Decodables?  Controlled Vocabulary?  Predictable Text?   Literature-based text?   When it comes to choosing texts for our beginning readers these days,  it’s hard to keep them all straight!  Which type of text should we be turning to?   Which type is best?  As the reading wars heat up, some types of texts have been highly criticized for not supporting reading acquisition.  Some are dismissing certain text types for others. In this post, I outline the most common text types for  beginning readers, how they differ from one another, and the benefits and limitations of each. 

Easing Into Reading Through Simplified Texts

Early primary teachers are aware of the wide range of beginning texts available for young students as they develop their reading skills.  Often different text types are associated with different approaches to early reading instruction.  Texts for early readers may differ in their approach, but what they share is a simplification of language for the purpose of helping readers ease into the reading process. Teachers ease emergent readers in with these simplified texts, (knowing they are nothing like the texts we actually read) to help them get started on their reading journeys.  

Below are the most common types of simplified texts used for beginning readers: 

Controlled Vocabulary 

Controlled vocabulary readers limit texts to a handful of words that are used repeatedly. Students are introduced to, review, and practice the phonics and high-frequency words that appear in the week’s text.  New words are added gradually. The major approach to learning these words is memorization. 

The reading method associated with controlled vocabulary texts is the Whole Word Method

Example: Foxy and Friends series by Linda Heney

  

Vocabulary: 

 Controlled Text

Benefits:   

  • Students feel confident when they can read words they recognize and know. 
  • Students feel less overwhelmed by difficulty as they know every word. 
  • Builds vocabulary and sight words 

Limitations:  

  • With so few words, initially, the texts sound contrived and unnatural.  
  • Prevents simple decoding and application of phonics skills 
  • Students memorize words rather than sound them out.  

Predictable Text

Predictable Texts are texts that rely on patterns and pictures.  Predictable or patterned text gives multiple repetitions of words and phrases so that students often memorize the patterns and can predict unknown words by using the picture clues. 

The reading method associated with predictable texts is Balanced Literacy. 

Example:  

 Animals on the Farm

A pig lives on the farm. (picture of a pig on a farm)

A horse lives on the farm. (picture of a horse on a farm)

A cow lives on the farm.(picture of a cow on a farm)

A dog lives on the farm. (picture of a dog on a farm)

A sheep lives on the farm.(picture of a sheep on a farm) 

So many animals on the farm!  (picture of all the animals on the farm) 

Benefits:

  • Natural sounding language 
  • Reinforces high frequency words
  • Builds confidence and a level of early success
  • Promotes fluency and meaning 

Limitations: 

  • Readers depend upon repetition, context, and pictures to guess at unfamiliar words.
  • Discourages readers from looking at word segments and applying phonics. 
  • Once readers know the pattern, they can “read” by guessing or looking at the pictures.  

Decodables

Decodables are texts that reinforce and help students practice certain sound-letter patterns taught as part of a structured phonics program.  Decodable texts only include words that include the letters and sounds just introduced, minimizing the number of words that students won’t be able to decode. Recently, there has been a reemergence in the popularity of decodables with the shift towards a more scientifically based (SoR) approach to reading instruction.   

The reading method associated with decodable texts is Structured Literacy. 

Decodable Example:  

The cat is fat.

The mat is flat.

The fat cat sat on the flat mat.

Benefits:

  • Supports the application of sequential phonics skills 
  • Supports orthographic mapping and teaches sounding out

Limitations:

  • Limited words in early readers result in contrived stories – not accurately presenting how English actually sounds 
  • Limited emphasis on vocabulary building and comprehension 

Literature Based Text

Literature-based texts use whole words and phrases in meaningful contexts.  These texts emphasize meaning over the sounds of letters and include natural language rather than isolated, restricted vocabulary.  These texts are considered more holistic, with reading skills being introduced from whole to part. 

(NOTE:  Literature Based texts do not use simplified language and are not necessarily considered “beginning readers” but, for the purpose of this blog post, I have included them in this list.)

The reading method associated with literature-based texts is Whole Language. 

Example of Literature-Based Text: 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carl 

On Sunday morning, the warm sun came up and – pop! – out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar 

Benefits: 

  • Exposure to “real reading”, language, and stories
  • Focus on reading for meaning
  • Promotes purpose, motivation to read
  • Increases vocabulary 

Limitations: 

  • Readers may have difficulty decoding unfamiliar words
  • Simplification of language is limited
  • Little to no emphasis or support with phonics skills 

Which beginning text should I use? 

So which is the “best” type of text to use? That is the question all teachers must wrestle with.  Perhaps because different readers require different focuses to excel at reading, there is no “one size fits all approach” when it comes to choosing texts for our beginning readers.  

There is a time, place, and reader for each of these different text types. Decodables are extremely important as children learn to sound out letters and words and apply their phonics skills when they read.  Restricting reading to only this type of  contrived text may suck the joy out of reading for some, while could prove to be the first joyful experience for others as they successfully decode words for the first time.  A rich print environment and engaging read-alouds using authentic literature can help motivate children to want to read and get them excited about reading, but do little to teach children the mechanics of reading.  A predictable text might be just the thing to help a striving reader gain confidence they need to see themself as a reader, however, continuing to depend on visuals and pictures may not provide necessary long term skills needed to become a fluent reader.  

Perhaps, texts used by teachers when they are teaching reading should be dependent on each individual student’s needs, and not on a particular pedagogy or method.  Relying too heavily on any one of these types of texts may be short-sighted.  As I have outlined, there is no “perfect” text to use with beginning readers – they all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Differentiated instruction using different text types is essential when meeting the needs of all readers. 

Final Thoughts

Text simplifications for beginning readers make sense, however, we need to be aware of the false sense of security they often create.  For example, when we provide training wheels for a child who is learning to ride a two-wheeler, we may be helping them get started, however, those extra wheels can be misleading because they are removing the rider’s need to balance.  Similarly, the simplification of text in beginning readers may help students get started reading, but may provide a false sense of success for the reader.  Ultimately, our goal for beginning readers is for the “training wheels” to be removed as students acquire both the skills and the motivation to independently read successfully.    

Texts for beginning readers simplify language to help them ease into the process with confidence.  Rather than advocating one beginning text type or system over another, let’s not forget that any simplified text differs from the natural text we eventually want our readers to experience.  Simplified texts are designed to support our readers, but should not be used as the primary source of text students are exposed to. The more teachers are aware of the different text types that are available for beginning readers, the more effectively they can expose them to different texts for different purposes and target their instruction to better support the needs of each student.  

Click HERE for predictable texts

Click HERE for decodable texts

Click HERE for literature based texts 

About the Author Adrienne Gear

Adrienne is a teacher, author and speaker from Vancouver, BC She has over 25 years of elementary teaching experience and has written seven professional books for elementary teachers in the area of reading, writing, and thinking. Adrienne is also a Literacy and Learning advisor with the Simbi Read for Good platform. She is a well-sought after speaker and speaks to educators across the country and around the world. She is passionate about reading, children’s literature, and all things west coast. Adrienne currently lives in Kelowna, BC with her husband and their dog.

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