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Decodable Text: How & When to Use It

Literacy, Phonics, Science of Reading

Written by: Krys Warstillo

With all the chatter around Science of Reading, there’s a lot of new vocabulary being thrown around. Two of the topics you may be hearing about a lot are decodable text and leveled readers. So what are decodable texts and leveled readers? How and when do you use them? 

What Is Decodable Text?

True decodable text focuses on providing words that use the letter-sound correspondences that students have previously learned. Here are the basic criteria:

  • Words in the book feature phonics patterns that have been taught.
  • The text includes high-frequency words that have been taught.
  • Early decodables start with CVC words and move slowly to more complex spelling patterns.
  • The text focuses on teaching accurate reading over comprehension.
  • Pictures in decodable books support the story, but not the specific words on each page. 
  • The subject matter is secondary to the decodability of the words. 
decodable text for first and second grade focusing on long vowel patterns

What Is Decodable Text Used For?

Decodable texts are used to practice reading words with spelling patterns that students have already learned and additional exposure to high-frequency words they have learned. The primary focus is accuracy. With decodable texts, sounding the word out is the strategy of choice for reading unfamiliar words. 

phonics mat with long vowel oe decodable text and isolated exercises to practice the spelling pattern

The key thing with decodable texts is to remember that they are not for teaching. They are for practicing skills that students have been explicitly taught. 

What’s the Difference Between Decodable and Leveled Texts?

Now that you know what a decodable text is, let’s talk about how that compares to leveled readers. Leveled readers are something you’re probably really familiar with. They focus on predictable sentence structures, pictures that support the text, and there are no constraints on the phonics patterns that are used. 

leveled texts from a 1st grade classroom library

Leveled readers teach students to read by exposure to words. These are the readers that are usually labeled A, B, C, D, etc. There’s a lot of predictability and repetition of words or phrases. In leveled readers, comprehension is more important than accuracy. Often, leveled readers can be used incorrectly. Students may be encouraged to use various guessing strategies for unfamiliar words. Or reading errors may not be corrected unless they affect the meaning of the text.

anchor chart with predictable sentences taken directly from a leveled reader

Why Should I Use Decodable Text?

Both types of text have their purposes. Leveled text can be great for teaching concepts of print, as class read alouds, or as a starting point for class discussions. 

Decodable texts help students develop a habit of reading accurately and depending on letters before reading with fluency is expected. They are also a great way to assess whether your students can apply what they’ve learned in text. They also make it really easy to keep running records to keep track of accuracy and patterns that may need to be revisited.  

phonics passage and running record to track errors and self corrections as students read

How Do You Use Decodable Text in a Small Group?

Now that you know what decodable text is the next question is how are they used? First, try presenting decodable text without pictures! If you’re using the Phonics Mats fold the page in half so there are no images. Then try the following: 

  • Divide the text into sections. You want each student to read a small section.
  • Make sure there are enough sections for each student to read 1-2 sections.
  • Double-check that the length of each section is not overwhelming for students to read.
  • Label each reading section. You can use letters or numbers or symbols. 
  • Count the words in each section and write the number at the end of the sections so you can tell them the number of words they read correctly out of how many words.

If you’re using a short decodable book you can assign students to read a page at a time. For more complex books or more advanced readers sections may be one or more paragraphs.

decodable reading passage focused on ai pattern words

Finally, students read a decodable text until they can read it fluently, then they move on to another. If a student has to go sound by sound, that is not reading. You can follow up that kind of stilted reading with, “You got __ words right. You sounded out __ words.” Then instruct them to try again with some blending help. Give your students the time to go back and read their assigned section again so they get the experience and feeling of success that accompanies reading with increased accuracy.

Decodable texts should primarily be used during instruction. Give students the freedom to select their own good-fit books for free reading time. Decodable text can be useful for centers when students are beginning readers. Examples of this can be found in the Literacy Centers bundle.

long vowel I patterns literacy center

Download Literacy Centers HERE

But What About Comprehension?

In the paragraphs above it’s mentioned that decodable texts are about accuracy, not comprehension. That may be making you sweat. Where does comprehension come in?? Comprehension is taught through oral reading to students and discussion of the read-aloud books read by you. When you’re using decodable books, you may want to check for basic comprehension, but don’t feel the need to dive deep.

When Should You Stop Using Decodable Texts?

Decodable readers are not for teaching. They offer students the opportunity to apply the skills and patterns they have been practicing. Decodable text is generally recommended for early readers. Remember that early readers don’t necessarily need to be in early grades. An early reader can be any age. Once you notice that a student can decode new words, makes fewer errors, and is comprehending what they’re reading you can release them from decodable text.


  1. Naomi

    Hi. I’m a new second grade teacher and still confused. What kind of books do I get for my classroom library (kids choose and read books independently)? Decodable or leveled? Which levels? When I read with my whole class, all together, should those be decodables? What about when I read to them – should those be regular books – not decodable? Should they have copies of the book I’m reading and point along even if the books are not decodable, or should I read to them and they just listen? I’m super confused about what to use when and what I need to get for my classroom.
    Would very much appreciate your input. Thank you.

    • Jess Dalrymple

      Hello Naomi! Decodable books are designed for students to practice and apply the phonics skills they are being explicitly taught in class. Typically teachers use them within phonics lessons and small group instruction.

      When students are reading independently, it is smart to provide them with options that they are able to read successfully. For some students, that will be decodable readers. For other students, that will be leveled readers.

      When reading with the whole class, it depends on your focus. If you are reading aloud to them and working on listening comprehension, trade books are totally fine! If you are doing a shared read where you want them to read chorally with you (like to work on fluency), then you will want to have it be text that the students can be somewhat successful with, which may be decodable depending on your students’ levels.

      I hope this helps! Have a wonderful day!


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