NCTE Issues Basal Report Card

By Bob Peterson

Not often do educators get to issue a report card on a major educational program, but the National Council of Teachers of English recently did just that. They didn’t even worry about offending the profitable textbook companies or the hundreds of thousands of teachers and administrators who swear by the basal.

The Commission on Reading of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) presented a 100 page draft “report card on basal readers” at the NCTE national meeting last November. The thorough analysis of the basal surveyed the history, economics, construction, marketing, use and misuse of the basal reading texts that dominate reading instruction in schools in the USA. The report offered some unbelievable facts about basals and posed several alternatives.

In their introduction the authors state that “so strong is the trust in the basal technology that, when children fail to learn to read easily and well through basal instruction, the blame goes either to the teacher for not following the basal faithfully or to the children, as disabled learners.” Moreover, “in many American schools [including Milwaukee] promotion from one grade to another is largely based on success or failure in the basals.” Thus the authors argue that “this absolute dominance of the basal reader…makes it essential that its nature and use be examined critically at this time.”

The basal was developed during the first two decades of the twentieth century as a way to meet “the expectations of a public and profession enthralled with business, science, and psychology as they tried to find a remedy for the apparent crisis in reading instruction in schools and for the literacy of society.” The basals were “promoted as the result of scientific study” and promised that “all children would learn to read well if teachers and students would simply follow the directions supplied in teacher’s manuals.”

An Accepted Approach

Today nearly 90% of all reading instruction is based on basal systems and most “teachers believe that the suggestions to teachers found in reading manuals are based on ‘definite scientific proof.’” Often school personnel find basals from various publishers “so similar in content and design they take that as confirmation of their scientific basis.” The report quoted the Harvard Report on Reading in Elementary Schools as saying, “It became apparent from observation by the study staff in classrooms and from interviews with school personnel that far too many teachers follow the (teacher’s) manual literally, seldom if ever exercising their own initiative and creativity in teaching reading.” According to another study cited by the NCTE report “neither the content nor the instructional design offered much structure for decision making” and it took “too much time and effort for teachers to render basal materials substantively useful.”

There are also other incentives for teachers to rely solely on the basal. InTexas teachers “are subject to a $50 fine if they are caught teaching reading without an approved textbook” while in Florida a new law “set basal materials as the only legal means to provide reading instruction and it set basal publishers as the instructional monitors of teachers’ instruction.” The bottom line, according to the report, is that “the selection of a basal reader is tantamount to selecting the reading curriculum.” 

In fact over 300 million dollars are spent on basals yearly compared to about 72 million on juvenile trade hardback and softcover books. Of that only $3 million are spent on paperbacks. “Many states restrict or prohibit spending of state textbook funds for trade books.”

Basals and Accountability

One of the more telling insights of the report is how, once in place, the basal becomes the focus of accountability systems for a district, with the tesis that accompany the basal serving as a basis to “monitor teachers’ adherence to the schedule or implementation of directives” and to “keep track of teachers’ and students’ use of basal materials without intrusive observation.” The report concludes “more than anything else the basals are built around control: they control reading; they control language; they control learners; they control teachers. And this control becomes essential to the tight organization and sequence. Any relaxation of the control in any of these elements would appear to undermine the whole system. That’s why publishers admonish teachers not to wander from the direction of the manuals; that’s why administrators issue mandates requiring teachers to be faithful to the program.”

Although marketing pressures from publishers and legislative prodding are significant, teachers themselves are for a large part responsible for the widespread use of the basal system. Such strict compliance of over 90% of the teachers “who are spread across the country and are allowed to teach behind closed doors” would not be possible “unless the group agreed with the practice in some way.” The Report points out that “most teachers seem to go along with the technical use of basals even though it works against their professional status to do so.” The Report rhetorically asks, “Why do so many teachers act in this apparently irrational fashion?” and answers, the “teachers’ internalization of the rhetoric that has surrounded basal materials from the beginning.”

