Tread lightly: the cement is not quite dry

Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University


Part One of Tread lightly discussed the tentative nature of research and the difficulty that presents for practice. Part two is for those interested in considering how to implement literacy with a treading lightly approach. It is a tentative approach. The table shows some key ideas in literacy, and briefly outlines what we know, and what we might need to keep thinking about. The treading lightly section suggests how we might approach the thinking in our practice, using the evidence.

The table is not a definitive document but an invitation to learn more. I hope it shows that there is a way forward that involves considering what research tells us for practice even if not in absolutes. I know I have to challenge myself to read beyond things that just confirm what I think is right and walk in the uncomfortable place of reading things that challenge.

There are many other ideas that could be explored and the ideas here are an example of exploring the tensions and possible solutions.


Debbie Hepplewhite about the balance of explicit and incidental teaching

Kearns, D 2020 Does English have useful syllable division patterns

Syllable types may add to cognitive load and the role of morphemes


Berninger, V, & James, K. (2019). Why handwriting should be taught in the age of computers.

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51. doi:10.1177/1529100618772271

Dehaene, S. (2019). Reading in the brain. New York: Penguin.

Ehri, L. (2022). What teachers need to know and do to teach letter-sounds, phonemic awareness, word reading, and phonics

Ehri, L. (2020). Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1) pp. S45–S60 | doi:10.1002/rrq.334

Gentry, R. J. (2004). The science of spelling: The explicit specifics that make great readers, writers (and spellers). Heinemann.

Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523-568. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.96.4.523

Shanahan, T. (2023).,is%2C%20thinking%20about%20thinking).

Share, D. L. (2008). Orthographic learning, phonological recoding, and self-teaching. Advances in Child Learning and Behaviour, 36, 31-82. doi:10.1016/S0065-2407(08)00002-5

Solity, J., & Vousden, J. (2009). Real books vs reading schemes: A new perspective from instructional psychology. Educational Psychology, 29(4), 469-511. doi:10.1080/01443410903103657

Steacy, L. (2022).

Tunmer, W. E., & Chapman, J. W. (2012). The simple view of reading redux: Vocabulary knowledge and the independent components hypothesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45, 453-466. doi:10.1177/0022219411432685

Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press.


Tread lightly: the cement is not quite dry

Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University – August 2023


Knowing how to best teach for literacy success is a careful walk of combining research and practice. As a practitioner, I want to know what to do. As a researcher, I want to find the next small step and the next big question.  As a practitioner based in research, I aim to guide teachers in what is best for their learners.  However, the conundrum is that research is ever evolving and it can be very hard to be definitive about what to do in practice. Research is cumulative and a scientific approach involves being open to not knowing and to keep on looking.

The experience of hearing researchers at the Society of the Scientific Studies of Reading conference (2023) made me think that following the research can sometimes be a walk along a newly cemented pathway. Researchers present tentative results and fledgling ideas. If we tread too boldly with too definitive an approach based on early results or one interpretation, we may become locked in a method that is later proved wanting. A narrow interpretation of the research puts us in danger of becoming stuck in the way previous methods are now accused of being stuck.

Taking a tentative approach does not mean we don’t change the way we teach. It is important we keep open in our practice in teaching literacy as we find the best way for our learners. My personal experience with changing how I understand the teaching of reading is a story of being open to change (eventually), an experience that I have referred to as unstitching some of my teaching DNA. But we also need to be cautious of our new knowledge and our excitement with it and beware of narrow interpretations that might result in getting stuck.

The notion that nobody knows everything is a helpful one. The fact we don’t know everything is not a hopeless cause nor an invitation to do whatever we like. There are some things we can know and do with confidence. There are other things we should approach more tentatively and with a light step. As much as we want a very clear pathway, following a narrow pathway can be counter to best practice that stands the test of time. We have seen this happen before.

The research to practice pathway has some cement already dry and other newer pathways that we need to approach tentatively. There are some non-negotiables. We must teach children to decode successfully and this involves explicit teaching. It is likely that a scope and sequence, and decodable texts help in establishing mastery of the early patterns for all learners and is an essential approach for those with any difficulty. We know handwriting and spelling have a vital role in writing outcomes and that handwriting affects both spelling and reading acquisition. We must give many opportunities for children to develop strong oral language, including vocabulary and sentence structure. We know background knowledge is important to understanding a wide range of texts.

But there are many ideas that are more tentative. The number of spelling patterns that need to be taught before self-teaching begins is unknown, but self-teaching must occur for efficient and sustained learning. How long we need to use decodable texts for is an under-researched area so we must tread carefully with guidelines. It is not clear the role that explicit teaching of syllables plays and whether this teaching is confusing for some learners. Some researchers advocate for phonological awareness tasks without letters, while others state that phonological is best taught with the letters. These are just a few of the ideas I have heard arguments about and loud voices can crowd out healthy discussion and make experienced and capable teachers feel they can no longer trust the teacher they have been.

For a successful change to literacy practice, we must be careful not to get locked into ideas that haven’t set yet. We can hold opinions gently to bring others along and to give ourselves the chance to continue growing. We need practitioners who try out resources and continue to watch and think and respond to their learners as they implement new practices. Teachers deserve to have their experience and expertise valued. They must have licence to question and they need support to keep on finding out. We all do.

The approach of not knowing may be uncomfortable for those of us who are more of the practitioner. For researchers, it is just one more step. We do know some things about how to teach reading and writing but we can’t know everything. No-one can. As practitioners, I hope we can remind ourselves to tread lightly on cement that might not be quite dry so that our practice can stand the test of time for the sake of our learners.


Reading progress when using a structured approach

Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

It is useful to consider an overall and general scope and sequence. A sequence particular to a book series is helpful, but it is important to consider a broader view when considering children’s progress.



Teachers can match the skills focus from the above progression to the decodable book series they are using. It is important to be able to say what the learning and teaching focus is for the child/group rather than just what book they are reading. Focus on the skill to teach and select the appropriate book. A teacher can also select the book from the sequence and teach the skills needed to successfully read that text.


Progress monitoring will occur at end of each book stage and within lessons. Ongoing assessments form an important part of progress monitoring and knowing when progress is concerning. Teachers can use the assessment points specific to the book series they are using.

For more standardised assessments, the following suggestions ensure we are using reliable data checks.



It is difficult to match decodable texts to non-decodable books and the colour wheel. Consider a Burt word test during Step 1c (approximately fourth term at school) and trial colour wheel books as indicated by the Burt score (eg scoring 22 on Burt equals 6 year reading age and may indicate green level). Continue with decodable texts and a systematic, explicit approach to teaching the code but consider that for some children, one of the small group lessons in the week could include expanding into less controlled texts. Select colour wheel texts that have word patterns that match the level of word pattern knowledge.

NB: When moving to colour wheel books, it is vital that students continue to use the decoding strategy of using the word patterns, just as taught for decodable texts. Do not use a 3-cue approach of looking at picture to work out unknown words.





Literacy@Massey, News

The problem with literacy – Conversations that Count – Ngā Kōrero Whai Take

What’s gone wrong with our literacy approach in Aotearoa, and how can we create better outcomes for our learners? To kick off our new season, we have a challenging but optimistic discussion about education in Aotearoa. For this kōrero, host Stacey Morrison is joined by Massey University’s Dr Christine Braid and co-principals of Te Kura o Takaro, Helena Baker and Josie Woon.


We need a new approach to teaching literacy

Young New Zealanders are turning off reading in record numbers – we need a new approach to teaching literacy.

Meet Otis. He’s eight years old and until recently he didn’t want to read or write. Then his teacher changed the way she taught and things began to improve.

After a few weeks, Otis (not his real name, but he’s a real child) wanted to read and write at every opportunity. With this new-found knowledge and motivation his skill increased too. And his confidence.

So what was different? Technically, Otis’s teacher had begun using what is known as a structured approach to teaching literacy. Essential for children with a literacy learning difficulty such as dyslexia, it has been shown to be beneficial for all children.

The structured approach is a departure from what is known as the “implicit” teaching approach most teachers have used in the classroom. There are now calls for “explicit” instruction to be adopted more generally, including a petition recently presented to the New Zealand Parliament.

New data suggest this is an urgent problem, with growing numbers of young people turning off reading. According to a recent report from the Education Ministry’s chief education science adviser, 52% of 15-year-olds now say they read only if they have to – up from 38% in 2009.

The report made a number of recommendations, including that the ability to “decode” words become a focus in the first years of school. The importance of decoding to literacy success was reiterated by learning disability and dyslexia advocacy group SPELD NZ. It called for a change in teacher training and urgent professional development in structured literacy teaching.


Structured literacy teaching means the knowledge and skills for reading and writing are explicitly taught in a sequence, from simple to more complex. Children learn to decode simple words such as tap, hit, red and fun before they read words with more complex spelling patterns such as down, found or walked.

Learning correct letter formation is a priority. Mastery of these skills builds a strong foundation for reading and writing, without which progress is slow, motivation stalls and achievement suffers.

children's books with words and pictures

The simple spelling in structured literacy texts helps children decode the words and build confidence.

The books children first read in a structured approach employ these restricted spelling patterns. Reading these with his teacher’s help, Otis built on his skills with simple words and progressed to decoding words with advanced spelling patterns.

These structured lessons also allowed him to master letter and sentence formation, so he made progress in writing too.


By contrast, an implicit approach to teaching reading essentially means children have lots of opportunities to read and write, and learn along the way with teacher guidance.

Unfortunately, children like Otis can get lost along the way, too.

Implicit reading books use words with a variety of spelling patterns – for example: Mum found a sandal. “Look at the sandal,” said Mum.

When Otis tried to read these books, he looked at the pictures or tried to remember the teacher’s introduction before attempting the words. But he was not building his skills and was getting left behind.

Otis is not alone, and New Zealand’s literacy results support the calls for change. Despite many interventions and the daily hard work of teachers, it is common for schools to report 30% of children with low reading results and 40% with low writing results.

However, a Massey University study in 2019 found reading outcomes improved when teachers were trained in a structured approach. The results were particularly good for children with the lowest results prior to intervention.

Overall, the findings suggest the change in teaching had a positive effect on children’s learning.

An example of how structured literacy is taught in the US; methods vary depending on the country.


Fortunately for children like Otis, more teachers are now seeking training in a structured approach. One project based on the Massey research involved more than 100 teachers in over 40 schools. Teacher comments suggest the knowledge and training support has helped them change their teaching for the benefit of the whole class.

Further signs of hope include recent Ministry of Education efforts to develop structured approach teaching materials, and the resources now available for teachers on the ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi support site.

No one pretends change is easy in a complex area such as literacy teaching. But every child like Otis has the right succeed, and every teacher has the right to be supported in their approach to helping Otis and his peers learn.

With courage and effort at every level of the system – not just from classroom teachers – a structured approach to literacy teaching can improve outcomes and have a positive impact that will stay with children for the rest of their lives.The Conversation

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Taking a look at decodable texts

Texts that fit within a decodable label use words that are carefully controlled by the spelling patterns. These texts give learners multiple opportunities to apply their developing decoding skills in real texts.

The spelling patterns used follow a scope and sequence whereby early reading texts use words with a restricted word pattern along with a few high utility words (e.g., I, the, my) to make a sentence work. The texts use a limited number of letters in the first instance and only consonant-vowel-consonant words. As the sequence progresses more letters are introduced but the scope of c-v-c stays the same. Once c-v-c is mastered, the scope then advances to include consonant clusters and vowel teams.

The controlled nature of decodable texts means the texts can seem to have no meaning. In addition, they are often accused of being boring. Some critics believe that using decodable texts will put children off reading. It is true that the sentence cadence is less natural than speech due to restrictions involved in keeping to words of one syllable. The texts are not as rich as regular picturebooks or other reading series books that do not control for spelling patterns. But decodable texts can be a good story and are they are engaging texts for children learning to read for themselves.

The way a well-constructed decodable text engages children has similarities to the way a good picturebook works. A well-designed picturebook, one that is for reading aloud to children, allows the pictures to tell the story that cannot be told as effectively in the words (Nodelman, 1988). There is a magic in the space created by what the words can say and what the pictures can portray. The role of pictures is in creating layers of meaning, especially for meaning beyond a surface interpretation (Braid, 2008).

An example of how effectively the words and pictures work together in a picturebook is My cat Maisie by Pamela Allen. When a stray cat arrives at Andrew’s house, Andrew is really pleased because he knows lots of marvellous games to play with a cat. The words clearly tell what Andrew says and does: Let’s be helicopters and whizz round and round.

The words do not say how Andrew or the cat feel about the activities, but the pictures very clearly portray a happy Andrew and a rather unhappy cat. When reading this aloud to children (and adults), they laugh nervously as they fill in the gaps of what this activity means to a cat. Throughout the book, the words and the pictures work together to advance the story. The book is a powerful reading experience because carefully crafted words leave a space for the reader to fill in the gaps using the pictures to make a full story1.

The picturebook technique is evident in well-made decodable texts where the books tell a story even with very limited text. Books from two different series, Sunshine decodables and Little Learners Love Literacy, are used to show how the elements of a picturebook are used to advance a good story within the limits of using words from a scope and sequence.

In the Sunshine Phonics series, the text in The big box tells the story of children making things from an empty cardboard box. One of the pages has Nat imagining that the box will be a hut. The words say The box will be a hut and leave the pictures to show what this will look like, painted pink and white with flowers.

The picture of the finished hut shows it still looks like a cardboard box. When I pointed this out to one child who had read the book, she began a conversation about what would be needed for the box to be like it was in Nat’s imagination. The picture provides at least half of the narrative, which is exactly what a well-constructed picturebook does.

In another story in the Sunshine Phonics series, The big bug, the text tells of an annoying bug in the house. The text on the final page reads ‘The fan gets rid of the bug’. The picture shows Gus the cat cheekily turns on the fan to blow the bug out the window. The pictures advance the story and add humour and there is much to discuss with the children when reading.

Children are observant and find these picture features intriguing and satisfying. When I remarked to a child who had read the book that it was a clever solution for the fan to get rid of the bug, he delighted in showing that it was actually Gus that was clever. It is particularly powerful for children when they have successfully read the words and then combine that sentence with their observations of the illustrations. It now feels like a story.

A third example of the words and pictures working together from the Sunshine series is the book Tip it. In this book, Dan is at the tap filling a bucket with water. The words state: ‘Dan is at the tap’. Mystery is set up. Page turn. ‘Dan tips it’. The picture shows he tips water on his sister Nat. The children reading this text find this picture hilarious. But wait. Page turn. Now the text reads: ‘Nat is at the tap’. Suspense. Prediction. Turn the page and the text says: ‘Nat tips it’.

The text does not need to add the phrase ‘tips the bucket of water over Dan’ and it would be a lesser experience if it did. The picture shows Dan being surprised by a bucket of water over him. The children reading this text are most engaged with its simplicity and humour. They also feel pleased with themselves as readers because they are successfully reading the words.

In the Wiz kids’ series (Little Learners Love Literacy), one of the levels includes five books with stories about Viv and her dog Bob. Over the five stories, the characters are introduced: Viv (the pictures show she is a scientist), Bob (Viv’s dog), and Vog (an alien). Each short story builds from the one before.

In story one, Viv is in the lab and so is her dog Bob.

In story two, Bob the dog is hot and Viv has to get a fan so he is not hot.

Vog the alien is introduced in story three and in story four Vog leaves his planet. In story five, Vog’s space pod crashes on Viv and Bob’s lawn, bringing the characters of this set together.

The pictures in these deceptively simple books bring humour and add to the narrative. There is development of character and the connections from one story to the next stimulate the wondering of what Viv and her dog Bob are going to get up to next.

Further connections between books occurs in the Little Learners Love Literacy series. For example, in the story The Shed Shop, Tim and Pip have the job of cleaning up a junk filled shed. In the process of the clean-up, they get money for a number of items. In the next book in that level, The Munch Bunch Fun Park, the story begins ‘Pip and Tim had a lot of cash’, which is a satisfying link for a reader as they recall the plot and characters of the previous book and enjoy the next instalment.

