Why Decodable Texts Are Essential in the Primary Classroom

When I started teaching first grade almost 15 years ago, I had a stack of decodable readers in my classroom that just collected dust.

Why?  Because they weren’t meaningful texts.  They were boring to read.  There was little picture support.  And I was a teacher determined to emphasize reading comprehension, not robotic readers.

So the phonics readers just sat in the back of my cabinet because I would’ve gone to teacher jail if I’d thrown them away.

But I began to notice a shift in my own teaching about 2 years before I left the classroom for a mom-break.  That year, 2014, the district I was in purchased a phonics curriculum.  An actual phonics curriculum.  And I was reluctant at first because in my book.

Phonics = Boring

At least to 2014 Whitney.

But they asked us to teach it so I tried.  I really tried.  And by the end of the second year, I had found a rhythm with phonics.  I had taken what worked from the curriculum, with what I also had found to work in my own classroom, and developed a 20 minute phonics routine that was engaging to my firsties and….

Wait for it…


Fast forward 3 more years and I started doing some personal research while out of the classroom on my mom-break on the Science of Reading and the RISE initiative in my state, Arkansas.

And what I found between that research and my experience as a long-term resource sub and long-term kinder sub last year is that decodable readers have an important place in the primary classroom.

Why Decodable Readers?

The evidence based data that I found in my research of the science of reading showed that when we teach students strategies like “look at the picture,” and “skip the word and come back” along with other MSV cues, we are teaching them to guess using skills that aren’t actually reading skills.

Think about that for a minute.  If I ask my ELL kiddo to look at the picture for a clue to read the word, I’m asking him to use language skills that he may or may not have.  And even if she can guess the word from one picture clue, does not mean that she can guess it from the next one….it all depends on his vocabulary.  Not his decoding skills.

Instead, if I front load my learners with decoding skills and teach them the 44 sounds in the English language, that is transferrable.  If I can crack the decoding skill, I can read any book….regardless of my language skills.

Decodable texts remove the language comprehension requirement and give kids an opportunity to just practice segmenting and blending to gain fluency and become automatic readers who can THEN focus on comprehension.

But What About Comprehension?

Do not.  I repeat DO NOT hear me say that comprehension is not important.  I’m a reader who struggles with reading comprehension.  Who can decode quickly and read 5 pages out of my favorite chapter book at night before realizing I have no idea what I just read.

So I understand the importance of the end goal in reading…to understand, learn from and enjoy what we are reading.

Comprehension is still very present in the primary classroom.  But it is done whole group through read alouds and VERBAL comprehension.  It’s doing what we tell parents to do with their kids at home…read and talk about the story.

And this is exactly what my 12 weeks in kindergarten last year as a long-term sub taught me.  Comprehension early on is VERBAL.  It’s studying vocabulary words through read alouds and text talks.  It’s reading stories together and asking questions and retelling together as a whole group.  And it’s modeling thinking aloud about stories.  All of those things still exists in the primary classroom. And are ESSENTIAL.

But another essential part of reading in the primary grades is decoding.  After all, if I can’t decode as an adult (or 3rd grader) you can just forget about comprehension anyway.

Independent reading in K & 1 is the time for kids to practice their decoding skills.  And what the evidence shows (both formally from the Science of Reading data and informally from my observations in the classroom) is that as our decoding skills and verbal/language comprehension skills grow, they meet together to form reading comprehension.

Let’s Talk ELL Kiddos

Decoding + Verbal Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

Think about that for a second.

That was a lightbulb moment for me for my ELL kiddos when I began to see this in the classroom.

I spent so many years early on asking my ELL babies to use their English Language skills (which by the way were basically zero) to “read” or guess words.  What a HUGE disservice!

Instead, I should have spent my time building up their verbal language comprehension skills and teaching them decoding skills during their small group intervention times…knowing that formula would eventually produce reading comprehension.  I was trying to make them swallow the whole apple (decode and comprehend) instead of cutting it up into smaller pieces.

So now what?

As a result, I’ve created kindergarten decodable texts and first grade decodable texts that align with my first grade Super Phonics Curriculum.  And I’ll be blogging soon about how I used these in the classroom!


And find a free sample of decodable readers here!

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  1. Whitney,I am so proud of you and the other bloggers/TPT creators who are looking closely at research and changing their practices based on research. Thank you for being brave enough to let us all know that you have changed your beliefs about teaching reading. We all will benefit from your honesty! Thank you! Camille

  2. Thank you so much, Camille! That really means a lot to me. I think it's so important for teachers to keep up with research and not get stuck doing something just because we've always done it that way!
    Whitney 🙂