Are Decodable Texts Ruining Your Students?

After Romalda Spalding spent thirty years perfecting the teaching techniques she had learned while working under the supervision of Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a pediatric neurologist, she wrote a textbook for teachers. Since Spalding had repeatedly proven that teaching reading could efficiently and effectively be done by first teaching children to write and spell--beginning with sounds (Orton phonograms), words, and sentences--she named it The Writing Road to Reading (WRTR).

In the first few editions of the WRTR, Spalding promoted this specific teaching sequence of instruction, insisting on its importance, so I naturally followed her expert advice while using her systematic, direct method to help my first-grade daughter, who had been struggling with reading and writing tasks. This was in 1992, so I was using the fourth revised edition of Spalding’s text, which had been published in 1990.

At this time, I was fortunate enough to became friends with Myrna McCulloch at the Riggs Institute--a literacy agency that was training teachers and parents to use Spalding’s method--who mentored me, telling me how she and her teachers had implemented this sequence of instruction at her little school in Omaha, Nebraska, and coaching me through my rough moments.

I was told that well-taught first graders regularly begin reading from well-loved children’s texts like Green Eggs and Ham and Are You My Mother after less than two months of lessons, and I was amazed by this (Morgan was still unable to do after nearly two years of schooling). But I believed and began.

After a few weeks of focused instruction (I did my best to follow Spalding and McCulloch’s teachings as I taught, making many mistakes), I learned that Morgan was no exception. Like other children before her, she wrote and read spelling patterns, wrote and read vocabulary words, wrote and read her own sentences, then began reading her way through the five books that were recommended by Spalding (see below). She loved them. As she continued to spell and read 30 new vocabulary words and many sentences per week, she was soon plunging into the books on Spalding’s recommend list of vocabulary-rich children’s literature, and she eagerly worked her way through them. I was delighted to see that all of these books had either won a literary award or been considered good enough to have done so.

Needless to say, Morgan was delighted that she could read these books and delighted with the books themselves. She relished the words, repeatedly reading favorite passages. She wallowed in the beauty of our language. It was a wondrous thing to see.

I was amazed by Morgan, amazed by Spalding’s method, and amazed by the work of the Riggs Institute, which had been created to promote Spalding’s work. Why wasn't every school using such a radically-effective way of teaching reading? I wholeheartedly agreed with McCulloch and Spalding’s assertions back then, and I still do: virtually all school-aged children are capable of taking this ordinary, inexpensive, and classic road to reading. So why aren't they doing it?

Do children need specially written decodable readers--books created specifically to help them practice their phonics skills? No. Nor do they deserve them. What they need and deserve are teachers who know how to teach the basic elements of written English words and sentences directly (without worksheets or special readers). Children need to be quickly empowered to read vocabulary-rich literature (and informative texts) independently. They need to learn to spell and write.

While the foundation that currently uses Spalding’s name has begun to promote lesson plans that radically depart from Spalding’s pedagogy--Spalding teachers now use specialized decodable texts in weekly lessons for students in kindergarten and first grade--this is unfortunate. Such a drastic change in Spalding’s method was surely not approved by the woman who repeatedly insisted (as the Riggs Institute continues to insist) that such texts (like all worksheets) were neither needed nor desired. Teachers should follow a proven path while developing children’s language skills, said Spalding, a road that does not include asking children to read from any kind of book before teaching them (1) how written English words are structured, (2) how to spell, write, and read about 150 common English words and (2) how to combine those words into written sentences--sentences which they then practice reading to their peers.

Student-created sentences and paragraphs are the “decodable texts” that are used by master Riggs teachers in their kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, and these teachers never do use any other kind of decodable text. Instead, they go from student created sentences to well-loved emergent readers like those that were recommended by Spalding in her 1990 textbook (see list below). If they don't read these exact books, they read something like them in simplicity and quality, then they move right into vocabulary-rich children's literature. Why? Because these are the kinds of books that increase children's word knowledge and world knowledge, and because these are the kinds of books that interest and educate young children while developing a love for good reading and a taste for good writing. 

  1. Ten Apples Up on Top
  2. Green Eggs and Ham
  3. Go, Dog, Go
  4. Put Me in the Zoo
  5. Are You My Mother?

For beginning readers, the first five books on the above list should be read in the order that they are listed, and the rest of the books can then be read in any order. For classrooms, the Riggs Institute continues to recommend the purchase of sets of these beginning reading books to be used for choral reading practice. Your students should also practice reading these delightful books independently and to each other (pair-share).

Children should be encouraged to choose books of similar literary quality for individual reading. (See Spalding’s earliest editions for the complete list of her suggested books for children in grades K-6, or consult with a children’s librarian for classic children’s stories and informative texts.) You will not go far wrong if you stock your classroom--or home--library with books of the same level of complexity and quality that the Common Core State Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with.

On a related topic, I just read an article about new funding for preschools in California. By age five, said the article, low-income children are more than two years behind in language development. Wouldn’t you agree that no matter what else might be done to help these children, these children need to be immersed in a language-rich environment? They can't afford to spend much (if any) of their language-learning time on “decodable” texts or leveled readers, can they? 

Don’t low-income K-1 children need what all students need: a safe learning environment,  teachers who know their subject matter (see www.riggsinst.org), and days filled with leisurely conversations about wondrous characters, daring adventures, important discoveries, beautiful words, enchanting worlds, interesting questions, difficult ideas, and amazing things? Of course.

And they can have them. If we listen to the advice of those who have successfully given these things to low-income children in days gone by, we can continue to give them to today’s children. Have children changed all that much? Not really. They can still be taught the same things, in my experience. And what one child can learn, another can learn. Why not choose to believe that? (I do. It works super well for my students.)

Why not immerse all school children, including low-income children, in vocabulary-rich environments by reading to them from great literature, beginning on day one? (That’s what Marva Collins, Romalda Spalding, Oma Riggs, and Myrna McCulloch did.) And why not show all students exactly how our written language works (explicitly and directly) during spelling and writing lessons which begin on that same day? (See The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking--Lesson 1.) If we start right away, our students will be writing and reading correctly-spelled words in twenty days and individually decodable sentences fifteen or so days later (using a capital letter and end mark). They will be reading Dr. Seuss books and high-quality children’s literature in class a few weeks after that. And their vocabulary levels will keep growing by leaps and bounds. (They'll know how to spell 750 common English words by the end of year one.) But that’s not all. In order to increase their penmanship skills, their word and world knowledge, and their knowledge of spoken and written English conventions, our students will continue to work hard every day (writing and reading to build fluency), regardless of their income levels. Instead of messing around with dumbed-down decodable texts, they will be learning and doing important and challenging stuff. They will be having adventures. And they will be free and happy.

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By Stephanie Ruston

 

Comments

Have two daughters with reading difficulties, I also wish this had been in schools earlier. I'm grateful to know about it now, and will promote Riggs Institute.

Submitted by Michelle Ann (not verified) on Mon, 05/29/2017 - 07:49

Thank you, Michelle Ann! Please let us know if we can be of any service to you as you work with this program to help your daughters. We are here to help!

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