Kevin Carlson:

Systematic phonics.

Decoadable texts,

Accountable texts—what are they?

Why do so many teachers cringe at the thought of them? And how can you use them to improve your teaching? From Benchmark Education, I’m Kevin Carlson. And this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Wiley Blevins:

The best phonics instruction is active, engaging and thought provoking. Children are playing with letters and sounds. They're making observations about where they're thinking about how words work. The best phonics lessons are really fun. They're fun for the children. They're fun for the teacher.

Kevin Carlson:

Today, we’re going to unpack one most important elements of early learning with one of the biggest names in the field. We’re talking about phonics with Wiley Blevins. Wiley is the author of numerous best-selling books about phonics and reading, and he’s joined by Wendy Murray, publisher of the PDEssentials line at Benchmark Education.

Wendy Murray:

Welcome, Wiley.

Wiley Blevins:

Thanks, Wendy. Glad to be here.

Wendy Murray:

Wiley, why do you think Phonics instruction is always a lightning rod for debate. What's-what’s at the heart of the divide here.

Wiley Blevins:

It's a really great question, and I'm quite surprised by it, to be honest. I think there are many reasons that could be contributing to it. I think one of the reasons is how teachers are taught to teach reading. There is sort of this bias toward using children's trade books first and not really understanding the process of the early stages and learning to read. I think part of it also is thinking back to how we learn to read our earliest memories. And I ask teachers all the time when I do workshops, how were you taught to read? Because I share with them how my first grade teacher, Mrs. Warshaw, taught me to read. We had Dick and Jane which are sight word readers. But she also gave us a phonics workbooks which taught us about letters and sounds and how to unlock the code. And those two really worked well for me. And when I ask teachers to think about how they learned to read, often they can't tell me. They remember an early reading experience, maybe reading aloud the first time to a parent or sitting with the parent or a teacher reading. So I don't think we are really cued into necessarily how we learn to read, which makes it more difficult to teach children to read. I also think that there's a deep concern about this because we know cognitive scientists tell us that ninety five percent of humans are capable of learning to read. Yet in the United States, only 40 percent of our students are reading proficiently. That's a crisis. That's a problem. There's a great deal of concern about it. And so people get very heated in this debate because they're trying to solve an enormous problem that we have.

Wendy Murray:

So from here, I'm going to ask you some questions we've got from teachers in the field about phonics. Our first question comes from Tonya Sullivan. She asks, I'm currently using patterned texts with my students in kindergarten and they're doing just fine. So why are decodable texts important?

Wiley Blevins:

Well, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that English is an alphabetic language. We have twenty-six letters and these letters by themselves and in combination represent the 44 sounds of English. So when we say we're teaching phonics, what we're doing is teaching those sound-spelling combinations. So children have access to lots of words quickly. The best tool to apply your growing phonics knowledge is through decodable text where there are lots of words that can be sounded out using your growing phonics skills. We want to get children to mastery very quickly so that they can then transfer those skills to all the reading situations that they're at. The problem with patterned text is that there are very few words that can actually be sounded out based on the phonics skills. When children are reading patterned text, what they're doing is they're memorizing words, and they're memorizing the pattern and using clues from the pictures. So that's what they think reading is. And those are the ways they are attacking words when they begin reading. When we actually look at the words in those stories—I'm talking mostly about kindergarten—the early levels that a lot of teachers are using, like A, B, C, D, and you pull out the words that are actually short vowel words which are on the state standards. There are very, very few. And so if your state standards say that your children need to master short vowel words in kindergarten, which they do, and you are using text the entire year of kindergarten where there are very few words, you have children who are not going to master those skills before they move on to first grade. And that's an enormous problem. That's why the decodable text is so critical in kindergarten and first grade and make sure children have enough opportunities to apply those skills to get to mastery.

Wendy Murray:

So if the research shows that these decodable texts are essential learning tools, then why do you hear so many teachers resisting them?

