A reply to The Reading Ape: ‘Controlling the text – the dilemma of decodable texts’

A reply to The Reading Ape: ‘Controlling the text – the dilemma of decodable texts’.

Now that we’ve finally got used to the idea of supporting the teaching of beginning reading using decodable texts, in the blog post ‘Controlling the text – the dilemma of decodable texts’, The Reading Ape (TRA) is asking a thorny question many have been asking for some time answers to those questions are, as he says,  ‘inevitably nuanced’.

It’s the question to the problem of when we can make the transition from tightly controlled texts which align closely with the phonics approach being taught formally in class, towards texts which contain sound-spelling correspondences that are not so restrictive.

Given the opaque nature of the English orthographic code, I agree pretty much with TRA’s claim that the ‘simple’ or Initial Code should first be taught and fully supported or scaffolded by decodable readers, which are, by now, commonly accepted to be readers that are comprised almost entirely of words containing sound-spelling correspondences which have already been taught. The aim of such readers is, of course, to promote automaticity and fluency.

In the teaching of something as opaque as the English alphabetic code where do we begin to lessen those restrictions and allow pupils freer rein, though?

The Reading Ape is categorical in suggesting that such readers need to be deployed during the teaching of the simple code, as he calls it. The simple code is where we teach, predominantly the one-to-ones and some consonant digraphs.

The rationale for teaching a simple code is that, in the initial stages of learning to read and write, we need to ‘mitigate’ (McGuinness, 2004) the problem of the opacity of English orthography and the most effective way of doing this is to teach a carefully sequenced simple code. Such a code would:

Teach all the one-to-ones at the level of CVC and would have the aim of making sure pupils understand the direction of the code: from each speech sound to its representation in spelling (i.e. one-letter spellings). It is also during this period, which lasts approximately fourteen weeks, that pupils become more and more adept at the skills.

Teach the three vital skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation with the aim of arriving at automaticity in reading and writing by the end of teaching all of the simple code. From a procedural point of view, cognitive load is increased after the introduction of adjacent consonants and, during most of this phase, no new code knowledge is introduced.

Teach conceptual understanding of the way in which the code works, starting with the idea that English orthography goes from left to right, one sound-spelling correspondence at a time, gently building towards understanding that we can spell sounds with two- and three-letters.

If, having taught all the one-to-ones, we move on the simple double consonants < ff >, < ll >, < ss > and < zz >, we will simultaneously be teaching more, new code knowledge and presenting the important idea that we can spell sounds with two letters. [Later, we’ll augment this schema by adding three- and four-letter spellings.]

This should be followed by adding in the complexity of adjacent consonants, beginning with CVCC and progressing towards CCCVCC words, during which time pupils should be taught to segment, blend and manipulate phonemes in words to a very high level of proficiency.

Finally, the simple code can be topped off by introducing the consonant digraphs. From the point of view of complexity, introducing words containing the spellings < sh >, < c h >, and so on, further adds to conceptual understanding that we can spell sounds with two (but now two different) letters.

Neither, when we are talking about teaching reading and writing, is writing to be added as a second thought – it plays an integral part in establishing sound-spelling relationships, further securing them in long-term memory and promoting automaticity.

High frequency words

At the level of the simple code, decodable readers play a major part. Their purpose is to promote automaticity and, for this to be achieved, exposure and (huge amounts of) practice is key. Obviously, they should align very closely with the scope and sequence of the formal teaching pupils are getting in their daily phonics lessons. By and large, at the level of the simple code, decodable readers introduce very few words containing sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught. Decodable readers also establish statistically predictable patterns in sound-spelling combinations, which the brain records. As McGuinness remarks in Early Reading Instruction, ‘The brain is a statistical pattern analyzer par excellence.’ (p. 120)

How we deal with words that, at the level of the simple code, incorporate words comprised of sound-spelling correspondences that haven’t as yet been taught, gives us the key to how tightly we need to restrict reading texts within the bounds of what we are teaching.

Let me explain: ‘of’ is going to be a frequently encountered word in texts presented in the early stages of reading. The knowledgeable teacher will assist the child reading to offer that, “This,” pointing to the spelling < f >, “is /v/. Say /v/ here.” And, the teacher may or may not add, “Yes. When you’ve been reading it before, it is /f/ but in this word, it’s /v/.” To an older pupil who is receiving instruction as an intervention, the teacher may also observe that the spelling < f > in the word ‘of’ is the only occasion in which < f > represents the sound /v/.