Connecting with characters and plot is vital for engagement with story and it is my experience that children do this with these cleverly constructed decodable texts, even with the restricted words. Many children identify with the characters and the plot as found in the Sunshine and Little Learners series. I hear teachers saying that the children can’t wait to know what the characters will do next. One teacher told of a child who was impatiently waiting for the arrival of the next set of Sunshine books, so he could find out what Sam was going to do next. The anticipation and desire reminded me of children waiting for the next Harry Potter. There is no need to worry that children will not be making sense of the story. They do this and they connect with characters.

There are other reasons decodable texts are important:

  1. The books allow learners to learn about print from small units to larger, from short vowel (c-v-c) to vowel teams (c-vv-c) to multisyllable.
  2. The books are dependable for early readers. Teaching focuses on the word patterns and the skills needed to decode (and spell) these words. The books do not present children with challenge beyond what they have been taught/are learning.
  3. The books give the learner multiple opportunities to secure the particular word pattern being taught. Children have the opportunity to overlearn one spelling pattern (e.g., c-v-c) and secure the necessary orthographic map.
  4. The use of decodable texts allows teachers to teach in a way that does not rely on the pictures for successful decoding.
  5. Meaning can be brought in after the decoding e.g., The van is in the bog (yes look it is in the muddy bog); Tim is sad (look at the picture and see he IS sad). Children can decode using the print, then check the picture. The picture gives confirmation of success in the process.
  6. The texts are a surprising source of vocabulary development because it is unusual for children to hear words such as sob, suds, bog, dam, or dip. One teacher found that she needed to show the children what it means to ‘dip in’ the pool and she did this by using a teabag.

Decodable texts are not the only texts necessary for teaching reading. Children need a wide range of books read to them as well as access to texts that are less controlled as their skills increase. But decodable texts are a key resource in teaching beginning readers. Decodable texts will never be favourite read-alouds because the sentence structure is restricted. But being a delicious read-aloud or great literature is not the purpose of these texts. The main purpose is to be a text where code skills can be successfully applied. Creating a good decodable text means to know and keep to this purpose.

It is wrong to suggest that decodable texts are not engaging for children or that there is no meaning to the stories. There is power for the learner in being able to successfully read the words then use the illustrations to make connections between what the words say and what the pictures tell. Not only do the stories in decodable texts have meaning, but the books enable the children to BE successful readers. That is a powerful combination.

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

With thanks to Sunshine Books for permission to use images 1,2,3
With thanks to Little Learners Love Literacy for permission to use images 4,5,6


Allen, P. (1990). My Cat Maisie. Australia: Penguin Books.

Braid, C. (2008). How do I look? Layers of meaning in the picturebook. Massey University Printery.

Dixon, B. (2014). The shed shop; The Munch Bunch fun park

Dixon, B. (2020). Hot Dog Bob; Pop; Vog; Vog in the pod; Bam!

George, P. (2020). The big bug; The big box; Tip it!

Nodelman, P. (1988). Words about pictures. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

1The explanation of how picturebooks work does not suggest the use of pictures to work out words when children are reading for themselves. The pictures are an important part of the narrative but not a useful one for decoding a word.


Getting it, not guessing it: examining the 3-cues model

When we discuss problems with our literacy outcomes in New Zealand, behind the data is the story of each child who is having difficulty learning to read and write. These are the stories of children who may not want to go to school because they ‘feel dumb’ when they do not learn to read. In my years of teaching, I recall a group of children in my classes whose reading outcomes were always below the expected level. I worked hard so felt my efforts would make a difference. However, I could not accelerate their reading outcomes, no matter how hard we all worked. I feel uncomfortable to think these children in my class may have hated coming to school and ‘felt dumb’. But my discomfort is nothing compared to the broken mana of the child and the heartbreak of the family who has to watch.

To improve outcomes for all learners, it is necessary to examine the models that inform our teaching of reading. One particular model that is in our teaching DNA is the 3-cues of reading. I remember learning about the 3-cues in 1986 when I trained in Reading Recovery. The idea of cue integration (using a combination of meaning, syntax, and print cues) to work out words was very appealing, and I believed it was the answer to all reading difficulties. I ‘believed’ in this model for the next 30 years and I understand how difficult it is to let it go.

The cognitive dissonance of confronting a long-held belief is not easy. Changing a belief will require a change in teaching, unlearning particular ways we have taught children to read. But for the sake of our learners, it is important to examine our beliefs and ensure the models we use are ones that provide us with efficient and effective pathways for teaching for all learners.


The key premise of the 3-cueing system (Fig. 1) is that successful reading involves using a combination of cue sources: sentence meaning, sentence structure, and the print on the page (or visual cues). The 3-cues model suggests that integration of all the cues is the ultimate aim for success as a reader.

Integrating the cue sources may appear to bring success with a particular word in that moment but integrating cues does not provide ongoing success. Ongoing success comes from the skill of efficiently and accurately processing the printed code. Word patterns map into long term storage when a reader pays close attention to the word, all through the word (Ehri, 2014).

Fig 1: A diagram to show the 3-cueing system

Storage of words is an absolute necessity for reading competency. When a learner spends time focused away from the print, using strategies such as looking to the picture or thinking about what would sound right, they miss the opportunity to take the word patterns into long term storage (Snow & Juel, 2005).


The 3-cues model emerged from a research study (Goodman, 1967) that found participants were able to read more accurately and fluently when the task involved reading in a context as opposed to when participants were given words in a list. Goodman concluded that it was the context cues such as meaning and syntax that enabled reading to be accurate and fluent. However, all attempts to replicate the results in Goodman’s study have failed. Instead, researchers repeating his experiment found that good readers read words in and out of context equally well and it was poor readers who read better in context and who struggled with a list (Nicholson, 2004).

The 3-cues model has been the main model in New Zealand for at least three decades. One reason for the dominance of the model is that integration of cues seems viable on the surface. Once we have learned to read, it is hard to have any perspective on how difficult reading really is (Dehaene, 2010) or to identify the beginning point of successfully reading a sentence.

Another reason the model is retained is that using the meaning cue for decoding a word has been conflated with reading comprehension. In my research, I found that some teachers were hesitant to direct children to use the print cue first, because they felt it was downplaying the place of meaning. I know I kept an allegiance to 3-cues because of the notion that meaning had to drive the process. Of course, meaning is the main purpose of reading, but gaining meaning from what we read is not the same as using meaning as a cue to work out a word.

A further reason for the continued use of the 3-cues model is the types of texts available for instruction. Levelled texts based on predictable sentences or on the natural language of speech require teachers to direct children to use the picture cues (meaning) because the wide variety of spelling patterns is outside a learner’s current decoding skill.

The 3-cues model has been part of teacher training and teacher manuals for decades. It is hard to unstitch the underpinnings of our own training. I resisted for many years the idea that guiding children to use compensatory strategies was teaching a form of guessing. In fact, I defended the process as being a strategic integration of cue sources. In addition, I did not know that compensation was a strategy of poor readers or that there were alternative models.


A connectionist model (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989) gives an alternative to the 3-cues model, describing the interaction of four different processors (orthographic, phonologic, meaning, and context) in the act of reading. This model of four processors (Fig. 2) positions the first act of reading as the connection between the print (orthography) and the sounds (phonology). Making the connection between the letters or graphemes and how they represent the sounds or phonemes in words is a vital first step to reading success. Once the word is read (by connecting the graphemes to their phonemes), the meaning and context are activated to complete the process1.

Fig 2: Seidenberg & McClelland (1989)

A key difference in the connectionist model is the interaction among the processors, rather than the integration of cues as in the 3 cues model. Interaction requires capability in all parts of the reading process, whereas integration can mean one cue dominates and is used to compensate for weakness in another cue. Integrating cue sources is not a model of capability or of balance in literacy learning.

