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One of the hottest topics in elementary education right now is what type of text to use with beginning readers. For years, most early reader books used in classrooms have been predictable books with patterned sentences, picture clues, and irregular high-frequency words. But in recent years, more and more educators have been advocating for using decodable texts with students who are learning to read. Most of this conversation has centered around monolingual English-speaking students. But teachers of multilingual learners (MLs) are left with questions. Are decodable texts appropriate for students who are still developing English?
Decodable texts are valuable tools for working with beginning readers who are also learning English. With decodable books, multilingual learners apply learned phonics patterns within a meaningful context. However, it is important to note that English language learners need access to multiple types of texts to become proficient readers.
While our focus in this post is on decodable texts and how we can use them to foster language and literacy development simultaneously, we believe that elements of both balanced literacy and structured literacy have important contributions to make to student learning. As educators, it is imperative to explore all of the research and tools available to us. This post represents our current thinking, and we anticipate that it will continue to evolve as we deepen our understanding of the research and concepts underpinning effective literacy instruction for multilingual learners.
What are decodable texts?
For a book to be considered decodable, the majority of the words are made up of phonics patterns that have already been learned. This means that if a student has learned consonant and short vowel sounds, fewer than fifty percent of the words will contain phonics patterns outside of single consonants and short vowels.
It’s important to note that decodability is relative. The same book may be decodable for one student and not another, based on the learning that has already happened. For example, a book filled with long vowels would not be decodable for a student who has only learned short vowel sounds; for a student who has already learned long vowel patterns, that same book is considered decodable.
How are decodable books different?
There are several different types of beginning reader books that teachers can use with their students. Most educators are familiar with predictable, or patterned, texts. In these types of books, sentence patterns are repeated with small changes on each page. The pictures usually match the print very closely, so if a student doesn’t know one of the words on a page, they can look at the picture for help.
Usually, predictable books deal with topics that are familiar to kids, so a beginning reader may be able to guess the unknown word by looking at the picture and drawing on their prior knowledge. However, research shows that efficient readers process each letter on the page when they read. When our students come to an unknown word, it’s best to teach them to keep their eyes on the text. When kids rely on picture clues to come up with unknown words, they miss an opportunity to practice applying what they know about letter-sounds.
In contrast, decodable books contain high frequency words and phonics patterns that students have already learned, and very little else! This makes decodables the perfect tool for helping kids apply what they’ve learned about letter-sound correspondence in connected text.
What are the benefits of using decodable books with English learners?
Should decodable texts be used with multilingual learners? In short–yes! But decodables shouldn’t be the only types of texts we use with English language learners.
There are three main reasons why reading decodable texts are beneficial for MLs.
1. Decodable texts help MLs realize that print is a reliable source of information when solving unknown words.
Decodable books help students learn that the most effective way to solve a word is by looking at the print. When using decodable books, teachers can consistently prompt their students to use their knowledge of letter-sounds, word parts, and blending to read. With time, this practice helps students become more efficient at processing the words on the page. As students become more automatic with decoding, their attention is freed up for working on fluency, comprehension, and higher-order thinking.
2. Early reading experiences with decodable books sets the stage for later understandings about reading and writing.
Research has shown that children’s first experiences with reading books affects how they approach later literacy learning. When students use decodable books, they develop habits of analyzing print to solve new words. In contrast, when students are only exposed to predictable books as they begin to read, they develop the habit of taking their eyes off the text to search for additional information in the pictures. This is because they are not equipped with the phonics knowledge to be able to solve the words without relying on outside help. Every time a student takes their eyes off the text, they lose out on an opportunity to practice the processing of print that creates skilled readers.
3. Decodable books offer students a chance to practice new phonics knowledge in connected text.
The research is clear that for students to become proficient readers, they need to read books. Reading syllables, word lists, and isolated sentences is not enough for learning to navigate the complexities of lengthier text. While decodable books generally are not deep or authentic literature, they offer us the opportunity to get students into books early on in their literacy learning. Once a basic understanding of letter-sound correspondence and blending is established, decodables can be phased out and more authentic books can be introduced.
What are the challenges of using decodable books with English learners?
It is important to keep in mind that decodables are used for a narrow purpose–learning to decipher the code of printed English. Heidi Anne Mesmer says it best when she describes decodables as “a limited, but useful tool.” Reading decodables alone is NOT enough for multilingual learners to become proficient readers, for several reasons.
1. Decodable texts are about learning to decode print; their primary purpose is NOT to develop language or reading comprehension.