Wiley Blevins:

Because they've seen lots and lots of bad decodable texts. It's one of the most fascinating things in education that sometimes we take a good idea and we misapply it and it becomes a bad idea. Decodable text is a perfect example of that. If you're learning to read and you're learning phonics, the best instructional tool is to use is decodable texts where they can apply those skills. Good idea. So how did that evolve into a bad idea where teachers hate this? Well, if you look back around the year 2000, there were two states, California and Texas, who required the companies who were publishing reading curriculum to put decodable text in their programs. Good idea. We want to have a close match between what we're teaching and the application tools. But then the states went one step further. They decided they would define what an accountable text was in a very hard line about what it was. California said it should be 75 percent accountable and Texas said 80 percent. Right then there should have been some red flags. If the two states are defining in different ways, what it shows you is those percentages are not based on any solid research. In fact, there's no research to support a certain percentage. So you have a good idea that became a questionable application. Then the publishers got their hands on that and they were creating these texts and they were they were being told that they would be evaluated at the state level whether or not these texts were decodable enough. So creating these stories for young readers became a numbers game. They were taking out words like the word "the," which is the most common word in the English language. It counts against you in a decodability because you can't sound out the word "the."

Wiley Blevins:

States were saying, well, when you teach long E and short E like in me, we, he you can count it. But that's not until mid-first grade. So the most common word in the English language, "the" counted against you for all of kindergarten and half a first grade. And we've got these really stilted, unnatural sounding kinds of texts. And to make matters worse. Publishers then decide they would be competitive. So the state said seventy five percent decodable, well, guess what? Ours are 90 to 100 percent, meaning that must be better. But when you looked at those text, they were completely incomprehensible. Bad idea. We have a good idea. It was misapplied. It became a bad idea. And children couldn't understand the texts. And teachers hated them. So there are places I go now where I can't even say the word decodable text. The teachers hate it so much. We have to get back to a point where we're creating high quality decodable texts. And that's why I use the term accountable texts. Teachers understand the concept of holding children accountable for the skills we're teaching them, the phonics and the sight words. If you loosen some of those restrictions, if you if you don't abide by this 75, 80 percent, which are completely arbitrary and not based on any kind of solid research, you can loosen a little bit, give children tons and tons of practice with decodable words. But these are really great stories. You can have a story about an elephant. It's just the long e-word and so on. So I think good idea, misapplied became a bad idea. And now we have a problem.

Wiley Blevins:

And there are also some really old notions about phonics that it's boring and it's rote. The best phonics instruction is active, engaging and thought provoking. Children are playing with letters and sounds. They're making observations about where they're thinking about how words work. They're using them to write words and to build words and to sort words and think about all of these aspects of English that will make them better readers and writers. The best phonics lessons are really fun. They're fun for the children. They're fun for the teacher.


Kevin Carlson:

Wiley has talked about why decodable texts are important. But what are some of the best ways for you to use them with your students? That’s coming up, after the break.


Announcer:

If you have a question for the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, you can email it to info@teacherstalkshop.com. You can even record it as a voice memo on your phone and send that to us if you like. Now, back to Wiley.


Wendy Murray:

Our next question comes from teacher Marissa Thomas, and she asks, I'm using decodable texts with my first graders. We read them together and then I have them reread the books to partners later in the week. Is that right? What else should I be doing with these books?

Wiley Blevins:

I'm really glad to hear that she's rereading the decodable texts because rereading is going to help build fluency. We know that for most children, they need to see a word between four and twelve times and connect a text to committed to memory. There are some researchers who think it's less, but there reading really, really helps. The one thing I don't see that I think is absolutely necessary in terms of follow up for decodable texts is writing about that text. So for example, if I'm reading a book that has lots of words with a long A spelled AI / AY and I ask you to write about that book, what kinds of words are you going to have to use? Lots of words with AI and AY, which is our target skill. So these kinds of follow up writing exercises are perfect opportunities to force children to think about how they can apply the new skill that they're learning to accelerate the use of that skill. So if I'm reading a decodable text that happens to be fiction, maybe the follow up will be writing a retelling or putting the characters in a new setting or writing about what might happen next. If it's informational, maybe I create a list of the things I learned or just write the most fascinating thing that that I that I read.