Can pupils cope with the drip feed of words comprised of sound-spelling correspondences that don’t conform to the one-to-one sounds-spelling correspondences that are being taught formally, or will they be confused? The trick here is to introduce these words in context, to keep the explanatory language uncomplicated and consistent, to keep building on what has already been taught explicitly and to give opportunities for plenty of practice. It cannot be said often enough that practice promotes automaticity, which, in turn, fosters expertise.

The approach works very effectively as long as not too many words of this kind are introduced at any one time. It is, though, important not to fudge them by telling the child they are ‘undecodable’ or ‘tricky’: they are valuable inasmuch as they offer opportunities, little by little, to ‘sensitise’ pupils to sounds-spelling correspondences that will be taught in the near future. Such an approach also begins to touch on the idea (conceptual understanding) that sounds can be spelt in different ways (< c >, < k > and < ck >) and that many spellings represent more than one sound (the /o/ in ‘hot’, ‘no’ and ‘to’), which will also be taught formally as one launches into teaching the greater complexities of the code in due course.

So, TRA, here’s my tentative answer to your question. Bearing in mind that, even at this stage – one year into reading and writing instruction – we still need to reduce cognitive load to a level at which learners are able to cope, assuming they already have the knowledge provided by a high quality phonics programme, which is cumulatively structured in presenting factual information (code knowledge and conceptual understanding) as well as the three skills at the level of the simple code.

By the end of the simple/Initial/Basic code and the beginning of an Extended/advanced code, pupils have acquired a considerable amount of expertise in learning to read and write. They can by now segment, blend and manipulate sounds in words with increasing dexterity; they have a fast-developing understanding that we can spell sound with one-, two-, three- or four-letter spellings and they have a growing schema for such examples in the context of real words; they also increasingly understand that we can spell sounds in more than one way and are learning specifically what those spellings of those sounds are; and, they understand that spellings can represent more than one sound.

My contention is that by the time we have taught eight or nine sounds and their various spellings from the Extended Code through worked examples, there begins to take place (if it hasn’t already for many pupils) a guidance fading effect. In other words, the teacher begins, gradually, to withdraw support and to offer challenges in which pupils ‘discover’ new spellings of sounds and the contexts in which they occur. This is the point at which it becomes possible to release the restrictions on decodable readers. It’s an intermediate step between tightly controlled text and unrestricted text.

Of course, the mediating hand of the teacher is decisive. When reading is being conducted whole class, small group, or one-to-one, the teacher must know what has been taught previously and therefore where it is likely that interventions will have to be made.

At a broader level,  as already established, we want to be encouraging pupils to make the transition from reading decodable texts to reading any text they encounter. It’s a transition that takes pupils from heavily scaffolded text through guided independence to independence. However, it is a process that needs to be carefully managed because any instruction that ignores the limits of working memory is unlikely to be effective.

Sounds-Write (and Phonic Books) have produced decodable texts on which beginning readers can practise and, with some small exceptions for which pupils may need help, in the beginning, the readers stick very closely to what has been formally introduced in the pupils’ phonics lessons. However, we don’t want to fetishise a strict adherence to providing young learners with texts that only contain sound-spelling correspondences that have been formally taught. Pupils also live in an environment in which they will be reading and writing words that, as yet, don’t fit with the conceptual schema that is being presented. They will ask questions about what they, as yet, perceive as inconsistencies and we, as teachers, will be supplying them with helpful answers: “Yes, this is another way of spelling the sound XXX.” or “This is another of those three-letter spellings. It’s XXX. Say XXX here.”

From direct instruction to guided discovery

I’m arguing that there needs to be a bridge between decodable readers and pupils becoming independent readers and that the form this should take is in the production of texts which are still predominantly decodable but are deliberately constructed to add in sound-spelling correspondences which have not yet been taught formally. This kind of reader should be introduced at about the same time as so-called ‘graded readers’ and should contain some but not too many sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught formally. Like ‘graded readers’, these books require teacher support and should, therefore, be chosen carefully, but they should also be difficult enough to make the student think and struggle a bit. The difficulties should be ‘desirable but in a good way’, as Bjork and Bjork (2011) put it.

For one or two concrete examples of how we might achieve such a transition, see the following posts: https://theliteracyblog.com/2017/03/21/reading-in-text/

Reference:  Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental