Decodable or predictable: why reading curriculum developers must seize one

By Simmone Pogorzelski, Susan Main and Janet Hunter

Despite the promise to ‘improve clarity’, ‘declutter’, and remove ‘ambiguous’ content, the new draft curriculum has left teachers guessing when it comes to when, and how, to use texts in the first two years of school. The requirement for teachers to choose between two types of texts remains in the proposed new curriculum, revealing a lack of understanding by the curriculum developers about the purpose and structure of each text. 

In the first two years of school, children require many opportunities to practise their phonics skills, which is achieved by reading decodable texts. Predictable texts, in comparison, are incompatible with phonics instruction and do not support beginning readers to master the written code for reading. Once the code has been established, children can move on to a broader range of reading material. If ACARA’s objective for the proposed curriculum is to provide ‘a clear and precise developmental pathway’ for reading, then references to predictable texts, and any reading strategies that require children to guess words from pictures and context, need to be removed from the current content descriptions where learning to read is the focus. 

Research we recently conducted revealed that there is confusion among teachers on how to use different types of texts in beginning reading instruction, which the current review of the national curriculum does little to address. While the draft curriculum signals a win for those advocating for more emphasis on systematic phonics instruction, the continued reference to predictable texts, and the associated whole language strategies known as the three-cueing system, is seen as a missed opportunity to align all reading related content to an established body of scientific knowledge. 

The Australian Curriculum National Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) chief, David de Carvalho claims that the draft curriculum English “allows teachers to choose a range of texts” to support the development of critical reading skills while also promoting the broader motivational and literary aspects of reading. However, rather than providing choice, the continued lack of guidance and clarification about when and how to use each text serves only to keep teachers guessing. Ironically, ‘guessing’ is one of the strategies that beginning readers must default to when trying to read words from texts that are not instructionally matched to the classroom phonics program. The features and structure of predictable texts, the earliest readers in many levelled reading systems currently used in Australian classrooms, promote memorisation rather than decoding and encourage beginning readers to guess words from pictures and context. Research has repeatedly shown that these strategies are not sustainable in the long term and that it is poor readers who are most disadvantaged when pictures are removed from the text and the capacity to memorise words reaches its limits.  

Text types

It is not so much choice that teachers require to meet the instructional needs of children, but the knowledge about how to use different texts for different purposes. Research has identified two sets of processes involved in reading proficiency: language comprehension and decoding. While literature facilitates the development of language related skills such as vocabulary and comprehension, and decodable texts scaffold children’s mastery of the alphabetic code, predictable texts contribute very little once children commence formal reading instruction. A clearly articulated curriculum would facilitate teachers’ ability to determine when to use a particular text for a particular purpose. 

Survey on teachers use of texts

The results of our research draw attention to this issue of how teachers use different types of texts to support beginning reading development. We surveyed 138 Western Australian Pre-primary and Year 1 teachers because we were concerned that the guidance on approaches to reading instruction and text types in the current curriculum was ambiguous and confusing. 

Teachers were asked about the approach they used to teach phonics, the type of texts and the strategies they used when teaching reading, and their beliefs about decodable and predictable texts. In Western Australia, teachers are directed by the Department of Education (DoE) to use systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) and, in our study, 93% of the teachers reported that they taught phonics using a SSP approach. 

On the basis of this approach to reading, we expected an equivalent number of teachers to use decodable texts. Surprisingly, a majority of teachers (56%) reported using both predictable and decodable texts to support children’s reading development. Of the teachers who only used decodable texts (25%), all but two used a range of strategies more suited to predictable texts. 

As expected, teachers who only used predictable texts (18%) used prompts associated with these texts, but they also used strategies more suitable for decodable text such as asking children to ‘sound out each letter’. This could be confusing for children when reading a text that doesn’t include words that can be read using current alphabetic knowledge.  Predictable texts feature high frequency (e.g., girl, where, as) and multisyllabic words (e.g., doctor, balloon, helicopter) that reflect common and relatable themes for young children, rather than words that align with a phonics teaching sequence. 

