Which Texts for Teaching Reading: Decodable, Predictable, or Controlled Vocabulary?

  • 09 February, 2019

Teacher question:

I'm looking for help with information or resources about text types for early readers. We have decodable text, text with high-frequency words, and predictive text. It seems like a reasonable strategy to provide our fragile readers with more opportunities to read these low-complexity texts while we shore up issues with phonological awareness. Many teachers over the years have complained to me, an instructional coach, about a lack of available texts to meet the need of students as they proceed through the year and the text complexity increases. Even with popular curriculum programs, teachers usually have very limited options with beginning reader texts, and it isn't clear how the different types are meant to be used or the benefits of each. Do you have any advice for novice teachers about using different text types with our vulnerable readers? 

Shanahan response:

The role of text in reading instruction has always been a big instructional question for parents and teachers—but it has not drawn the same kind of research interest as many other issues.

Nevertheless, the research does provide clues and it suggests that kids are likely to be best off in classrooms that provide them with a mix of these text types rather than a steady diet of any one of them—nor do I see the progression through these as developmental, with kids graduating from one kind of simplified text to another.

Let’s start with the basic premise that when someone is beginning to learn to read (or to learn almost anything else), the teacher is going to need to ease the way a bit; simplifying the process so the learner can actually engage. Every beginning text scheme that has been tried (e.g., controlled vocabulary readers, predictable texts, decodables, language experience stories, words in color, initial teaching alphabet) is not exactly like the texts that we read because it is a simplification made to allow youngsters to get started.

A second premise is that every scheme to simplify a process and to support beginners is somewhat misleading because the simplification is sure to make some important change to the process they are trying to learn. If a youngster is trying to ride a two-wheeler, training wheels might be a great place to start, but those extra wheels mislead these novices with regard to how to balance when riding.

There is nothing particularly unique about the potential negative impacts of simplifications and supports. Doctors who prescribe crutches are always concerned about potential nerve damage from the crutches and from the muscle atrophy that they might promote. Likewise, social policymakers worry over the role welfare plays in discouraging work. Neither group eschews these supports – they are needed – but they make serious efforts to try to avoid the downsides.

Sadly, advocates of various beginning reading schemes usually appear oblivious to the problems their favorite support systems present to beginning readers. They love the fact that the texts they champion allow kids to read early on. But they ignore the fact that their beginning reading texts—like everyone else’s—differ from the actual universe of texts that we read, and the more these texts diverge the greater the danger that they will be misleading to at least some kids.

Controlled vocabulary readers limit texts to a handful of words that are used repeatedly. New words are added gradually. The major approach to learning these words is memorization. Initially, because they start with so few words, these texts sound very stilted, but as kids memorize more and more words, controlled vocabulary texts sound more and more like language.

For instance, consider this sequence of pages from the old Dick and Jane Readers:

pg. 1:          Dick

pg. 2:          Jane

pg. 3:          Dick and Jane

pg. 4:          Dick and Jane run.

pg. 5:          Jane and Dick run.

Pg. 6:         Dick runs.

pg. 7:          Jane runs.

pg. 8:          Run, run, run.

Decodable texts on the other hand try to minimize the numbers of words that students won’t be able to decode. Initially, these texts too sound very artificial since the words they include are limited to very few letters and the same letters over and over. They, too, eventually become more like real language as they proceed.

Here is an example of what is meant by decodable based on the old Linguistic Readers. The idea would be to only introduce such a text once the students had some command of the following phonemes /k/, /m/, /f/. /l/, and the phonogram or word base at.

pg. 1           The cat is fat.

pg. 2:          The mat is flat.

pg. 3:          The fat cat sat on the mat.

Predictable texts start with more natural sounding language right out of the gate, but instead of requiring the novice readers to rely on memorized words or mastered letter sounds, the readers must depend upon repetition, context, and pictures to guess at words.

Here is the beginning of perhaps the most famous of all predictable books, Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear:

pg. 1:          Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?

pg. 2:          I see a yellow duck looking at me.

pg. 3:          Yellow duck, yellow duck what do you see?

pg. 4           I see a red bird looking at me.

All of these texts “work” in terms of getting kids started with reading.

However, each has problems. For instance, controlled vocabulary readers tend to steer kids towards guessing at unknown words based upon the words in their memory. Thus, the child who has memorized when, upon confronting unknown words like which or where, will tend to “read” these, too, as when (Barr, 1975; Biemiller, 1970)—not a very efficient strategy with an alphabetic language.

