Choosing and using decodable texts
Decodable texts are an integral part of teaching reading using a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) approach. This topic will show you how to use decodable texts to complement your phonics instruction, including an explanation of:
- orthographic mapping
- how decodable texts support the orthographic mapping process
- how to effectively use decodable texts in your classroom.
- understand what orthographic mapping is
- understand how decodable texts support SSP instruction
- be able to choose quality decodable texts that support your students
- know how to use decodable texts as part of your SSP instruction.
1. Spotlight on decodable texts
45 minutes reading and viewing
Decodable texts are a key resource for an SSP classroom. Students use them to practise newly acquired phonics knowledge and skills. This practice, along with explicit SSP instruction, allows students to orthographically map words to their long-term memory.
What is orthographic mapping?
When a skilled reader sees a word, they know it instantly. In that split second of recognition a series of complex events happen.
- The reader’s eyes move from left to right across the word (in the English language), resting on each individual letter in turn.
- The sounds that correspond to those letters are retrieved by the reader.
- The pronunciation and meaning of the word is recalled by the reader.
This process is called orthographic mapping, which involves storing words in our long-term memory as a string of mapped letters and sounds. For this to happen, students must be able to match letters to sounds and blend these sounds to read words.
This explains why phonemic awareness (including blending and segmenting) and a thorough understanding of phonics (matching letters to sounds) is essential to becoming a skilled reader.
Orthographic mapping cannot be taught, but you can teach students the skills that will enable orthographic mapping to occur.
Read this 7-minute blog post by Joan Sedita, explaining the role of orthographic mapping in learning to read.
What makes a text decodable?
Decodable texts are phonetically controlled. This means they only include words that contain the letter–sound correspondences that students have been taught, as well as any irregular words that students need to read the text. So, whether a text is decodable or not depends on the reader’s level of knowledge and skill.
Phonics programs often provide a progression and decodable texts aligned to that progression. As students build their letter–sound knowledge and develop blending skills, they can begin to read increasingly complex texts.
Decodable texts begin with simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words aligned to the start of a progression, and progress to words with more complex structures such as CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words.
Decodable texts can be single words, sentences, passages and whole texts. These options align with the student’s ability to decode at the word level, sentence level and, eventually, whole text level.
This 10-minute read explains what decodable texts are and how they can be used in your SSP classroom.
Why use decodable texts?
When we learn to play the piano or to throw and catch a ball, repeated practice with feedback and guidance is essential to mastery. The same is true for learning to read.
Decodable texts contain specific letter–sound correspondences and words controlled for complexity, so they are perfect for independent, repeated practice. This practice develops memory pathways (orthographic mapping). This, in turn, leads to improved fluency.
Reading decodable texts also supports students to develop reading comprehension. Cognitive load theory explains that the less cognitive effort a student needs to decode a text, the more effort they can put into focusing on comprehension. If a decodable text is ‘easy’ for a student to decode, they can put most of their effort into making meaning.
This 3-minute read outlines what research says about the use of decodable texts.
How can decodable texts be used to support reading instruction?
Teacher modelling at sentence or whole text level
As you read aloud, focus on the most recent letter–sound correspondence you have taught your students using the following steps.
- Stop reading when you come to a word containing the newly learned letter–sound correspondence.
- Model saying the sound for each letter or group of letters in the word.
- Blend the sounds together to read the word.
- Re-read the sentence for fluency and meaning.
Student knowledge application and repeated skills practice
Students can be given the opportunity to practise their decoding skills through:
- teacher-guided tasks
- partner work
- independent tasks.
For example, at the end of an explicit lesson teaching the 'sh' digraph, students with a strong understanding of this new letter–sound correspondence can independently read decodable words, sentences or books that focus on ‘sh’ representing /sh/.
At the same time, the teacher can work with the students who need further support to guide them through decoding words containing the ‘sh’ digraph.
Download the Using decodable texts in the classroom infographic for a summary of these steps.
How do I know which decodable texts to choose for my school and my students?
Decodable texts for your school
Ideally, the progression used in your decodable texts is the same as the progression your school uses for teaching letter–sound correspondences and irregular words. If this is the case, the two will complement each other.
Some schools choose to use decodable texts from multiple series. This brings the advantage of increasing the range of reading material for students; however, teachers face the challenge of picking and choosing books from multiple sets that will map to their chosen phonics progression.
Decodable texts for your students
Decodable texts should be used to reinforce the explicit teaching you have done, so they should only include words with the letter–sound correspondences that students have learned, as well as any irregular words that students need to read the text. This allows students to practise the skills they have developed.
