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3 Reasons to Rethink Your Basal Reader

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Currently in my district at the elementary level, we are in the process of strategically moving away from our basal reading program. We’ve already “cut out” its writing component, as next year we’ll be hitting the ground running with Writing Workshop and the Units of Study. Also, we’ve begun the process of designing our own reading comprehension instruction with the assistance of Reading with Meaning, Strategies That Work, and Notice & Note (both fiction and non-fiction).

Now, while it may be “cool” and trendy to hate on textbooks, for the benefit of all parties involved – students, parents, teachers, administrators, etc. – I believe it’s important to be able to articulate why we are choosing to deemphasize the program.

With these thoughts in mind, here are three reasons to rethink your basal reader.

1. No Books! No Engagement!

About eight years ago I was teaching my first class, which consisted of 23 third grade students. A month or so into this experience my mother asked me what my students were reading…My response went a little something like, “We normally don’t read books; we have a textbook.”

I truly didn’t realize the error of my ways until two years later when I was teaching fourth grade and one of my students, Kevin, asked why literature circles couldn’t involve chapter books (as opposed to the leveled readers that came with the reading program)…Roughly two weeks after he made that comment I had shelled out a few hundred dollars of my own money on Ebay, and the classroom was complete with a bookshelf full of book sets, both classic and current. While we still used some of the stories from the text, we balanced them with the books and various articles from magazines and the Internet. (By the way, if you have yet to check out Newsela and Wonderopolis, you’re seriously missing out!)

As an elementary school student, some of my favorite books included: The Indian in the Cupboard, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Number the Stars, Ice Magic, and the Goosebumps series. I can’t even imagine what would have happened to my love of reading had I not been provided opportunities to dig into these classics with encouragement and support from my teachers…First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement…Never underestimate the impact an engaging chapter book can have on a child (or adult). As Debbie Miller says about one of her students, “Because he knows so much about the topic and his motivation is high, he’s able to read a book of greater difficulty than a traditional assessment might indicate.”

2. Theme-Based, Not Based on Enduring Understandings

According to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, one of the “twin sins” of unit design is activity-focused teaching in which many activities are based on a common theme, but a deeper understanding of content is not prioritized. The authors cite the example of third grade students who read about apples in Language Arts, collect leaves from an apple tree in art class, sing about apples in music, design an applesauce recipe in math, etc.

This type of instruction reminds me of the units from my fourth grade Language Arts basal, which were focused on different themes: facing challenges, getting the job done, imagination at work, etc. While these themes may feel “cute” (much like the apple activities), I question how much they enhance learning, especially when there’s no emphasis on common vocabulary from story to story…Instead, ideally, activities and units should be based on enduring understandings, which “are statements summarizing important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and having lasting value beyond the classroom. They synthesize what students should understand – not just know or do – as a result of studying a particular content area.”…In regards to Language Arts, a prime example of an enduring understanding around which a unit (and genre study) could be designed is, “An author uses a particular genre to develop, shape, and communicate ideas.”

Disclaimer: Once again, please keep in mind, although many may feel Understanding by Design units (which involve enduring understandings) are ideal for curriculum design (and I can’t necessarily disagree), this type of planning is easier said than done. Furthermore, from my experiences, constructing these types of units for elementary level Language Arts is easily the most difficult level/subject combination to tackle.

3. Program-Aligned Instruction, Not Standards-Aligned

According to Mark Weakland, one of the reasons why districts prefer basal readers is because “the program provides consistency across the grade levels and between district buildings.” This is an argument I can understand. After all, “moving away from the series” could result in gaps in student learning…gaps which could potentially be that much more glaring and problematic as students get older.

Nonetheless, there are two problems with this argument:

  1. If a program is (1) the focal point of student learning, but (2) is aligned to outdated standards, students are technically learning the “wrong” material in the first place.
  2. More notable is the potential disconnect between a basal reader and how students should be taught. As Dylan Wiliam wrote, “Pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.” I have yet to meet a program that truly satisfies the how.

So, how do we deal with these two problems? Here are a few solutions, one problem at a time:

  1. If your program is at least a handful of years old, the odds are it needs to be realigned to the Common Core. For my thoughts on this transition, check out “Common Core Approved Cafeteria Milk.” In short, I recommend adapting your old materials, as opposed to buying a new series. “Simply purchasing a new series could most likely lead to teachers ‘doing the same thing’ but with new materials, treating the series as if it is the curriculum when it is just a tool or resource.” Also, if you’re looking to enhance your current textbooks, make sure to explore Achieve the Core’s Basal Alignment Project.
  2. If your goal it to move instruction forward (the how)…simply put…Invest in teachers, not programs. For example, as previously mentioned, we have been exploring various books to infuse current reading instruction with (1) more close reading and (2) consistent, explicit comprehension strategies K-5. I’m a huge fan of book studies, as they promote clear direction while leaving room for teachers to think for themselves.

In the End

Student engagement, deeper learning, and standards-aligned instruction are just three of the many glaring reasons why we need to rethink basal readers.

If your district motto is, “There’s a program for that!” how much faith are you putting in your teachers? How much are you really building educator (and student) capacity if teacher manuals are the answers to all your problems?

Teachers should be engineers of learning experiences, not factory workers who simply follow directions after publishers have made all the important decisions...Teaching is an art form, and it should be treated as such.

What are your overall thoughts on basal readers? How much does your school/district emphasize them? How have you seen schools/districts successfully deemphasize them?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.

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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Wednesday, 07 December 2016