The four processors model shows the importance of teaching the skills for the printed code as a foundation for reading. There has been no case of competent reading in the absence of functional decoding (Share, 1995). For overall reading success, while decoding is not sufficient, it is absolutely necessary. Learning to decode is the first step; meaning cannot be brought to the sentence unless words can be read reliably and efficiently (Pressley, 2006). And in the words of Stanislas Dehaene (2010), there is no point in describing to children the delights of reading if they are not provided with the means to get there. By ensuring children have capability with the printed code, we give them a vital key to access the delights of reading for themselves.

Many teachers across Aotearoa have begun evaluating the reading models they use. A change in models means a change in teaching. The teaching involves careful lesson to text matching, including decodable texts and a careful scope and sequence for beginning instruction. It is heartening to hear these teachers tell the stories of children who previously hated reading lessons now eagerly waiting for it to be their turn. Often these children are still finding learning to read difficult, but they ARE learning to read. By changing the model of reading they use, teachers have empowered their learners with the skills to know they are “getting it, not guessing it”.

I cannot go back in time and change the outcomes for the learners I tried so hard to help. I hope the efforts I made, or the efforts of another teacher, enabled them to gain success as readers. We cannot go back, but we can move forward and ensure that teachers have the knowledge, resources, and support to provide the pathway of success for all learners.

©Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University


Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the brain: the new science of how we learn to read. Penguin Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5-21. doi:10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Goodman, K. S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6(4), 126-135.

Nicholson, T. (2004). Do children read words better in context or in lists? A classic study revisited. In D. Wray (Ed). Literacy: Major themes in education. Reading processes and teaching (Vol 2 pp 29-44). Routledge.

Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching. 3rd edition. Guilford Press.

Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523-568.

Share, D.L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine que non of reading acquisition. Cognition: International Journal of Cognitive Science; 1995 May; 55(2): 151-218

Snow, C. E., & Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulmes (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 501-520). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew Effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

1Recent advances in functional MRI confirm that activation occurs in these areas of the brain as we read. The images also show that for poor readers there is less activation in the phonological processing area. Accurate decoding of words is very limited if there is no connection between orthography and phonology.


What is decoding? Literacy is evolving

Decoding is one of the key components needed for reading success.

Good decoding skills combine with a reader’s language comprehension to enable meaningful reading of a text.

Decoding skill requires knowledge of the alphabetic principle, which is the connection between the sounds in words and the letters associated with those sounds. A reader who has good decoding skills can read familiar and unfamiliar words accurately and rapidly, as Hoover and Gough’s 1999 research showed.

Capable readers are capable decoders; they can read a list of words, whereas a struggling reader cannot. Readers with weak decoding skills rely on the sentence’s meaning and structure to compensate for lack of skill with the code. When readers rely on compensatory strategies to read unknown words, they rarely focus closely on the word. Close focus on the spelling patterns (orthography) is essential for making a map of the word for later retrieval and for that word to eventually be recognised by sight.

Why is decoding receiving so much attention?

International and national data show there is a persistent difficulty with reading achievement in New Zealand.

Teachers are realising that the current teaching approach is not sufficient for many children. One of the key problems is the range of spelling patterns in the words in the commonly used levelled books. Learners have to be directed to use strategies other than the printed code so they can work out the words. The approach makes learning to decode hard for many children and it makes teaching of reading difficult too.

Teaching decoding skills in the classroom

In order to teach children to become strong in decoding, teachers need strong teacher knowledge about the code, support of a scope and sequence of skills and books that are decodable along that scope.

Decodable texts introduce spelling patterns gradually, giving children time to make orthographic maps and allowing teachers to teach the patterns of print explicitly and systematically.

Effective classroom practice for ensuring good decoding skills includes:
● poems, rhymes, alliteration, hearing sounds in words, phonological awareness
● securing alphabet: letter shapes, sounds, names and formation;
● explicit teaching of blending sounds for decoding and segmenting for spelling;
● multiple opportunities to read and spell words successfully; and
● children applying skills to read decodable books and write dictated sentences.

For reading to be successful, decoding skill is not sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary.

Written by Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University

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