavy emphasis on words that are infrequent—words such as nabs, ram, and trim in the excerpt in Table 1.

Especially for students who are English learners (and at least in California they make up a sizable percentage of the districts that adopted Open Court as their core reading program—LA Unified, Oakland, and Richmond), infrequent, single-appearing words make a hard task (learning to read in a second language) even harder. For these students and many native English speakers, the task of current decodables becomes one of learning simply to decode without learning that meaning is at the core of reading.

Table 1. Excerpts from Four Decodable Programs: Old and Current

Economy’s Keys to Reading (1972) Lippincott (1969) Reading Mastery (1995) Open Court (2000)
Don had a box with a lid. “What’s in your box?” Ted said. “Something brown,” said Don. “Something that can hop and fly. It can fly out of the box. And it can hop to the street.” The little sled did not stop. It ran on and on. It ran into a red barn. The barn bent the little sled. And the sled dented the barn. Bob and Ben got wet. A dog that could talk lived with a tall man. The dog took a book from the table. The dog said, “This book is what I need, need, need. I love to read, read, read.” Brad is a trim man. Brad’s trim hat fits him. Brad has a fat ram. Brad’s ram spins and nabs his hat. Brad is mad. Brad nabs his hat. Brad pulls, puffs and huffs.

Table 2. A comparison of Text Features of Four Decodable Programs: Old and Current

Text Features of Four Decodable Programs Economy’s Keys to Reading (1972) Lippincott (1969) Reading Mastery (1995) Open Court (2000)
Unique Words per 100 14 16 18 23
Single-appearing words (%) 1 6 3 10
%*words high-frequency*(300) 63 59 69 46

*as percent of total words

References for Programs

Adams, M.J., Bereiter, C., Brown, A., Campione, J., Carruthers, I., Case, R., Hirschberg, J., McKeough, A., Pressley, M., Roit, M., Scardamalia, M., & Treadway, G.H., Jr. (2000). Open Court Reading. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Engelmann, S., & Bruner, E.C. (1995). Reading Mastery. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Harris, T.L., Creekmore, M., & Greenman, M.H. (1972). Keys to Reading. Oklahoma City, OK: The Economy Company.

McCracken, G., & Walcutt, C.C. (1969). Lippincott’s Basic Reading. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company.