Teachers as Technicians

The Report charges that basals put teachers into the role of “scripted technicians” who faithfully follow the detailed lesson plans provided in the teachers manual. The report notes the advantages of this role: “The teacher needs to do little planning other than reviewing the manual to make sure that the right components are available at the time they are needed. The workbooks, skill sheets, and other materials keep the pupils occupied in what the manual says are necessary, activities. The pupils appear to be ‘on task.’ Also, the teacher need not learn more about the teaching and learning of reading since all that is handled by the program. Most important, by following the manual diligently, accepting the premise that the experts who wrote it must know what they are doing, the teacher need feel neither responsibility nor guilt if some pupils are unsuccessful. The teacher role assigned by the basal is a relatively safe refuge for teachers, particularly those with self doubts or for the teacher under pressure from administrators for assured results on the standardized tests.” The heart of the report deals with the nature of the contemporary basal. All the basals use words and skills as sequenceable components and thus a “major organizing principle of basal readers is that learning to read is, more than anything else, learning words and skills for identifying words.” This stands in sharp contrast to the recent reading research that sees reading as a constructive, interactive process principally focused on meaning.

Because reading is considered above all “identIfying words” all basals use controlled vocabulary as a major sequencing element, relying on word frequency lists and introducing the words in such a way that each new word is repeated several times. This concern for controlled vocabulary has led publishers to produce “synthetic” “stories” composed of words that are explicitly taught. Stories such as the following become the first that many children encounter.

We Can Go
I can go. Can you go?
Help! Help! I can not go.
I will help you. You can go.
I will go.
I will help you go.
You can not help.
Can you go?
We can go.
We can.

(Houghton-Mifflin, Level B, Preprimer)

The text relates to a story about roller skating so the pictures bring meaning to the reader. However, the words in the text are, with the exception of help and go, function words. The report concludes that “the text is not nature language…[and] could not occur outside of this pre-primer genre.”

In addition to creating sterile, unnatural text, the basals also substantially revise and abridge traditional folk tales, and classic fictional pieces by famous authors so they fit the vocabulary sequence. Very frequently, this process so substantially distorts the content and style of the original text that the resulting text lacks the elements which made it rich and timeless in the first place. Consider how the Harcourt company rewrote Gerald McDermott’s rendition of a famous Japanese folktale. Here is how McDermott begins his retelling of The Stonecutter.

Tasuko was a lowly stonecutter. Each day the sound of his hammer and chisel rang out as he chipped away at the foot of the mountain. He hewed the blocks of stone that formed the great temples and palaces.

He asked for nothing more than to work each day, and this pleased the spirit who lived in the mountains. (McDermott, 1975)

Here’s the beginning of Harcourt’s retelling of the same folktale:

Once there was a strong man. Each morning he went to the mountain. There he dug up stones. He broke them into pebbles with a large .^steel hammer. He carried the pebbles to the village, where he sold them. (Harcourt, Level 8, Grade 3) 

Though these pieces have been revised almost beyond recognition, they still carry the famous author’s name.

The Roots of Rigidity

The NCTE Reading Commission does not hesitate in its search for an explanation as to why basal reader publishers develop such rigid views of words and skills. The report traces the basal’s obsession with scope and sequence of skills to a view of language “espoused by behavioral psychologists…that language is habitual behavior learned through responses to environmental stimuli.” The report notes that this behaviorist view contrasts with other views that have emerged in the past few decades. A variety of social scientists, including people such as Noam Chomsky and Eric Lenneberg have argued the development of language is predicated on a dialectical notion of interaction between the learner and the family and community.

The basals, however, still largely adhere to the behaviorist view which sees that “reading is learned a word, a sound, or a skill at a time,” which is why such sanctity is granted to their scope and sequence charts.

The basal companies have not ignored the recent research on reading and language acquisition. But after extensive study the NCTE authors conclude that “the basals do not reflect the influence of this view except in choice of terminology.” Thus textbook adoption committees that do not approach reading in an in depth manner, “might be taken in by this up to date jargon. The report questioned the operation of most bas^ textbook selection committees, stating that “little time is devoted to the actual examination of basal materials [but] that the committee members work from checklists which emphasize the presence of factors rather than an evaluation of their quality.”

The focus of the basals is not on supporting development of the strategies for comprehending: rather it remains on the products of comprehension represented by Ae students ability to produce ‘correct’ answers to arbitrary questions. In the basals, most of the ‘teaching’ of comprehension came through the use of questions before, during and after the reading of stories, and the arbitrary questions used frequently required single correct answers directly from the text. In the Holt series, for example, the NCTE found that 63% to 98% of the questions required only one correct answer. Despite the basal companies claim to the contrary their focus is still lower level questioning ‘skills.’

