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Critique Terms Basal Readers Outmoded, Urges Spread of 'Real Book' Alternatives

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A commission of the National Council of Teachers of English last week urged schools to break the strong grip basal readers have on reading instruction and allow teachers to put "real children's books by real writers" into the heart of the curriculum.

In its draft "report card on basal readers," the council's commission on reading argued that the textbooks are based on outmoded theories of teaching and learning that wrongly take decisionmaking out of the hands of teachers and students.

Basal readers constitute the main source of reading instruction in nearly 90 percent of U.S. elementary-school classrooms.

"More than anything else, the basals are built around control," states the report, presented at a conference held in conjunction with the ncte's annual meeting in Los Angeles. "They control reading; they control language; they control learners; they control teachers."

"If there were evidence that this tight control was necessary to the development of reading, then we might grudgingly tolerate it," it continues.

"But the evidence from recent theory and research is that reading, like all language, only develops easily and well in the context of its use. Simply speaking, we learn to read by reading, and there is precious little reading in the basal programs."

The commission urged textbook authors, editors, and publishers to support innovative alternatives to basal readers, and noted that such alternatives can only be developed if teachers and administrators signal their willingness to buy them.

It recommended that administrators give teachers the freedom to choose their instructional materials and urged teachers to develop positions on how reading is best taught.

But a publisher of one of the leading basal series called the commission "short-sighted," and said it ignored research that showed the effectiveness of basal readers and other alternatives.

"Indeed, the report exercises such tunnel vision in this regard as to make one suspect that the entire document may have been constructed as a polemic for a particular approach to reading," said James R. Squire, a consultant for the Lexington, Mass.-based Silver Burdett & Ginn.

1920's Model

According to the commission, basal readers were developed in the 1920's as a way of applying the then-current theories of learning and classroom management.

"Promoted as the result of scientific study," the report states, "basal materials promised that all children would learn to read well if teachers and students would simply follow the directions supplied in teachers' manuals."

Since then, the basals have become entrenched in elementary classrooms, commission members said, with the books themselves and the tests that are based on them driving the curriculum.

"If school districts pay thousands of dollars for materials, they are going to be used," said Dorothy Watson, professor of education at the University of Missouri-Columbia and chairman of the commission.

"It's a circular thing," she said. "Once in place, they can't be pried out."

But the use of such prepackaged materials is harmful, commission members argued, because it allows teachers little discretion in determining how they will teach.

In contrast to the teachers of the 1920's, they said, today's teachers are well educated and aware of new directions in education research.

"There is little justification for treating today's professionals as incompetent to make instructional decisions, plan curriculum, organize and locate and make available materials for pupils to read," the report states.

'Whole Language'

In addition, the document questions the educational soundness of the method of reading instruction used in the basal readers.

According to the commission, basal readers break the task of reading down into component parts, which are then taught in a controlled, sequential, and explicit manner. In such a framework, the report says, "reading is learned a word, a sound, or a skill at a time."

When the basals employ actual stories, it says, they are censored to avoid offending ethnic or political groups, or abridged or revised to fit the scope-and-sequence criteria of the series.

By contrast, currently accepted learning theory holds that students learn to read best by reading whole words, passages, and texts, according to Ms. Watson.

"Students need whole stories, whole discussions," she said. "Now, they have workbooks that ask them to circle the median consonant. That's not the way we learn language. It simply isn't."

Ms. Watson added that there is a "groundswell of teachers" eager to apply such "whole language" methods of instruction, but they feel constrained to use the basal readers.

Rather than eliminate the basals, the commission report recommends, schools should give teachers the authority to choose whatever method of instruction they consider most effective.

"The purpose of this report card on basals is not to suggest that they be immediately and universally abandoned, but rather that they are not the best that modern business and science could offer our schools," the report states.

"Our classrooms need to be8opened to alternatives. It is time that a broadscale reconsideration of the teaching of reading in schools take place."

Council Resolutions

In other action at its annual meeting, the ncte:

Adopted a resolution opposing curricula that reduce literature to "the accumulation of particular facts, such as titles, names, phrases, and dates."

The resolution, which appears to be in response to critics such as E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, also opposes efforts "to deny a multicultural student population access to literature which represents all cultures."

Urged state legislators and local school officials to provide funding for credentialed librarians in every public elementary and secondary school.

Commended the National Writing Project, a network of some 160 local programs that train teachers in writing, as a "successful reform movement" that fuses research and practice to improve the teaching of writing.

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