California Panel Urges State Board To Pick Reading Textbooks With 'Real Literature'

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In a move that could affect the content of basal readers used in schools nationwide, a California commission last week recommended that the state adopt texts that stress "real literature" over step-by-step skill development and drills.

Long a bellwether state in the textbook field because of its huge market size, California has asserted growing influence over content in recent years with its development of curricular "frameworks" in various subject areas that guide the selection of texts.

Over the past two years, the state's board of education has rejected all science and mathematics textbook series submitted for adoption because of their failure to adhere to the frameworks.

And the board's decision on the list of 23 K-8 English and language-arts series sent to it last week by the state's curriculum-development and supplemental-materials commission is sure to be closely watched nationally in a year that one publishing-industry official calls "the biggest in my memory" for reading-text adoptions.

The California panel's recommendations have raised some concerns among educators, particularly its suggestion that the board not adopt any spelling textbooks or supplemental materials.

But most have praised their emphasis on literature, which includes a possible requirement that publishers affix a "consumer warning label'' to indicate whether literary works have been abridged or adapted.

"These recommendations give us books with real literature--with real values and ideals--not soft, shallow children's stories," said Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction. "They restore high-quality literature to its key place in the curriculum."

Kenneth G. Goodman, a leading critic of basal readers, called the commission's proposals "forward progress," but added, "I wish they weren't going to make any adoptions at all."

"That would send a strong message to publishers," said Mr. Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona. "Publishers want to change, but as long as what they are producing is selling, they aren't going to change."

But several publishers, as well as some academic observers, say the commission erred in rejecting some textbooks that have proven effective in teaching reading.

The state's English-language-arts curriculum framework, which sets standards for textbook adoption in the field, is "a nice philosophical document," according to Jean Osborn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, "but as a prescription for action, it is untried."

"We don't know how teachers would take to it," Ms. Osborn said, "or how students would thrive in what they [California officials] perceive is an ideal classroom."

Francie Alexander, California's associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional assessment, responded that the framework has won national acclaim from reading experts, and predicted that the goals outlined in the document would contribute to higher levels of literacy.

But, she acknowledged, the materials recommended by the curriculum commission may not match that ideal.

"It's clear that we see this as a transition," she said. "We're not saying we're there."

"We have not yet discovered the North Pole," Ms. Alexander added. ''We know the direction. This is a step."

The curriculum commission adopted its recommendations in July, after the English and language arts subject-matter committee--a panel of 82 teachers, curriculum specialists, administrators, and library-media specialists--reviewed more than 7,000 items submitted for adoption.

Although local schools are not prohibited from buying materials4that are not adopted, they may only use state funds for approved materials.

The board's recommendations are expected also to influence officials in the many other states that will purchase new language-arts textbooks next year.

In addition to California, eight other states are adopting reading series this year, and many publishers produced new editions to match those adoption schedules. As a result, many schools in the 22 states that do not adopt textbooks statewide will likely purchase those new series next year, according to Donald A. Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.

"This is the biggest year in my memory as far as reading is concerned," he said.

The adoption process has sharpened the debate in the reading field between advocates of phonics--who argue that students should be taught to decode words by sounding them out--and adherents of the "whole language" method--who contend that students should be taught to read by reading whole words within whole works of literature.

The California framework appears to favor the whole-language approach.

"Although students in the early grades must be taught to identify individual words by sounding them out and using context clues," it states, "the most effective teaching techniques help students get to sense quickly, often leaving the more difficult task of learning individual words until after students have experienced the delight of understanding meaning in sentences."

But Ms. Alexander noted that the framework also calls for "intensive" phonics instruction in the early grades.

"All series [recommended for adoption] provide some decoding strategies," she said. But such instruction "shouldn't happen after one or two years."

One publisher who was unsuccessful in the adoption process said the commission failed to adhere to that standard.

"California's evaluation system failed," said M. Blouke Carus, publisher of Open Court Publishing Company. "Instead of singling out Open Court as the one program that really is consistent with the framework, Open Court was almost the only publisher whose program was not recommended for adoption."

The Open Court Reading and Writing series was recommended for adoption in grades 3-6, but Mr. Carus said that was "tantamount to rejection," since schools seldom buy books just for those grades.

Ms. Alexander defended the evaluation process, noting that the commission chose books that stressed literature in all grades. Those that were rejected, she said, placed too much of an emphasis on "the pieces that make up language."

Other critics suggested that the commission's recommendation that California not adopt supplemental materials could pose problems in some schools.

Teachers have grown dependent on the workbooks, drill pads, software, and other items that have accompanied basal readers, noted Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, the author of a recent critique of textbooks issued by the Council for Basic Education.

Refusing to adopt them, she said, would be like "asking an addict to go cold turkey."

Such materials have also proven helpful to students with difficulty in learning reading, said Ms. Osborn of the University of Illinois.

"Reading instruction can encompass some things that are less ideal-sounding," she said. "Sometimes practice exercises really do help children."

But the proposal will enable teachers to devote more time to "sustained reading" and discussion, Ms. Alexander said.

"You are not going to achieve higher literacy unless the program provides time for real work with high-quality literature," she said.

Vol. 08, Issue 03

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