We know that language acquisition occurs best within meaningful contexts. Often, decodable books have limited plots and little opportunity for higher-order thinking. This is especially true in the earliest levels of decodable texts when word choice is restricted to the few phonics patterns students have learned so far. For multilingual students, we need to make learning as meaningful as possible. With decodables, this takes some extra legwork (described below)!
2. Students may misunderstand what proficient reading is.
One danger of using decodable texts exclusively is that students may assume that reading is only about decoding words correctly. In reality, decoding is one skill (among many) that contributes to accurate, fluent reading with comprehension in connected text. Because early decodable books may have thin plots and unfamiliar language patterns, students may believe that reading is simply about processing print. Without a strong English language foundation to help readers make sense of text, this assumption may be especially easy for multilingual learners to make.
3. Decodable texts may use unusual language patterns.
When students have very limited code knowledge, authors of decodable books are very limited in the words they can use, too! This can lead to sentences that do not sound like the language we use every day. For example, early decodable texts usually do not include past tense -ed endings–that code knowledge is often taught later in a phonics scope and sequence. To show that something happened in the past, authors may use sentences like: “Jan did hop.” Clearly, this language construction was chosen because it fits the target phonics pattern (CVC words), and not because it represents everyday speech patterns. Authors may also alternate between present and past tense because of the phonics patterns they are targeting. For example, a short vowel decodable may be written like this: “The dog did a trick. It hops on a log.” The sentences are written in two different tenses, which may be confusing to multilingual students (or any reader!). Students who are learning English need extensive opportunities to use the language in authentic contexts. Since decodable books are not created with this goal in mind, educators need to be diligent about varying the types of texts multilingual students hear and read.
4. Decodable texts may use a large number of pronouns, which can be difficult for multilingual learners to track.
Words like “it/its,” “us,” “him/his,” “them,” “that,” and “this” can often be found in decodable books because of their straightforward letter-sound correspondence. For multilingual learners, however, it can be challenging to figure out what these words refer to. For example, in a sentence like “Tom hid it,” a reader must be able to connect the pronoun “it” back to the noun it replaces. Since MLs are still learning how English works, these pronouns can be an additional obstacle to comprehending the text.
10 Tips for Using Decodable Texts with Multilingual Learners
So, what to do as a teacher of reading for multilingual learners? Decodable texts can be critical tools for introducing students to the English alphabetic code. But decodables are also limited in their ability to expose MLs to natural language patterns, establish a purpose for reading, and build deep comprehension. How can we maximize the benefits of decodable texts for multilingual readers while minimizing the potential pitfalls?
1. Don't introduce decodable books too soon
We recognize that this first tip may be controversial! Many proponents of phonics-based reading instruction recommend giving students decodable books as soon as possible–often when only a few letters (typically, SATPIN) have been introduced. The idea is to get students practicing blending phonemes within connected text early and often. For multilingual learners, however, we suspect that there are benefits to waiting a bit longer to introduce decodable books. Because we want MLs to recognize that the purpose of reading words on a page is to understand what is being read, we want to make sure the language they encounter in books is meaningful to them. When decodable books only use six letters, it can be very challenging to build and carry meaning, which is essential to building language and comprehension. Mesmer suggests that we give students decodable books “once children are extremely solid with all letter-sounds and are fully ready to decode.” We tend to agree with this! Most students pick up consonant sounds fairly easily; it’s the vowels that are often so tricky! By waiting until the majority of consonants are mastered before introducing decodable books, we can share more meaningful early reading experiences with our multilingual learners. In the meantime, we can give MLs practice blending phonemes within individual words, or start them reading decodable phrases or short sentences.
2. Don’t stay in decodable books too long
The purpose of decodables is to establish effective early literacy habits in beginning readers. We want students to become skilled at attending to the letters across a word in left-to-right order and blending their sounds together. And we want this to happen right from the start so that students understand print as a reliable source of information for word-solving. However, we want multilingual learners to read a variety of texts that expose them to new language patterns, vocabulary, concepts, knowledge, cultures, and interests. Mesmer suggests that “decodables are most useful for propelling children through the period in which they are learning to decode words or blend sounds together.”
Once multilingual students understand the alphabetic principle and have a basic grasp of the fairly stable and predictable relationship between letters and sounds, start expanding the types of texts used in early reading instruction.
