The Importance of Controlled Readers

What are Controlled Readers?

And Why are they Important to Emerging and Struggling Readers?

Controlled Readers are an excellent resource for beginning and struggling readers, yet they are seldom used in most reading programs.   They are extremely effective for helping students gain confidence in reading while also building fluency.  Controlled Readers are a series of short stories that typically follow the sequence of skills taught in a particular program.  What makes them different from Leveled Readers is that they only contain the skills the student has specifically learned.   A Leveled Reader may emphasize a particular skill the student is practicing but they also contain many patterns the student has not learned.

Syllable Patterns

Some of the main syllable patterns that are taught to students are listed below.  They are listed in the order of frequency that they are used in the English language.

In Kindergarten, students often start learning the first pattern, the Consonant-Vowel-Consonant pattern (CVC) or closed syllable pattern.  These are typically one syllable words with short vowels, like “sit”, “hot” and “pan”.  This is the most common syllable type, so it makes sense that we start to teach reading with this pattern.

Leveled Reader vs. Controlled Reader

The next set of pictures shows an example of a Leveled Reader vs. a Controlled Reader.  The words in the text are color-coded to match the syllable types listed above.  Both contain beginning first grade level text.


At this point, most students have learned the CVC pattern (blue) and a few sight words (red).  As you can see, the Controlled Reader (right) has all blue and red words, whereas, the Leveled Reader contains a mix of syllable types, including patterns the student has not learned.

My Story

When my daughter was in Kindergarten, the teacher focused on teaching the CVC pattern.  My daughter could read and spell words containing this pattern pretty accurately.  She left kindergarten on grade level.  Three weeks into first grade, I received a letter stating she was behind in reading and they wanted to pull her out a half hour a day for remediation.  I was shocked and berated myself for not working with her more over the summer.  I readily agreed to the extra help.

When conference time came around, I saw the reading specialist and asked her what they were working on.  She looked at me and said, “short u makes the /u/ sound”.  I thought this was odd since my daughter could read and spell words containing short vowels with accuracy.   The reading specialist must have noted the expression on my face because she said, “Well your daughter is at a Level 7 and she really should be at a Level 10”.  I asked her what was the difference between a Level 7 book and a Level 10 book.  She looked at me and asked, “What do you mean?”  I wasn’t exactly sure how to reword my question, so I did what many people do, I slowed my words down and enunciated my question more clearly.  “What is  the  skill  difference   between   a   Level  7  book   and  a  Level  10  book?”  In our program, Phonics First®, three levels would mean the difference between three specific skills.  She still didn’t understand my question so I asked her to send me a copy of a Level 7 book and a Level 10 book.

When I took a look at both books I was shocked.  I thought, “of course she can’t read these books!”  They contained silent-e words, vowel teams, diphthongs; patterns that had not been taught to her yet in the first two months of first grade.  To me, this is similar to teaching a child addition and then giving her a worksheet with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and then saying there is something wrong with the child because she isn’t successful.  I found it shocking that this is standard practice with most reading programs!


Fast-forward fifteen years.  As a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and Instructor, I see this scenario happen often.  Many of the students we see at our Learning Centers do not have a learning disability; they simply struggle to learn to read the way it is presented.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against the use of Leveled Readers.  But they should be used in conjunction with Controlled Readers.   The Leveled Readers give the student the practice they need to read uncontrolled text.  Yet, if we truly want to assess students’ reading skills based on the skills we have directly taught, it’s important to provide texts that limit the patterns that have not been taught.  And if we want students to practice reading the skills that have been directly taught, then we must provide controlled text.

Controlled Readers are Important!

Controlled Readers can be difficult to find.  They are typically part of a particular program and follow the sequence of that program.  The good news is most Orton-Gillingham based programs use Controlled Readers and they all follow a similar sequence.  At our Learning Centers we use the Controlled Readers that go with our Phonics First® program, however, we supplement them with additional Controlled Readers such as S.P.I.R.E., Wilson, and Alphabet Readers.  Over the years, we’ve worked with many struggling and emerging readers.  They are often pleasantly surprised to find they can, not only read the controlled text, but that it takes less effort.  They start reading more accurately, build speed, and gain confidence.  For many students, Controlled Readers are an essential tool for creating fluent readers.

Stephanie Cork, CALP CDP

Stephanie is the Director of Program Development for Brainspring Educator Academy.

Director of Program Development


8 replies
  1. Jocelyn
    Jocelyn says:

    Why aren’t you against the use of levelled readers? Until the child has sufficiently learned the full Code of English levelled readers leave them open to guessing strategies and confusion. What point would you use levelled readers in conjunction with controlled/decodable readers?

    • Stephanie Cork
      Stephanie Cork says:

      Hi Jocelyn,

      That is a good question. I mainly stick with controlled readers with emerging readers and students who are really struggling; especially at first. But after they become more confident and their skills improve, we start to introduce decodable and leveled readers in addition to the controlled readers. Every lesson should end with the controlled reader that goes with the lesson. If there is more time for oral reading, I will either move on to additional controlled readers, or decodable and leveled readers if I feel the student is ready for them. I wish there were more controlled readers available to give the students more options.

  2. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    EXCELLENT article, and this is SO true: “I see this scenario happen often. Many of the students we see at our Learning Centers do not have a learning disability; they simply struggle to learn to read the way it is presented.” I think we have too many struggling readers because as you stated: ” they struggle to learn to read the way it is presented.” Sad and frustrating

  3. Charmane
    Charmane says:

    I am a K-5 Reading Intervention teacher. I am so glad to finally hear someone agree with exactly my thoughts on the topic.
    Beginning readers and students who struggle need controlled vocabulary to build early decoding skills! Being successful at decoding builds confidence and reading enjoyment. It is unfair to expect students to read texts containing words beyond what they have been explicitly taught. Save those texts for read alouds!

    • Stephanie Cork
      Stephanie Cork says:

      Hi Marlene,
      Decodable text is really any text a particular student is capable of reading. So what is decodable to one student may not be decodable to another. They typically contain the patterns and words that have been directly taught. Many decodable readers are controlled or mostly controlled. But a true controlled reader will ONLY contain the specific skills taught. For example, if a student has not learned the letter/sound for “P” then there will be no words in the story with the letter “P”. The text will also only contain the specific Red or Sight words taught. Controlled Readers typically go with a specific program and follow the sequence of that program. The controlled readers are used at the end of the lesson to tie in the newly taught skill and practice it in application along with the other skills the student has specifically learned. From there, a teacher might move on to additional decodable text or leveled readers.


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