Fluency and texts

Two-thirds of the teachers in our research agreed with the statement that predictable texts promote fluency. This belief possibly accounts for the fact that so many teachers used predictable texts despite using a systematic synthetic phonics approach. While there is some evidence to suggest that predictable texts facilitate the development of fluency, the relationship is not well understood. 

When children first apply their knowledge of phonics to decodable texts, fluency does initially appear to be compromised.  Learning to read is hard work, and it takes at least two years of reading instruction before children reach a level of proficiency where they are able to apply their skills to the broader curriculum, or to what is commonly known as ‘reading to learn’. 

In contrast, the repetition of high frequency words and the predictive nature of words and sentences in predictable texts gives the impression that children are reading fluently as they memorise sentences that can be recited both while reading, and in the absence of the text. While alluring to teachers, the promotion of these strategies compromises the development of the alphabetic knowledge required for reading a complex orthography such as English, and as such should not be prioritised over careful and accurate decoding, despite the temptation to do so! 

A lack of fluency when learning a new skill is evident in many areas of learning, yet it seems to be less well tolerated in beginning reading instruction.  One possible explanation for this is the dominance of whole language reading theories, upon which the idea that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak has been promoted. This has resulted in the proliferation of a range of instructional reading strategies that are no longer supported by research, but as our research showed, continued to be used by classroom teachers.  It is our contention that the continued use of these strategies is a direct result of the ambiguity evident in the curriculum documents. It has simply not kept up with the research and will continue to act as a barrier to effective implementation unless clarity around the use of texts is provided. 

Which books, and when?

Children learn about the correspondence between speech and print by being exposed to books from an early age. At the pre-reading stage, prior to knowing that letters can also represent print, and that there is a predictable relationship between them, children benefit from being read to from a wide range of books, including children’s literature that features predictable text. There are many great examples to choose from, including well known classics such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and We Went Walking. 

When teachers read books with rhythmic patterned language, children begin to understand that each printed word on the page represents a spoken word. This helps children to understand the segmental nature of speech, a valuable first step in their reading journey.  The predictable texts currently used by teachers to meet Foundation and Year one curriculum objectives, while far less engaging than children’s literature, are more appropriate for children who are at this stage of their reading development because they do not require children to actually use their knowledge of the alphabet to read. While teachers can, and should, continue to read children’s literature, including books with predictable text and rhyming patterns to children beyond the preschool years, there is no instructional value in using ‘levelled’ predictable readers to support children’s development once formal reading instruction has commenced. 

When children enter the alphabetic stage of reading, they must transition from being read to, and joining in, to becoming the reader of the text. During this stage, children benefit from text that supports decoding as a primary strategy for reading. Decodable texts have a specific purpose: to scaffold children’s mastery and application of the alphabetic code in reading. Once children have mastered the alphabetic code, the reading of natural language texts, with more diverse vocabulary and complex language structures, should be encouraged. It is crucial from this point that motivation for reading is maintained. 

The disconnect between the use of text and the teaching approach being employed as well as the inconsistent use of strategies to support children when reading evident in our research can be seen as a direct result of the requirement in the curriculum to use both decodable and predictable texts. It is likely that without a change to the current curriculum, this will continue to be the case. 

DISCLOSURE: Simmone Pogorzelski is a product developer for MultiLit Pty Ltd which develops decodable readers, and other reading materials.


Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: a  review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25(9), 2223-2246. doi:10.1007/s11145-011-9355-2

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, Findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading,   9(2), 167-188. doi:10.1207/s1532799xssr0902_4

Hempenstall, K. (2003). The three-cueing system : trojan horse? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8(2), 15–23.