Wiley Blevins:

The other thing I think that's important to understand when she talks about having her students reread, just be very, very careful about who needs that rereading. So if I have children who are a bit above level, who are further, I think can handle skills further than the phonics discover sequence. I will read the decodable text within the first time just to confirm mastery of those skills. I won't make them reread it. I will use that time when the other children are rereading to teach them a skill that's further in the scope and sequence and really accelerate their learning. If I have children who the first time they're reading that text and they're really struggling, then I know I need to take that text to small group, slow down and go through it in a different way and maybe even have them listen to an audio recording of it to become familiar with it and have more exposure to it when I can't be when I can't be with them. So there are a lot of things that we can do in terms of getting more instructional impact out of the use of those decodable books.

Wendy Murray:

Yeah, I'm really happy to hear about the writing follow up because I feel like they're reading the authentic writing and authentic reading piece married to Phonics is really important and I know that in your book, Meaningful Phonics and Word Study, that's a real hallmark at it. I'm curious, when would a teacher do the follow up writing? Would it be kind of right after the phonics lesson?

Wiley Blevins:

Yup.

Wendy Murray:

Would it be guided?

Wiley Blevins:

Yup.

Wendy Murray:

Would they do it independently?

Wiley Blevins:

I always give students a writing prompt after we read a story. Always. Now the structure of how some teachers are doing phonics, they may not have enough time to complete a writing experience during the phonics lesson per say, but we can start it and have children completed during independent work time. They can take the book with them to have that for support. So if you don't have enough time to think, why can't do reading, get it started and have them complete it during independent work time when you're meeting with other children during small group. So make sure it's happening. It's super, super important. And we have to keep in mind that writing is such a great look at where children are in terms of their phonics knowledge. So we know that writing lags behind reading. So when I look at children's writing and I see that they are consistently applying these phonics skills, I know then that they can read words with those skills because of it lagging behind. One of the things I do want to caution teachers about there is this unrealistic expectation that the week we introduce the phonic skills, children should be successfully implementing it in the writing. And that's going to happen for most children. It's going to take some time, which is why it's great to have all of these writing pieces as follow up to what we're reading. So you can look over time at how students are incorporating those skills in which they are starting to use consistently. It's a wonderful assessment tool as you evaluate all you know about what where children are in terms of their phonics knowledge and what they might still need. So if I see some skills that aren't consistently applied, then I'm adding more words and dictation with those skills and I'm paying more attention to them in other areas of my phonics instruction.

Wendy Murray:

And I would imagine for the students, the writing application is so fabulous because it makes it so meaningful to them. I mean, it just empowers them with that reading - writing connection.

Wiley Blevins:

How exciting is it when you learn these skills that not only can you read longer, more complex books, but then you can communicate what you're thinking about books in a more precise way Children know when they're struggling with how to spell words, they know when they got it and when they're sort of picking from the air, what they've learned and making some guesses or what have you to have that confidence that that builds. And children need lots and lots and lots of opportunities to do that. And the best way to have that, those opportunities match the phonics instruction is to do follow up writing about decodable text where they have to use those words with target skills.

Wendy Murray:

And it's writing every day, pretty much?

Wiley Blevins:

Every day.

Wendy Murray:

Yeah?

Wiley Blevins:

Yeah.

Kevin Carlson:

Used thoughtfully, decodable texts help students build phonics skills and make a reading/writing connection. But how can decodable texts also help students build comprehension and vocabulary? We’ll find out, after the break.

Announcer:

Interested in learning more? Benchmark Education is releasing Wiley’s new professional development book on phonics in September 2020, titled Meaningful Phonics, Fine-Tuning the Powerful Practices That Maximize Student Learning. This book simplifies the complexity of phonics and helps educators take their foundational skills instruction to the next level.

Go to www.benchmarkeducation.com/PDessentials to purchase your copy today.

Wendy Murray:

Our final question comes from Amelia Rodriguez. She asks, How can we take decodable books to the next level? What do you often see missing from the instruction with these books?