Decodable texts, too, can be problematic as they tend to steer kids away from meaning, and at times even away from real words. Kids who are used to  strong phonics support and decodable texts tend to try to sound words out more than do other kids (Cheatham & Allor, 2012). But when this doesn’t work (and it doesn’t always work), these kids end up producing nonsense words (mispronunciations based on the sounds they know) or they balk and don’t even read words that they can’t decode easily (Barr, 1975; Biemiller, 1978).

And, predictable texts lead kids to read the pictures instead of the words—not a reading approach at all. In fact, studies show that, since the print isn’t really needed to make sense of many predictable books, the kids learn to ignore the words (Ehri, 1992; Whri & Sweet, 1991; Juel, 1991) and to rely mainly on the context—though such use of context is alien to proficient reading.

Which of these texts should you use?

A basic finding in educational psychology is that simplification or making diverse forms consistent for the purposes of teaching speed acquisition. But they also reduce the learners’ abilities to generalize or transfer these skills to the greater complexity of the actual forms that one needs to learn.

For example, it has been found that providing readers with consistent and simple sound-symbol relations speeds their learning—but when you then ask them to read a more diverse orthography such as the one we use in English, then they are less able to make the needed adjustments (Levin, Baum, & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963).

If the goal is better beginning reading, this relying heavily on any one of these approaches is pretty smart. If, however, the goal is to teach reading—you know, the kind of reading you and I do—then heavy dependence on any one of these schemes is shortsighted.

Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages.

It is very reasonable to employ decodable texts. It gives kids a chance to practice their phonics in a favorable text environment—an environment in which there aren’t likely to be many words that can’t be figured out easily.

But those “experts” who claim that kids should only read such texts for some length of time are just making that stuff up. Research is not particularly supportive of such an artificial text regime (Adams, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2004; Levin, Baum & Bostwick, 1963; Levin & Watson, 1963; Price-Mohr & Price, 2018). “Teaching children to expect one-to-one consistent mapping of letters to sounds is not an effective way to promote transfer to decoding at later stages in learning to read” (Gibson & Levin, 1975, p. 7).

Please don’t misunderstand where that quote comes from; Eleanor Gibson and Harry Levin were big explicit phonics proponents in their day, but they also believed in following the research.

Those who pushback against any who would dare to present anything other than decodables text to kids often complain that anything else is too hard or discouraging to kids. But that’s where those other text simplifications—that have their own problems—come in.

Having young students reading both simple decodable texts along with controlled vocabulary readers keeps them from being overwhelmed by difficulty—but also prevents them from trying to depend upon memory or simple decoding so much that these approaches do damage.

The consistent use of any simplification regime runs the risk of teaching kids that scheme rather than how to read. The research in this area supports the idea of easing the way for beginning readers, but not so much that kids fail to develop good reading habits (analyzing the words) or that leads them to perseverate on disruptive views (such as the idea that words will be cued by pictures or that they should expect the spelling system to depend upon one-to-one mapping of letters and sounds).

I’m not a big fan of predictable text in this equation, because it discourages kids from looking at the words. However, even these texts are okay for very brief times. In my classrooms, kids worked with these kinds of texts once a week or less—along with the basal readers, linguistic readers, and language experiences stories that made up the lion’s share of their reading. Predictable texts are fun, they allow a level of early success unmatched by the other texts and they do encourage kids to try to keep reading meaningful and fluent; nothing wrong with any of that.

For a long time, I’ve advocated for substantial amounts of instructional time devoted to decoding, fluency, comprehension, and writing. Decodable texts can be an important part of the decoding instruction, but I’d make controlled vocabulary readers the base of my reading comprehension instruction. Predictable texts can be a lot of fun, too, once in a while.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito
Feb 09, 2019 07:52 PM

You said "Personally—based on my own experiences as a primary grade teacher—I would use all of these kinds of text. My thinking then, and my thinking now, is that the way to prevent someone from being hurt by over dependence on a crutch is to employ a variety of crutches; deriving the benefits of each, while trying to minimize potential damages." I strongly agree. I would add the caveat that which kind I would choose for a particular lesson would be guided by the purpose of the lesson. Want to teach application of synthetic phonic skills, then decodable text by all means. Application of analytic phonics skills, predictable text would fit. One other thing- a while back you posted something that said in effect- the teaching of reading is one area where no one seems willing to admit the limits and limitations of their position. You remarks around the different approaches clearly indicate to me that each of them does indeed have limitations. Now if we could just get folks see that about their favored position perhaps there could be less debate and more discussion (and careful analysis). Dare to dream!