Mesmer, H. A. (2005). Text decodability and the first-grade reader. Reading & Writing   Quarterly, 21(1), 61-86. doi:10.1080/10573560590523667

Pogorzelski, S., Main, S. & Hill, S. (2021). A survey of Western Australian teachers’ use of texts in supporting beginning readers. Issues in Educational Research, 31(1), 204-223. http://www.iier.org.au/iier31/pogorzelski.pdf

From left to right:

Simmone Pogorzelski is currently completing a PhD on the role of decodable texts in early reading development at Edith Cowan University (ECU). Simmone is a sessional academic in the School of Education at ECU and works as a product developer for MultiLit. Susan Main, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Her teaching and research interests include preparing pre-service and in-service teachers to teach children with diverse abilities, including evidence-based approaches to literacy instruction, managing challenging behaviour, and using technology to facilitate learning. Janet Hunter, PhD, teaches and researches in the area of literacy education at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.  Currently, she teaches both in-service and pre-service teachers.  Research interests focus on the development of teacher professional knowledge and how teachers can support students who are failing to make adequate progress in literacy development.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

6 thoughts on “Decodable or predictable: why reading curriculum developers must seize one

  1. Annette Woods says:

    Thanks for this interesting insight into your research.

    I would want to add though, that the fact that there is a place for using decodable texts in the early years of school as part of a rich reading program does not mean that teachers should only use decodable texts. ACAARA has made the correct choice in encouraging teachers to continue to use a range of different texts in their teaching of reading.

    There are many different types of texts that are useful and important to use when teaching young children to read – a full range of these texts, including decodable and predictable texts, children’s literature, informational, digital and multimodal texts, are important staples for a rich and rigorous reading curriculum. There is no evidence that only using decodable texts and no other types of texts improves reading instruction or learning to read.

    Is phonics important for early reading? Absolutely. Are decodable texts a useful resource when teaching phonics? Perhaps. Should children read nothing but decodable texts. Absolutely not.

    Also – 138 teachers from the one system is not a representative sample of all teachers. Having said that, it is very heartening to know that 93% of the teachers in the study taught phonics as directed by their system mandate – but many still used a variety of texts to teach reading. This is a great finding even though the sample size is so small.

  2. Simmone says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, Annette.

    We agree with your point that teachers should not only use decodable texts; children should be exposed to lots of different texts as this provides exposure to print and allows children to apply and extend their knowledge of the code to words with more complex orthography.

    We assert however, that the curriculum needs to make clear the purpose of different texts and remove predictable texts from the Foundation and Year one English curriculum. There is no support for using predictable texts once children start learning and applying the code to reading connected text.

    Children’s literature, digital texts, and multimodal texts are all valuable, but for reinforcing the code, decodables are going to provide children with the right scaffolding when they are still mastering the code (Heidi Mesmer has identified this as a crucial developmental window for beginning readers). This doesn’t mean that I or my colleagues think that children should only read decodable texts. We believe many opportunities should be provided in the classroom context (e.g., book corner, library, shared reading, writing experiences) and home for children to read and have access to other texts. Some children will need more support than others when doing this.

    There is still much to learn about children’s reading development, so it’s important to act on what we do know; predictable texts promote guessing and are potentially harmful for some children while decodable texts reinforce the application of the code which we know is needed for reading development. We can work with this and provide teachers with some certainty about what these two different texts achieve. Once we have this established, we can work towards ensuring that children are exposed to a range of texts. This is especially important for children who don’t have access to books outside of the classroom.

    For some children, exposure to other texts will allow them to deduce the code independently, for others, more support will be required to access words in more complex texts. Ideally, you want children to try and work out unknown words in these types of texts by drawing on their knowledge of the code or by asking a supportive reading partner (another child, teacher, parent) to help them. In either scenario, we want to avoid texts, or strategies, that draw children’s attention away from the code. It’s not so much pictures in texts that are the problem, but how these pictures are configured. Do the pictures support meaning, or are they being used to promote guessing? If the latter, it is likely that poor decoders will use them in lieu of good word recognition skills. This is not something that we want to see happening in classrooms. A simple and easy to implement solution is for ACARA to disentangle predictable texts from decodable texts.