3. Choose wisely
Not all decodables are created equal! In his book Choosing and Using Decodable Books: Practical Tips and Strategies for Enhancing Phonics Instruction, Wiley Blevins explains that decodables are defined as texts that have more than 50% decodability. Publishers often offer books with decodability rates as high as 80-100%. The problem is that these highly decodable books often make little sense and do not sound like authentic reading. The most frequent word in the English language, “the,” is not decodable for early readers. But omitting “the” from any books students read while still offering a logical plot is not often feasible.
It’s a constant balancing act to select texts that offer multiple opportunities for decoding AND a coherent reading experience. It is okay for MLs to encounter some words they do not have the necessary phonics knowledge to decode, especially when these words are essential to making a book interesting, comprehensible, and clear.
In their book Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, Jan Burkins and Kari Yates suggest evaluating texts on a continuum, recognizing that every book scaffolds some skills better than others. Depending on your goals for a student, for example, you may choose a book that is less decodable and more predictable. Predictable books are great for building language patterns, but are likely not the best choice for supporting decoding. Similarly, books that require students to decode each word will give them more practice with blending than books that have repeating lines (although repetitive books are great for fluency!). And if you are asking a student to read a book to gain knowledge or enjoy a deeper plot, decodable books are probably not the best choice to achieve that goal.
Keep an eye out for the language patterns used in the books you choose as well. When decodable books have too many characters and pronouns to track, multilingual learners may struggle to build comprehension. Unnatural language patterns may pop up as a result of the limited words authors can use for students with limited phonics knowledge.
Be aware of your MLs’ strengths and areas for growth, be clear on your instructional goals, and be intentional with your book choice to be sure you have the best tool for the job!
4. Build vocabulary
Phonics instruction is only one component of effective literacy instruction. Vocabulary knowledge has been clearly shown to affect literacy outcomes for students, especially so for multilingual learners. Although the main purpose for using decodable texts is to teach students the code of written English, we can incorporate vocabulary instruction as well.
Blevins suggests introducing students to a new word that relates to the book but is not found in the text (and therefore is likely not decodable). For example, when reading a decodable book about frogs in a pond, you might introduce the word “metamorphosis.” Beginning readers would not be able to decode this word in text; however, it is an important concept for students to be able to name and understand. Discussing metamorphosis within the decodable book lesson expands students’ vocabulary and conceptual knowledge. This makes our instruction more meaningful, which is critical for language growth!
Another way to strengthen vocabulary using decodables is to model vocabulary acquisition strategies. Multilingual learners need to become skilled at inferring an unknown word’s meaning, because they will encounter a lot of them on their way to becoming English-proficient! With decodables, students are encouraged to analyze print to solve unknown words. After decoding a new word, teach MLs to create a hypothesis about what the word might mean. They can use context clues from the surrounding print, and they can use the picture to determine the new word’s meaning. For example, if an ML reads “I can nap on Sam’s map,” but does not know what “nap” means, encourage them to use the picture to infer that napping is is another word for sleeping. In this way, we remind our students that the purpose of accurate decoding is ultimately to understand what is written. While decodable books are designed for practicing new phonics knowledge, we don’t want MLs to lose sight of reading as a meaning-making process!
It is important to note, however, that students who are learning English do not have the same foundation of oral language to draw upon as English-only speakers. This means that English learners face an additional hurdle to building comprehension.
With this in mind, we can frontload essential vocabulary for multilingual learners before asking them to read the text. To ensure your students are still getting decoding practice, tell them the word and ask them to locate it in the book before explaining what it means.
You may be wondering which words should be pre-taught. We suggest first looking for words that are part of the “big idea” of the text. It helps MLs to have a general sense of what they will be reading. You might even list some of the unknown vocabulary and have students predict what they think the book might be about.
It may also be helpful to introduce words that are not clearly represented in the illustrations. Also be on the lookout for words or phrases that aren’t used frequently in spoken English. If understanding any of these words are essential to the story, and if sufficient scaffolding for understanding is not present in the illustrations or text, pre-teach them! This sets your MLs up for success in becoming active readers who monitor language and comprehension.
5. Build text sets
Text sets are one of our favorite ways to build language and conceptual knowledge for multilingual learners. They are easy and enjoyable to create, and they yield powerful results! Simply gather books and other media that relate to a common theme or topic, making sure to include fiction and nonfiction texts whenever possible. As we read these books to and with students, we activate and build the background knowledge needed to make new information stick.
By including decodables in the text sets we create, students are able to transfer that background knowledge to the decodable books, making for a much richer reading experience and discussion.
6. Explore grammar
Early reading books of all types often use simple grammar. They’re great for showing multilingual learners how English works!