Harriett Janetos
Feb 09, 2019 08:47 PM

Thanks, Tim, for such a thorough analysis. Just last week NPR had a story (Why Millions of Kids Can't Read and What Better Teaching Can Do About It) that referenced a 2017 article by Louisa Moats where she has an excellent explanation of the problems with predictable text and its overuse of context and pictures. I have been battling my district for several years now because the F & P Benchmark Assessments use predictable text for the A-D levels, and these don't provide reliable data on how well kids are able to read connected text.


Feb 09, 2019 09:32 PM

I suggest variiety of text selected in part by the method of instruction and purpose/ibjective of lesson. Another important cosideration is connecting to students' level of interest For example during small group guided reading I struggled to engage one particular student using decodable text. One day I introduced a leveled expository text. He transformed into a highly engaged reader progrssing in leaps and bounds.

Feb 09, 2019 09:43 PM

Very confused. Teach students in gneral ed with dyslexia and poor word accuracy. Not powerful enough to alter the reading block allotment of time. Teachers are now putting children in frustration text, as the message regarding complex text has been convoluted in a pragmatic milieu with 30 children.

Feb 09, 2019 09:53 PM

Totally agree, it is very hard for teachers when you have certain groups who are now demanding the use of ‘decodable readers’ only along with SSP - and quoting that if you don’t use decodable you are ignoring research evidence. I have always used a mixture of text types from the beginning - taught explicit phonics for words in each text type including predictables. Great analogy to crutches.

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 10, 2019 03:01 AM

The idea of putting kids into linguistically or conceptually complex text is not one for beginning readers (that's why all states that have complex text standards do not stress this until grade 2). This blog entry is about beginning reading.


Thomas E. Zurinskas
Feb 10, 2019 05:24 AM

For initial reading instruction there is always "phonetics first" as was tried in the 80's by IBM with their "Writing to Read" system for 100k k-1 kids using PC jr computers. Results were good , But the system was expensive and proprietary. Using a phonetic system did not negatively affect learning standard spelling http://bit.ly/17frEJc .
Now in the internet age there is truespel phonetics begun in 1986 , with a free converter at truespel.com . For phonemic awareness one need only know the spelling of each of 40 sounds to spell or read aloud any word correctly in phonetics. Drop paragraphs into the converter to see how to say them in standard phonetics taken from the "spoken" words of "talking" dictionaries as the model. See https://justpaste.it/truetutorial and youtube videos.

Feb 10, 2019 02:19 PM

Thank You for asking!
I often look at reading acquisition and intervention in 3 categories. Those students who struggle with reading due to limited language skills in both native language and English, those who are strong in their native language and need support in the transfer to English, and the third category (the category I am responding to), those students who have strong language skills who are struggling readers.
Recently, a first grade student with a low mid year Acadience (aka DIBELS ORF), articulated, “Mrs R, I can’t remember all of those sight words when I read”. He, like many other struggling emerging readers, could not tell the difference between a sight word and a decodable word.
I like to think utilizing decodable, predictable, controlled vocabulary all need to be used at varying stages of an emerging readers transition. Predictable text is a quick method to have a child succeed at left to right progression, 1:1 written word to spoken word, and hopefully gaining sight word recognition along with using a few contextual clues. It’s fun and a nice way to introduce success to a young reader!
Systematic phonics along with Phonological Awareness is utilized with struggling readers at our school. This approach is working for the vast majority and reading accuracy can be brought to BENCHMARK. I have not found enough of decodable books for students to practice. Although the content is not always “spellbinding” young students are so happy when given text they CAN read! I have started to write my own decodable stories that match skills. The use of decodables and a structured phonics sequence for those students with low accuracy seems to be crucial to success. Many of the sight words often taught separately are analyzed for the “regular” sounds (were-wer, should-sh-d). I think Acadience (DIBELS) needs to eliminate Pathways of Progress at first grade level in evaluating student/teacher performance since the Screener is heavily weighted on Speed rather than Accuracy.
I do believe that as accuracy increases the use of decodables can be replaced with more exciting text at a students level!

Eric Litwin
Feb 10, 2019 05:41 PM

Thank you for your helpful blog. I wonder if a key point may be to place the focus on what the child needs. And to understand that children are different and the reading materials as well is different. For example, many predicable books are not completely predictable but have predictable parts. This becomes a form of scaffolding. And, some decodable or selected vocabulary texts/books are now trying to be more authentic and may have some forms of prediction. Is there research regarding the use of reading material that contains different elements of prediction, decoding, and limited vocabulary?

Feb 10, 2019 11:11 PM

Hi Tim,

thanks for this blog, it has helped clarify for me some of your thinking around the selection of reading resources to support beginning readers.