    Thank you for mentioning our study. We too were impressed with the number of teachers using an SSP approach to teach phonics. You are right that our sample of 138 teachers is small; we had hoped for a bigger sample but were limited by our recruitment processes and had limited access to teachers. We do address this in our paper but think the finding, that teachers still use strategies that promote guessing when using an SSP approach, is interesting and one that has broad implications for student learning.

    Thanks again for reading and responding to our article.

  3. RMTAP says:

    It is very interesting for children to look at beautiful and large pictures near which there is a large and small text. According to this principle, small children’s fairy tales are built, from simple to complex you need to go when reading

  4. Rebecca Thomas says:

    I find the disclosure statement regarding Simmone Pogorzelski ‘s association with MultiLit to be the most illuminating aspect of this article.

    What’s even more disconcerting —
    – the associated ‘research’ paper has been published in the academic journal Issues in Educational Research
    – the research participants were recruited through social media
    – the absence of anything resembling a disclosure statement in the published paper, despite the fact that one of the authors – Simmone Pogorzelski – makes a living producing materials for a company that sells decodable readers?!?

    As an aside, I recently viewed a FaceBook post on a popular Western Australian teachers forum, where a user asked if any fellow teachers might have any recommendations for “texts related to the Olympic Games which would be appropriate for her to read ALLOWED (sic) to her class”. She didn’t correct herself, nor did any of the dozens who responded with text suggestions. I could’ve cried…

    Perhaps closer attention needs to be paid to the literacy levels of teachers themselves. Anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence should be able to employ a range of text types within the classroom.

    The either/or debate is tedious, lacks nuance and achieves nothing for students themselves. Is the aim of early literacy to foster a life long love for reading or to increase NAPLAN scores?

  5. Simmone says:

    Thanks RMTAP, we agree! Children should have many opportunities to look at beautiful pictures in books because it fosters engagement with books, teaches the meaning of words, develops empathy, and allows for children to make sense of the world around them. The text in these books is also essential to build ‘concepts about print’ knowledge – the understanding that each spoken (or word read aloud) matches a printed word is an example of one of these concepts.

  6. Simmone says:

    Thanks for your feedback Rebecca.

    I have been researching in the area of decodable texts for over four years now as part of my doctoral studies at ECU. The research paper referred to in our blog has been through a rigorous process of ethics approval, submission and review, and was written with one of my PhD supervisors and another senior research academic from ECU. It is understandable to raise the question about the association with MultiLit, but I can assure you, the research was done independently. I would also add that decodable texts are recent addition to the curriculum and given this, there is a need to research their role in beginning reading. This research is part of a larger project, the results of which will be made available at some point in the near future.

    With regard to the online survey being distributed via social media; it was noted as a limitation in our discussion in the paper published by IIER. Despite this limitation, we found that while a majority of teachers used SSP to teach phonics (as directed) many used predictable texts only, which does not support practice that a large body of scientific research has found to be effective. Many teachers also used strategies aligned with the three-cueing system when supporting children to read decodable texts; more evidence that teachers require clarification.

    Our argument is that a clearer curriculum document would help enormously, but we are not opposed to choice per se. Removing ‘levelled’ predictable texts from content descriptions relating to word recognition processes (in F-2) would remove an element of confusion, allowing teachers to use different texts (including decodable, natural language, non fiction etc) for a range of different purposes. If we can be clearer about the instructional purpose of each text, teachers will be able to do this more effectively. Far from being an ‘either/or’ debate, we see it as building teachers’ capacity to teach reading effectively.

    Our aim is to foster a life long love of reading, but we are aware that many children miss out on this opportunity. We don’t see NAPLAN scores and this love of reading as being mutually exclusive. Research shows that good readers, read more. It’s our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children we have in mind when we are researching, and it’s these children especially who will benefit from a curriculum that reflects the current research on reading.

    I can’t see the relevance of your comment about the teacher on FB who misspelled the word ‘allowed’ to teachers’ being allowed to employ a choice of texts so I will only respond by saying this: Perhaps the people (teachers or otherwise) who responded were being kind in not calling attention to the error. We’ve all been there, and it’s easy to do!

    Thanks again for reading our blog, and for your feedback.

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