Decodable Readers vs. Non-Controlled Text: How to Select Classroom Texts Based on the Science of Reading

Savvas Insights Team

What are decodable readers? Learn about multiple text types.

What's the difference between a decodable reader and a non-controlled text, and how can you use each one in your elementary classroom?

As the Science of Reading movement continues to gain more traction across the country, the term "decodable readers" is increasingly being mentioned in discussions around teaching reading. However, not everyone agrees on the benefits of using decodable texts as a valuable learning tool. Many teachers and literacy experts are divided over what is the best text to use for early reading instruction, with some arguing that non-controlled texts are more effective.

No matter which side of the ongoing debate over decodable readers vs. non-controlled texts educational stakeholders align with, they all have one thing in common: wanting to do what is best for students to improve literacy outcomes for all.

Many educators now look to the body research known as the Science of Reading as a guide to inform best instructional practices and educational policies. So, what is that research telling us about how to choose the appropriate instructional text for the classroom?

In this blog we will take an in-depth look at non-controlled and decodable readers in order to better understand what they are and their purpose in classroom instruction. Additionally, we will connect these text types to a new piece of Science of Reading research and what it says about which type of text “best” supports students in reading intervention.

What are Decodable Readers?

Decodable readers, also known as controlled texts, are typically simple pieces of text that are designed for emergent readers and contain phoneme-grapheme correspondences that have been explicitly taught. Generally, these texts follow a sequence that aligns with phonics instruction, meaning simple phonics skills such as VC and CVC words appear first and gradually move to more complex skills such as vowel teams.

What are decodable readers? An example of a decodable reader.

Many foundational literacy programs include decodable readers that align with the scope and sequence of their phonics curriculum. These texts can come in both fiction and nonfiction versions, and they often include illustrations or pictures. It should be noted that the pictures in these texts are not meant to support students in decoding individual words — a strategy that is often connected to the three-cueing system — but rather to support reader comprehension and provide a mechanism for students to verify their understanding.

The purpose of decodable readers is to allow beginning readers to practice their decoding skills in connected text. They are often designed as part of systematic phonics instruction, allowing for regular practice with newly learned patterns, as well as spiral review of previously learned patterns.

However, when decodable readers are used beyond explicit and targeted phonics practice for emergent readers, they can become the subject of criticism. Some decodable readers have been criticized as lacking depth and engaging content, as well as misleading students into thinking that all texts are formatted like decodable readers, potentially leading to trouble adapting to the format of the more authentic, non-controlled texts they encounter. Additionally, there is disagreement among the educational community about what percentage of words need to be considered phonetically regular for the text to be called decodable. These concerns have prompted ongoing conversations in both the educational and research communities.

Examples of a decodable reader

Most stakeholders would agree that decodable readers cannot meet all the text needs of beginning readers and they are not designed to be permanent, but rather a scaffold and a tool for practicing beginning reading skills. In Tier 1 instruction, as students master increasingly complex phoneme-grapheme relationships and automaticity within their reading, they should move through the sequence of decodable readers, rely less on this tool as a scaffold, and be able to read non-controlled texts successfully. On an as-needed basis, decodable readers can potentially also be used as an instructional tool for reading intervention to support students working toward cementing their phonics knowledge and word-decoding skills.

What Are Non-Controlled Texts?

Non-controlled texts are reading materials that have not been written to control for specific phonics patterns or word choice. This is the type of text we encounter in authentic literature, textbooks, newspaper articles etc., and includes both phonetically regular and irregular words. Non-controlled texts exist on a readability continuum from simplistic to complex.

Simple non-controlled texts designed for early readers can utilize shorter words and sentences, often including pictures or illustrations to support meaning and contain less complex themes and vocabulary. These texts are not modified to control the phonics patterns or the frequency in which words appear and/or are repeated. As non-controlled texts increase in complexity they can include more advanced sentence structures, vocabulary, and content.

Examples of a decodable reader

In the classroom, the purpose of non-controlled texts vary widely based on the reader and the instructional need. For example, a kindergarten student might “read” a non-controlled picture book for enjoyment and print exposure, while the same book could be utilized by a kindergarten teacher as an instructional tool to aid in developing reading comprehension. Or, a fifth grade student might read a non-controlled text, such as a biography, independently to complete an assignment, while a fifth grade teacher may take time each day to read aloud a higher-level novel to expose students to complex language structures, vocabulary, and themes.

Ultimately, reading, understanding, and applying knowledge from a wide variety of non-controlled text is the goal of reading instruction. Selecting these texts for the classroom requires both teachers and students to pay attention to the purpose and goal of reading.

What Are Controlled Vocabulary Readers?

While controlled vocabulary readers do not meet the true definition of non-controlled texts, they do exist on the simplistic end of the readability continuum and are often categorized with non-controlled text, simply because they are not technically “true” decodables.

Unlike decodables, controlled vocabulary readers are modified to control for the number of vocabulary words instead of the phonetic patterns. Controlled vocabulary texts contain a small number of words that are used repeatedly with new words being added slowly. In the beginning, because these texts include few words that are repeated often, the language sounds artificial or overly simplistic (like early decodable readers). However, as more words are added, the text begins to sound more like non-controlled text. Emergent readers rely primarily on memorization of sight words to access these types of text.

The purpose of controlled vocabulary readers is to provide emergent readers with another opportunity to read simplistic, beginning texts and help support the overall generalization of reading skills to more authentic texts in the process.

Bridging Research and the Classroom: Research Recap

Text Types and Their Relation to Efficacy in Beginning Reading Interventions by Alia Pugh, Devin M. Kearns, Elfrieda H. Hiebert

While the benefits of using multiple text types for beginning readers is well known, knowing when to use each type of text and their subsequent impacts on reading achievement is a question that continues to perplex the educational community.

A recent study by Alia Pugh, Devin M. Kearns, and Elfrieda H. Hiebert aimed to investigate the relationship between the texts utilized in beginning reading interventions — decodable, non-controlled, both, or neither — and their impact on student reading achievement. Little research has been done to specifically evaluate the relationship between the types of texts used in intensive reading interventions and the resulting student achievement outcomes, prompting the authors to conduct this study. Here’s what they found:

The authors found no significant differences in outcomes between interventions using decodable or non-decodable texts. Both groups showed similar effect sizes. Possible reasons for this included the simplicity of beginning texts and variations in how decodability is defined, as well as the impact of teacher training on outcomes.

The most notable finding was that interventions using both decodable and non-controlled texts yielded the highest effect sizes on foundational skills and comprehension measures. These results indicate possible benefits of using more than one kind of instructional text for reading intervention.

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The Takeaway: When Selecting Text, Consider the Purpose

While the authors of this study stress the need for additional research focusing on text types and their impact on reading achievement outcomes, the initial finding of the study is that multiple text types — decodable and non-controlled used in unison — could be beneficial in reading interventions for struggling readers.

With the research in mind, all three types of text discussed in this blog — decodable, non-controlled, and controlled vocabulary — can have a place in beginning reading intervention. It is crucial that educators consider their instructional purpose when selecting texts for students to read — no matter whether the texts are for Tier 1 reading instruction or reading intervention — and consider the possibility that a combination of text types might prove to be the most beneficial.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the research from Pugh, Kearns and Hiebert, check out our blog Research Recap: Text Types and Their Relation to Efficacy in Beginning Reading Interventions by Alia Pugh, Devin M. Kearns, Elfrieda H. Hiebert.