Many basals present a ridiculous, contrived text in the lower grades, and revised and shortened slices of literature in the upper grades. The revisions often involve “shortening sentences, substituting more frequent for less frequent words and phrases, using shorter words, simplifying syntax, eliminating or modifying plot features.”

The real tragedy is that testing — what the report calls “the essence of the program” — is even more contrived and arbitrary than the texts themselves. And it is these test results which drive the whole evaluation of the curriculum and have profound effects on the lives of the students. The report asserts that “more vital decisions are made in American schools on the basis of the tests in the basal reading programs than on the basis of any other tests including the achievement tests.” Decisions include ability grouping within classes, progress from level to level, placing of students within certain classrooms, promotion and retention of students, and decisions are “even made about the effectiveness of teachers and schools on the basis of their pupils’ basal test scores.”

inherent in the logic of the basal is that “teachers and administrators will put their heaviest emphasis on the aspects of the programs which are tested and spend less time on those elements which are not.”

The NCTE report says the basal tests are invalid and unreliable. There has been no field testing of tests in question and the variance in what constitutes mastery of a given skill with basals tests ranging from 67% to 100%. The report concluded “that there is no evidence, in their design or in their apparent development, that they meet theoretical criteria for the type of testing they represent (if they represent any at all)…the tests are…simply arbitrary sets of questions labeled to conform to the program objective label.”

This conclusion comes after an examination of the tests of the eleven different basal series reviewed by the Commission. Besides their general criticisms they detailed 20 specific problem areas. A major criticism of the NCTE Commission and one that has been frequently voiced by teachers, is that there is hardly any reading on the tests. How is it possible to test for comprehension or main idea when the tests rely on synthetically constructed, short passages? They give an example from Harcourt Level 2 Cumulative Test:

A cat ran after Mouse
Mouse hid, but the cat
met Mouse in the grass,
Mr. Fig helped Mouse.
The cat ran away

Choose the main idea:
( ) Mouse hid in the grass.
( ) Mr. Fig helped Mouse.
( ) Mr. Fig saw a cat.

Life Without Basals?

Can teachers teach without basals? This is one question addressed in the final section. The report states, “because it has taken a certain amount of courage, particularly in the United States, for teachers to move away from basals and toward whole language, it is sometimes suggested that only highly competent teachers can do without basals. While we would not argue that success without basals does not require competent teachers, neither can we accept the view that incompetent teachers can be successful with the basals or that the control of the basal can compensate for the incompetent teacher.”

The report concludes with several recommendations for the future. It does not call for the wholesale abandonment of the basal, “but rather they are not the best that modern business and science could offer our schools.” The reports says “our classrooms need to be opened to altenatives. It is time that a broadscale reconsideration of the teaching of reading in schools take place. Such rethinking requires that we also rethink the role and nature of the basal reader. The producers, the users and the public all need to be involved in this reconsideration.”


The NCTE Commission on Reading makes many recommendations including:

  1. Making it legitimate for teachers to choose not to use basals….
  2. Providing alternative materials for non-basal teaching [which] …means making the funds that would be spent on the basals available to purchase children’s literature of a wide variety to establish classroom libraries.
  3. Providing staff development and administrative support for teachers to develop non-basal alternatives…,
  4. Refocusing school district policies so they center on making sense of print and not on gain[ing] scores on tests. That means encouraging a wide range of evaluative procedures which go beyond testing skills.”

They also call on teachers individually or collectively to:

  1. Develop…a clear position of their own on how reading is best taught….
  2. Take back authority and responsibility in their classrooms for making basic decisions….
  3. Through their organizations … reject use of materials, including basals, which make them less than responsible professionals.”

For policy makers they recommend that:

  1. State and local text selection committees should be authorized to make no adoption or to recommend non-basal alternatives for reading instruction.
  2. Laws and regulations that favor or require use of basals should be changed so that:

a) state funds may be used for non-basal materials
b) schools may use programs that do not have traditional basal components. 
c) no teacher could be forced to use materials they found professionally objectionable.”

What impact the actual report will have is yet to be seen. But with a major California textbook adoption happening within a year, and continuing debate over illiteracy and the problems of “at-risk” students, the report will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers.

Bob Peterson is a fifth grade teacher at Vieau school and is a member of the Milwaukee Reading Textbook Adoption Committee.

Persons interested in obtaining Report Card on Basals can write to Rethinking Schools and enclose $8.50.