Decoding Equitable Phonics Instruction

August 29, 2018

Tim Shanahan recently posted a blog entry in which he answered a teacher’s question, regarding his “own thinking as well as research referencing the occasional use of decodable texts for small group reading instruction in grades K-2.” Shanahan commented on the research regarding the decodable text part of the request but missed an opportunity to link the text type with the intended use, or instructional approach.

Because he answers only the question about decodable readers without a discussion about the content of the “small group reading instruction” paired with the readers, the answer opens the door for interpretations that counter the research on the instructional approach. It is not clear from the request or the answer whether the teacher is using the text to conduct small group phonics instruction or guided reading with little or no phonics instruction. This is an important distinction, in that more than 30 years of research, including the National Reading Panel (NRP, of which Shanahan was a member), concluded that “early, explicit, systematic phonics teaching gives kids a learning advantage.”

Shanahan does use research to make a connection between instruction and use of decodable texts, but without explicitly addressing the context of decodable reader use (e.g., the instruction), the door is open to making his answer fit one’s practice, so many will miss the connection entirely:

“Perhaps the best study of the problem was conducted by Jenkins and colleagues (2004). They compared the effectiveness of text with 85% decodability with text that had only 11% decodability (and these percentages were based on the texts’ match with the patterns that students had been taught). Moreover, they found? That degree of decodability made no difference. It made no difference in decoding, word reading, passage reading, or reading comprehension. (The two groups that received instruction with texts at these two levels of decodability both outperformed a group that received no additional instruction, so the teaching was effective in both cases).”

The real question is not just about text type. It is about how texts are paired with an instructional approach. The answer is not just a matter of research; it is a matter of equity.


Timothy Shanahan and Alice Wiggins, pictured.

If the context of decodable text use is small group instruction in a guided reading approach, with little or no phonics instruction, then the question of text type (decodable or not) is irrelevant as the students’ ability to read the text is likely to falter as the text difficulty moves beyond the features that support “reading” in the absence of code knowledge—strong support from the illustrations, high-frequency (memorized) words, and repetitive text.

Despite the research, instructional time is often spent encouraging students in small groups to rely on illustrations, high-frequency words, and memorization of repetitive text. While these strategies can be helpful at times, I often see them given precedence over the most reliable of strategies-code knowledge.

Equity is not served by teaching students to rely on the methods of poor readers (clues), rather than teaching them what strong readers know (code). “Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some” (Snow & Juel, 2005).

At UnboundEd, we advocate for K – 2 instruction that includes explicit, systematic phonics instruction (and the time block dedicated to it). Our guidance to pair explicit, systematic phonics instruction with decodable texts is informed by research on the efficacy of phonics instruction and the equity move of aiming to capture whatever benefit the “practice effect” may convey. Likewise, we aim to capture any lift conveyed when teachers have tightly focused knowledge of students’ code mastery and can intentionally and explicitly attend to needs—a feat that is less easy to achieve in the absence of a systematic approach to phonics.

That said, we recognize that students need the opportunity to read a variety of text types at a variety of reading levels. In addition to a systematic phonics approach, we advocate for an early literacy block that includes time devoted to knowledge and language building read-aloud, independent reading for practice generalizing reading skills beyond a decodable text, and both writing and oral expression activities. None of these other essential elements of early instruction rely on decodable readers.

As for the question of leveled readers for students beyond grade 2, check out what my friend Tim has to say!

Learn more about The K-2 Elements of Aligned ELA Instruction.


About Alice Wiggins

Alice Wiggins has directed initiatives at the national level related to P-3 ELA curriculum implementation and support. As senior director, ELA, she is responsible for ELA partner engagement work, curriculum development, and supporting professional development programs for the Standards Institute. Alice was previously executive vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation and also served as associate director of the Preschool Language and Literacy Lab at the University of Virginia. She is also the author or co-author of a number of publications including the Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence and Teacher Handbook; Preschoolers at Play: Building Language and Literacy through Dramatic Play; Scaffolding With Storybooks: A Guide for Enhancing Young Children’s Language; and Literacy Achievement and Assessment in Emergent Literacy. Alice’s interests and expertise in education are enhanced by her 15 years as a consultant and project manager in the private sector.