A decodable text should not be used as a tool to teach something new.
When choosing a text for students, consider their skills against:
- the letter–sound correspondences included in the text
- irregular words in the text
- the complexity of the words in the text.
Read more about word complexity in the word and code complexity continuum.
Use the table below to think about the type of text that best supports your students to practise their decoding skills and fluency.
Type of decodable text
Working on blending skills
Developing their decoding skills, but are still predominantly reading word by word
Demonstrating fluency at decoding sentence level text
text level (books)
As new letter–sound correspondences are introduced and words become more complex, students may start again at the word level, and progress through the steps once again.
Download and print bookmarks that students can use when practising their decoding skills.
What about rich literature?
The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) explains that beginning readers need instruction and support in two sets of skills: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Explicitly teaching each of these skills supports students to develop reading comprehension.
When teaching word recognition (decoding), decodable texts are the best tool. Teachers should discuss the content of these texts with students as they read, but the primary focus in this part of a lesson is not comprehension.
When teaching language comprehension, rich literature is a great tool. Reading rich texts aloud supports beginning readers to develop their language comprehension skills, including background knowledge, vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. Careful planning around read-aloud sessions allows teachers to build students’ background knowledge, vocabulary and syntactic knowledge.
Planning explicit instruction around the key elements of the Simple View of Reading supports students to develop strong reading comprehension skills.
This 10-minute article breaks down the components of the Simple View of Reading, and shows how it can be used to identify student needs and differentiate learning (see page 3 for word recognition; see page 4 for comprehension).
2. Coaching webinar: Choosing and using decodable texts
Presenters: Elaine Stanley and Rebecca McEwan
Register to view a recording of the webinar from our literacy specialists on how to choose quality decodable texts and use them effectively for:
- modelled instruction
- independent student practice.
This session will unpack each of the decodable resources available on the Literacy Hub.
3. Putting learning into action
Now that you have engaged with this topic, use the prompts below to reflect on your current practice and take action in response to your new learning.
Actions for Foundation to Year 2 school leaders
You may wish to:
- Lead your staff through the 'Spotlight on decodable texts’ section and included links.
- Discuss the following questions with your staff (reflecting and evaluating): What texts do we currently use to support our beginning readers? Do we have any decodable resources in the school? What is a first step we could make towards using decodable texts in our classrooms?
- Support your staff to explore the resources provided in this topic and to use decodable words and sentences for modelling and independent practice in their classrooms.
- Source some decodable resources that suit your school context.
Actions for Foundation to Year 2 teachers
- Use data you have available on students’ letter–sound correspondence knowledge and/or phonics knowledge and skills to decide which decodable texts would suit your students. You can gather this data from a letter–sound correspondence assessment or from the Year 1 Phonics Check (which assesses a range of skills and knowledge, including letter–sound correspondence knowledge).
- Explicitly model for your students how to decode a sentence or a text.
- Provide your students with decodable words, sentences or texts as part of your phonics instruction.
4. Q&A webinar: Answering your questions about decodable texts
Presenters: Elaine Stanley and Rebecca McEwan
Sign up to view the recording.
This resource provides a bank of decodable words and sentences aligned to each phase of the Literacy Hub phonics progression to use as part of instruction or for independent student practice.
This document summarises some of the free online decodable texts for Australian classrooms available on third-party websites.
This slide pack helps students review irregular words they have already learned.
This Word document can be used to plan for the specific words and sentences teachers will use when teaching new phonics content. It includes a worked example of a completed lesson and a blank template.
This infographic guides teachers on using decodable texts with students.
This diagram shows the gradual progression of skills that students need to develop so they can read and spell words with increasing complexity.
References, useful links and further reading
- Five from Five: Decodable books
This webpage gives an overview of what a decodable text is, and explains how decodables support students as they learn to read.
- Five from Five: How we learn orthographic mapping
This webpage outlines the process of orthographic mapping and explains how teachers can help students develop it.
- New South Wales, Department of Education: Teachers talking about using decodable texts in the classroom
In this podcast, a group of teachers talk about their experiences using decodable texts.
- New South Wales, Department of Education: Decodable texts
This webpage explains how decodable texts can be used to support reading instruction, and includes five instructional videos.
- Parker S. Teach Reading Logically: Sight words, orthographic mapping, phonemic awareness
This webpage defines key terms, explains how phonemic awareness and phonics instruction enables orthographic mapping, and quotes numerous experts in the field.
- Reading Rockets: The Simple View of Reading
This webpage explains the Simple View of Reading model and how it can be used as an assessment tool to provide targeted intervention for struggling readers.
- SPELD NSW: Decodable book selectors