Decodable Books, Predictable Books or Trade Books? – Why I Now Use All Three by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Decodable Books, Predictable Books or Trade Books? – Why I Now Use All Three by Dr. Sam Bommarito

The debate around whether and how to control text in beginning reading is as old as the Great Debate in Reading itself. Over the years, there have been many different schemes on what to do. Recently the idea of using Decodable texts has come to the forefront.  Some SoR proponents say that use of decodable texts should be mandatory and exclusive. A while back, I was surprised when I read a blog post by Timothy Shanahan, a researcher who very much is committed to following science. I was surprised because he criticized what some of these SoR people have said about using decodable texts. I wrote a blog about it. LINK Shanahan was pretty blunt about what he had to say:

But those ‘experts’ who claim that kids should only read such texts for some length of time (e.g., 2-3 years) are just making that stuff up (bolding is mine). Research is not particularly supportive of such an artificial text regime (Adams, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2004; Levin, Baum & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963; Price-Mohr & Price, 2018). ‘Teaching children to expect one-to-one consistent mapping of letters to sounds is not an effective way to promote transfer to decoding at later stages in learning to read’ (Gibson & Levin, 1975, p. 7).’ “

In that same post LINK,  he said something that changed the way I go about my teaching:

“Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over-dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.”

What follows now is my response to those things Shanahan said in that post. For those who are new to this blog, I have a fairly extensive background in the teaching of reading. I’ve taught every grade K-graduate school, I’ve taught as a Title 1 reading teacher, Title 1 staff developer, and university professor. I’ve taught all of the reading courses usually taken by preservice teachers. Currently, I am pushing into two 2nd grade classrooms using Zoom, and I am doing individual tutoring for some children in grades K-3. Included are children who are struggling at the very beginning reading levels. For many years, I used predictable books and trade books with those children.

For the Level 1-8 books, I use both Keep Books and Raz-Kids books. Keep Books are a resource available through F&P. Ohio State University publishes them. They are low cost, and available online. Go to this link to find out more about them Here is a screen capture of the Keep Book that I often use as an exemplar when I talk about Keep Books during professional development and conferences. Notice that the back of the books include both Guided Reading and Reading Recovery information and a word count. There are Keep Books available for Levels RR 1-16. Here is what you’ll find inside my example of an exemplar Keep Book.

Keep Books are clearly predictable books. When using them, I encourage the students to crosscheck (say the first sound think of the clues). For instance, what if a student was stuck on the word pear on this page?  I might say the first sound “p.” Look at the new piece of fruit in the picture. What word should this be? Usually, that is enough for them to figure out the word.   For readers who are skeptical of using context clues, review my last weeks’ blog. LINK It talks about the Reading Research Quarterly  Executive Summary on the Science of Reading. Section one of that document indicates that results from six experimental studies suggest that there is value in teaching students to use both alphabetic and contextual information in word solving in interactive and confirmatory ways.

I also use other predictable text with the children, including Raz-Kids books and books from their basal series. The teachers I work with use trade-books for read alouds. So, students also have experience with that kind of text, even at the very beginning of their instruction.

What is new in my teaching practice is that I now use decodable books as well. I use books from a program made by the same company that publishes Raz Kids. That company is Learning A-Z. Here is a link to the Headsprout site: LINK.  While there are many programs and options out there, over the years, I’ve gravitated to using the Learning A-Z materials because they are created based on an extensive examination of the research and they have incredibly useful tracking and management systems. Let’s look at a typical decodable book from Headsprout.

There are several things I want you to know about the program. It is essentially designed to be a turn-key program. The program teaches sound/symbol relations explicitly using clever computer characters and games. For instance, before reading this book, they would learn about the “ee” and the “an” sounds. By using the sounds in characters’ names, the authors are able to create less contrived stories, with less need to use words that are in the story mainly to provide right sounds/decodable words. I especially like the program because as students read progressively longer and more complex books, the books are added to a personal library they can access online at any time. I encourage students to go back to reread these books, and include the rereading of these familiar books in most of my lessons with them.  Here is a picture of one student’s library. This student is about half-way through the overall program:

Using these decodable texts in addition to the predictable text means that,  as I work with these students individually, I can use a variety of teaching strategies. I think this allows me to carry out the earlier advice from Dr. Shanahan “the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over-dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.”

