How To Use Decodable Readers


how to use decodable readers

You may have seen the recommendation to use decodable readers or decodable text with your students, especially early on in their learning. Let’s take a closer look at what that means, why it might be beneficial, and how to go about it. Many newly trained Orton-Gillingham educators or classroom teachers ask how to use decodable readers. This post will hopefully serve as a helpful guide for you as you plan, as well as offer suggestions as to where to find decodable readers, and decodable passages.

What are decodable readers?

Decodable readers or decodable text can be books or passages that use a controlled set of words. This may include a specific group of learned words (such as irregularly patterned words) and specific syllable types and spelling patterns.

Decodable text generally follows a systematic progression or specific scope and sequence building in complexity and difficulty. These stories are written and published expressly for early readers. These books are usually very clear about what sequence of skills they use and what patterns are found in a particular story or set of stories. While it is rare for a text to be 100% decodable, those we want to use should be close using common irregular words and names that mirror the student population.

Why use decodable text?

One of the greatest challenges as Orton-Gillingham trained or structured literacy teachers is getting your students to use decoding strategies rather than guessing. In many cases instruction elsewhere is emphasizing meaning-based strategies alone including the use of guessing and picture clues

The use of controlled decodable text:

  • Holds students accountable for using the skills that we have taught them, because the text includes only words that are accessible using decoding strategies at their current level.
  • Creates a situation where students have a high rate of success. Striving readers often have become discouraged by the time they start working with an Orton-Gillingham teacher. It is important for them to experience success and for teachers to orchestrate situations where they can perform with a high degree of accuracy. Ideally, we want their reading experiences to feel easy as they successfully implement decoding strategies for the first time.
  • Lightens the cognitive load. Early readers are juggling so much information that is not yet automatic, and we do want them to be reading for understanding. We also are striving for complete accuracy, even on the little words or errors that don’t affect meaning. Using decodable text frees up the cognitive bandwidth to do so.

What should you look for when choosing decodable readers?

There are many things to take into consideration when choosing decodables for your students.

  • Does the student have the appropriate background knowledge to read this story successfully?
  • Is the story appealing and interesting? Even very simple text with cute illustrations is very exciting for beginning readers when they can read it successfully!
  • Is the font size and type easy for your student to read? Is there adequate white space on the page?

Even more importantly, have you taught your student the phonograms and syllable types they need to read this text? There are two purposes for which you may be choosing books, and these are important to take into consideration as well. The first purpose is to practice a particular concept. For example, if you are teaching the phonogram ai, you would want to choose a decodable book that is not only accessible for your student, but that includes frequent repetition of the ai phonogram. This is where text written explicitly for OG instruction can become very useful.

The second purpose it to practice and orchestrate their reading skills in general. For this purpose, it is less important which specific concept is emphasized than that the student has been taught all the necessary concepts to read the material successfully.

How/when to use them in the Orton Gillingham lesson plan

There is more than one way to use decodable texts during the Orton-Gillingham lesson. Most of the time, I use them as a final activity. This is the student’s opportunity to apply their new learning to continuous text after having had the opportunity to read words, phrases, and sentences in isolation. I give students a brief introduction, provide names and perhaps prime them with a comment such as, “This story has a lot of ai words in it.” And then we dive in.

As the student reads…

I follow along and provide just the right amount of support and encouragement. My goal is for them to be looking carefully, tracking correctly across the page, reading accurately, and sounding words out when they reach a point of difficulty. This may look like reminding them to point at the words, prompting them not to guess or to look at the print when they fall back on old habits, and giving them a specific prompt about where to attend at a point of difficulty. So, if a student said “man” and the word in the text was “main”, I would point out the vowels and ask them what sound ai makes.

One big difference between text reading in an Orton-Gillingham lesson and a whole language lesson is that we don’t generally let errors on little words that don’t affect meaning go uncorrected. This is a common pattern of errors for students with dyslexia, but important to address. Read Tips For Error Correction During Orton-Gillingham Lessons for more on this topic.

Decodable text also can be used for fluency practice and as a place to mark up a variety of text features. It can provide a prompt for spontaneous writing or be used for dictation sentences. There are numerous possibilities, the only proviso being that activities should be purposeful with a clear objective.

What can your students do with decodable text?

When decodable text is in the form of reproducible/printable stories, the door is opened for a variety of uses.

  • Students can reread the stories, either as old favorites or for a particular purpose.
  • They can highlight specific words or patterns.
  • They can take them home or practice. This also gives parents a chance to see their student putting their hard work into action. This can be helpful both for highlighting a student’s skills and strengths, but also illuminating their areas of difficulty.

What are the benefits of varied practice using decodable readers VERSUS repeated reads of the same text?

Varied practice using decodable materials allows students to practice the same skill or concept in a different format. They can increase skill without relying on memorization. Varied practice requires students to use the strategies we want them to focus on most, thereby strengthening those strategic activities. While repeated reads of the same text can be useful for fluency, expression, and intonation, or enjoying a favorite story, the benefits of varied practice are profound. Read “The Value of Repetition” for more on this topic.

When and how to move beyond using decodable readers?

At some point, when your students are familiar with most or all the syllable types and perhaps, they are chomping at the bit. You can begin to weave in non-decodable books. Often I will continue to use short decodable passages that target a specific skill while we dive into a longer novel. This might be something they have previously listened to as an audiobook, an early chapter book, something that catches their fancy, a high-low book, or perhaps the first book in a series. The more motivated the student is to read this book, the better. It is helpful when they encounter challenging parts of the book. It allows us to follow a student’s particular passion whether it is mysteries or sports.

An Important Shift

Our role shifts from that of monitoring and prompting to more a cocreator of meaning. We may take turns reading, provide unknown words as unfamiliar less common silent letters or unusual words appear. When one of my students chose a book with challenging place names, I found myself taking on the role of modeling strategically tackling those words that were even unfamiliar to me. I have been able to model looking up unfamiliar vocabulary and using a pronunciation guide to learn how to say an unfamiliar name or word.

An Exciting New Chapter in Reading Development

One of the exciting things about moving beyond decodables is discovering the day’s new concept in the pages of your story. This happens frequently as you move into more advanced concepts such as morphology. It really reinforces the real-world application of the skills that your students are learning. Different students will be ready for this step at different points. Students who struggle mostly with spelling may be ready well before a student at the same level who has more challenges with reading.

For more helpful information about transitioning out of decodable books, “How Decodable Books Support Phonics Instruction” provides lots of tips.

Decodable text builds confidence!

Watching your students become successful readers who are ready to read non-controlled text with confidence is the goal. The majority of your students will benefit from a structured literacy approach. The use of decodable readers will play a major role in their success when you implement this model.

Where do I find decodable readers?

You’ve come to the right place! I’ve got several different blog posts.


Casey and I take a deep dive into the discussion of decodable readers on the Together In Literacy podcast, episode 8, “How Decodable Texts Support Social-Emotional Learning”. We make some really important distinctions about what is truly decodable and talk a bit more about how to know when your students are ready to transition. Most importantly, we talk about WHY they are supportive not only for reading fundamentals, but for social-emotional learning, particularly for the dyslexic learner.

decodable texts and together in literacy podcast

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using decodable readers


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