I understand your logic behind your comment that decodables, predictables and controlled text Readers all have a legitimate place in the libraries of our beginning readers.

I wonder though where and how the philosophies held by the supporters and publishers of these different types of early Readers comes into play.

For example, Predictable Reader publisher Fountas & Pinnell, as I understand it, have a well-established connection with Reading Recovery, and embrace and actively support the use of multi-cueing as a legitimate teaching strategy. Conversely F&P actively oppose the important insights that can be gained through a proper understanding of Tumner & Gough's Simple View of Reading, such as the concept that text must be phonically decoded before a reader can accurately and efficiently access meaning. F&P Readers are also associated with running records, the limitations of which have been comprehensively listed in a recent blog post by Alison Clarke https://www.spelfabet.com.au/2019/02/running-records-are-an-uninformative-waste-of-teacher-time/

Supporters and suppliers of Decodable texts, on the other hand, are, in fact, always aligned with explicit, systematic phonic instruction, which has now been accepted as best-practice Tier 1 literacy instruction, after careful and scientific analysis via three international Inquiries into early reading.

I understand your qualified support of Predictable Readers as outlined in your blog above, but the reality is that established & powerful corporations, as well as ITE curriculum designers, who have flourished for decades despite advocating scientifically unsound and potentially damaging practices such as multicueing, are going to use such support to maintain traction and market share for as long as possible. This means that it's likely their misguided and potentially damaging philosophies will live on also, in our classrooms, and in the students who walk out the school gates without the literacy skills needed to succeed and thrive in today's world.

I understand that your support of Predictable Readers in early years classroom does not mean that you support multicueing teaching methods. None-the-less I do worry about what it might mean on a practical level when someone of your stature suggests that Decodables and Predictable Readers should be found side by side in early years classrooms.

Feb 11, 2019 03:15 AM

I appreciate your advice. If you have the opportunity to read my comments, I would appreciate your thoughts on the issue of "dyslexia." As a special education teacher with a reading background, I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with the position rigidly taken by the International Dyslexia Association and by some private tutors, clinics and advocates that ONLY a so-called structured literacy, ala Orton-Gillingham, approach is acceptable (this approach mandates decodable text). I would appreciate your thoughts because in most instances advice is aimed at the typically developing reader, however in my work I have noted that a steady diet of decodable text produces children who over-rely on sounding out words and who may tend to sound out the same words over and over again. With this population as well, I believe it is prudent to provide a balance of exposure and materials. Do you have any suggestions for those of us who teach students who fit our current understanding of dyslexia, though I am fully aware there is not yet a consensus definition.

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 11, 2019 08:42 PM

Kristen— I think you can use texts without taking on the philosophy of those who use the text. Predictable text long predates Fountas & Pinnell and even the idea of curing systems. The trick is being purposeful. As much as I dislike predictable text as a major basis of beginning instruction, I am repulsed by the claims that if anything but decodable texts are used then you are teaching guessing. Follow the research.

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 11, 2019 08:47 PM

Julie- research is very clear about such structured approaches: (1) they often are effective; (2) they are not always effective especially with particularly low readers (despite the claims); and (3) the haptic-kinesthetic theories are baloney—that aspect of the teaching is distracting to what kids need to learn to read. I’m other words, I don’t oppose the use of these programs, but you shouldn’t use them because they work best or work best for particular kids.


Feb 12, 2019 10:36 AM

Hi Tim,

thanks for your reply. You say 'I am repulsed by the claims that if anything but decodable texts are used then you are teaching guessing'.

I don't make that particular claim re. decodable texts. However, I do believe that as long as predictable readers are being sold to teachers to use in early years classrooms by companies such as F&P, it is most likely that multi-cueing methods and 'balanced literacy' will flourish.

Personally, I am unable to take that out of the equation in any discussion about what readers should be used as in-class supports and homework readers for our beginning readers.

Mary Spencer
Feb 13, 2019 12:25 AM

I am printing this one for my teacher candidates to read, thank you!

l jim
Feb 16, 2019 03:41 PM

Long time reader, ESL and special ed for some 25 years. In my school, predictable readers are the method for teaching reading in k-1 and the vast majority of available books for the students to read are through these readers. Phonics is taught 20 minutes a day, and if not enough time, phonics is the first to be cut and by phonics I mean isolated letter sounds. Upshot, by 3rd grade, approx. 20% of our students read on grade level or above. We are heavily invested in ARC and the IRLA.

Feb 17, 2019 10:20 PM

I appreciate raising the question!

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Which Texts for Teaching Reading: Decodable, Predictable, or Controlled Vocabulary?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.