Using cut-up sentences is one of the most powerful ways to integrate language and literacy learning. In Reading Recovery and Literacy Lessons (an extension of Reading Recovery for students who are learning English), we have students compose and write a sentence every day. Then we copy it to a sentence strip and cut between each word as the student reads it aloud. The student reassembles the sentence by searching for the correct words and placing them in the correct order. Last, the student rereads the sentence to be sure they got it right.
We can do this activity with sentences taken directly from the decodable books our students read. Or, we can have students compose sentences using known high-frequency words and decodable words and use these as the cut-up sentence. Another option is to use a dictated sentence that students write onto their own sentence strips.
The cut-up sentence activity offers tons of teachable opportunities for MLs. For starters, they have to search among the cut-up words to find the right word. This requires them to put their letter-sound knowledge to work! Once the sentence is reassembled, teachers can demonstrate how English works by manipulating the cut-up pieces. For example, we might show a student how a comma can replace “and” when writing a list. Just write a comma on a small piece of sentence strip and sub it in where “and” had been. Let the student manipulate the pieces and read the sentence both ways so they can take ownership of the language. The cut-up sentence is full of these opportunities for showing MLs how English works!
7. Use a mirror
Multilingual learners may encounter new sounds in English that are not present in their first language. Decodable texts are a great place to practice the pronunciation of these sounds while learning how they are represented in print!
One way to support MLs with new English sounds is to stock up on some Dollar Store hand mirrors. As you introduce unfamiliar phonemes, have students use the mirrors to ensure their mouths are making the correct shapes. They can then check on themselves as they read to ensure they are forming the new sounds correctly.
8. Play games
All kids learn best when they feel safe, valued, and motivated. And for multilingual learners, lowering the affective filter is essential to boosting language acquisition. When a student’s affective filter is low, they feel safe enough to participate even though they may make mistakes. As educators, we can help by creating a learning environment that is welcoming and engaging for MLs. Games are a great way to do this!
One simple game for building vocabulary while practicing decoding skills is Memory. Put the decodable words on one set of cards and the matching pictures on another set of cards. Each time students turn over a pair of cards, have them name the picture and read the decodable word. If they match, they take the pair of cards and have another turn. If they don’t match, flip the cards back over and have the next student take a turn.
As your students become more advanced, you can also have decodable sentences on one set of cards with matching pictures on the other! It’s a simple and engaging way to build language and literacy skills simultaneously.
9. Write about reading
For MLs, using new language in many different contexts accelerates English-learning. We strive to include speaking, listening, reading, and writing in every lesson to give students an opportunity to interact with new language in multiple contexts. For all students, the research is clear that when students write about what they’ve read, they develop a deeper understanding. Plus, when students write in response to decodable text, they get tons of practice writing words with the phonics patterns they’re learning!
In her book, The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading, Jan Richardson offers a procedure for supporting students as they begin to write about what they’ve read. And it works wonders for MLs! Richardson suggests working with students to create a bank of key words related to the topic they’ve read about. Through this discussion, students use reading, listening, and speaking to decide which terms are most important to include in the word bank. During writing, the word bank becomes a helpful tool for students as they compose a paragraph about the book they’ve read.
Have magnetic letters and Elkonin sound boxes ready to support students when they run into difficulty. Often, students are able to read new phonics patterns more easily than they can write them. Notice which phonics patterns MLs are able to apply in their writing. Be ready to show students that if they can read it, they can write it!
Rereading familiar books is one of the best ways to support fluency and deepen comprehension for MLs. Reading is a form of language input, or receptive language. When MLs take in language that they understand, their language abilities grow. When an ML rereads a familiar book, they become more secure in the language structures and vocabulary it contains. This improves their fluency (both in reading and in spontaneous oral language), and allows them to grasp more nuanced meaning with each reread.
Best of all, success reading familiar books gives students a boost of confidence. Experiencing what it feels like to read fluently and easily on familiar texts gives kids the motivation to persevere through tough first readings of decodable texts. When we cultivate that combination of determination and joy in our students as they learn to read, we set the stage for increased literacy and language development!
We hope you’re excited to try using decodable texts with your multilingual learners! When used with intention and purpose, decodables can be powerful tools for helping students understand the relationship between speech and print. And when you incorporate these tips for using decodable books with MLs, you can be confident you are supporting language and literacy development at the same time. A win-win!
We’d love to know: Have you used decodable texts with multilingual students? What challenges have you noticed? What tips can you share? Tell us in the comments below!