I know there are many other decodable books and other predictable texts to choose from. The point of this post is not to convince you to use these particular books. It is to convince you that using both predictable and decodable books together is a viable option. I’ve tweaked what I used to do and so I’ve improved my individual tutoring program. This fits perfectly into a centrist approach. Don’t replace one thing that works for some but not all with another thing that works for some but not all. Instead, use elements of both. Taking that kind of path is the best chance we have to eventually resolve the reading wars.

Over the next few weeks, I am lining up interviews with literacy experts from various points of view. Let’s do find out what folks from different perspectives are saying. I hope you will join me. Until then, Happy Reading and Happy Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2021 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization

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10 thoughts on “Decodable Books, Predictable Books or Trade Books? – Why I Now Use All Three by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. Matt

    Did you take into consideration this part of Dr. Shanahan’s blog post you referenced?

    “I’m not a big fan of predictable text in this equation, because it discourages kids from looking at the words. However, even these texts are okay for very brief times. In my classrooms, kids worked with these kinds of texts once a week or less—along with the basal readers, linguistic readers, and language experiences stories that made up the lion’s share of their reading. Predictable texts are fun, they allow a level of early success unmatched by the other texts and they do encourage kids to try to keep reading meaningful and fluent; nothing wrong with any of that.“

    How do you account for his thoughts on cueing/MSV here in what you posted?


    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      I’m very much aware of Dr. Shanahan’s position on MSV. I shared this post with him today to find out what his reaction will be to the research cited in RRQ. What I say next will depend on his reaction.

      1. Matt

        Hi Dr. Sam,

        I came back to check to see if you’ve updated you position after reaching out to Dr. Shanahan.


      2. doctorsam7 Post author

        Haven’t heard back. However, at the time he published the piece, there was a flurry of negative reactions from some SOR folks. In addition, his statement that about SOR advocates just making some of the stuff up was pretty unequivocal. It does the best job of making the point I am trying to make. We need much more than 2 or 3 years of decodables in order to improve our kid’s reading. I don’t expect he will back down about the MSV, though the RRQ papers would say there is evidence that totally rejecting MSV is not supported by the research. I would also point out that speech pathologists have been using a similar model for decades. The debate about all this is far from settled. By the way “C-n y– r–d th-?” Most adult readers answer yes. Hmmm. How do they do it if they are not using a combination of visual and meaning cues? I’ll leave you with that thought.

  2. Timothy Rasinski

    Hey Sam. Thank you. One of the reasons I love poetry for children is that it is predictable (patterned), decodable (contain word families or rimes that are helpful in word decoding) and authentic – they’re real texts! On top of all that, poetry is generally short, which means it is not overwhelming for kids who struggle and, of course, poetry is fun and motivating to rehearse, read, and perform!

  3. doctorsam7 Post author

    Tim-As you well know I use poetry with all my kids on a regular basis. Forgot to mention that in this particular post but I certainly won’t forget to mention future posts. Thanks so much for the comment.

  4. Beverly Hathaway

    Hi Sam,
    I’ve been a Reading Recovery teacher for 25 years. I feel very fortunate to have a deep understanding of early literacy.

    I do believe that SOME (not all) children need decodable text.

    Can you please explain in more detail how you make decisions to include decodable text for your students?

    It’s important that we do not confuse classroom teachers. Our Language Arts Coordinator believes ALL children should be in decodable text first, essentially graduating phonics instruction before receiving leveled or authentic text. This is happening without true collaboration due to our coordinators belief in the SoR and a few years of teaching experience. What are your thoughts and recommendations?

    Thank you for considering my questions.

      1. doctorsam7 Post author

        Thanks to you as well! I will be writing more about this topic and the particular of how and why I use decodables with my students.

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