Wiley Blevins:

When I see teachers use decodable texts, one of the things that concerns me is what feels like word calling: sort of marching through the text and not doing much with it. The whole purpose of reading is meaning making. And so we aren't asking comprehension questions if we aren't digging in to the meaning making of these stories. It sends a really negative message to our young learners. So in my workshops, I walk teachers through a very simple decodable text in all the layers of meaning making we can make. So I might start with a very simple question that has them find a word in this story with the target scale. And then I might ask a very simple recall question but ask them to support their answer with evidence, the exact words from the text that show that. So we all go there and we read it and we find it. And then I might ask a more sophisticated question that requires maybe an inference or some higher order thinking. And then I might ask a final question that connects the story to their lives. We can really go through a very simple text, questions about the texts, questions about the illustrations. If it's very, very simple and build out deeper meaning making and also develop the kinds of skills that we want children to do with any books that they read. So supporting evidence. We can ask children to support and support their answers with evidence in a text that's as simple as a decodable texts.

Wiley Blevins:

The other thing is vocabulary building. I really worry about the lack of vocabulary and background knowledge building that's happening with our young learners. We know how critical that is. Equal amounts of time should be spent on phonics as on vocabulary, background, knowledge. So one of the very simple things that a lot of teachers that I train will do is they will choose a sophisticated word about the story to introduce and use when they're having conversations about the story. Let me give you a very basic example. There was a story about a little boy who bought a dog and--he didn't buy a dog. He got a dog. And so he is taking the dog home and he's given the dog food and water and building it a home. So I thought, what is the boy doing? He's helping the dog survive. So I introduce when I introduce the cover of the book, I introduce the word survive. We're going to read about how the boy is helping this dog survive. And as we read the story, I kept asking questions using the word survive. I prompted children to use the word survive when they were talking about the text. It's very easy. Every single day to choose one sophisticated word about the story, not in the story that I can build vocabulary even in something as simple as a decodable text. I think we need to think more broadly about these instructional tools and all the meat we can get out of them.

Wendy Murray:

And I imagine that vocabulary building is a boon to English learners.

Wiley Blevins:

Well, that's the other thing. A lot of these decodable texts have very simple words, but there are a lot of English learners who don't know those words. I was reading with a little boy in New York City and he was a native English speaker, but he came from a background where there weren't a lot of literacy experiences. And the stories about a tan dog had no idea what the word tan meant. He had never heard the word. So with English learners, I will pull out some of those words that I know that they might struggle with and do some additional vocabulary building before we read the story, maybe as a follow up to the story. So even those basic words. So we're talking about often tier one words that they will need a lot of support with. So that is a focus of the phonics instruction and something that can happen certainly in small groups. But certainly by the time they get to the end of an instructional cycle, which might be a week, I want them to know how to sound out the words, but also the meanings of all the words that we've been talking about and using throughout that week.


Kevin Carlson:

After the break, Wiley summarizes what he’s shared about decodable texts.


Announcer:

If you want Wiley’s 3 takeaways from this show sent straight to your inbox, sign up for our updates at TeachersTalkShop.com


Wendy Murray:

Wylie, you've provided so much useful information for teachers and educators and parents for that matter. And I think it would be great if you could send us out with the three things to know about decodable texts, to kind of summarize all you've said,.

Wiley Blevins:

Three things that I would want teachers to know about decodable texts. One, it is an essential early learning tool. It must be a part of every phonics lesson. I talk to teachers all the time about a phonics lesson. At least half of it should be applying the skill to authentic reading and writing, so that encompasses the use of the decodable text on a daily basis. The second thing is writing. We want to follow up all of our reading with writing. We want to incorporate more writing into the phonics lessons. And the third thing is make sure that you are using those decodable texts to build deep comprehension, meaning making, and also to develop vocabulary.

Kevin Carlson:

Thank you, Wiley! Thank you, Wendy! And thank you for the questions, Tonya, Marissa, and Amelia. Next time on the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast…

Wiley Blevins:

It’s a really small, targeted period of time that we have in which to do right by our students in terms of introducing these skills and getting them to mastery. The bulk of it’s happening in those first two years. We need to get in there, get it done, do it well, and move on.

Kevin Carlson:

For the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, I’m Kevin Carlson.

Thanks for listening.