Recipe for Teaching Reading: ‘Hold the Basal’

By Rita Tenorio

“It is important for the school system to offer opportunities for teachers to learn about other methods, to give those who have ideas a chance to share with their colleagues.”

A dozen children sit around their teacher. They’ve just finished singing a song for Valentine’s Day. The teacher asks them if they’d like to make a “big book” using the words of the four sentence song. Responding to an enthusiastic “Yes!” she begins to write on pieces of tagboard. She, though, is not doing the spelling; the kindergarteners give her the letter sounds they hear, and with some discussion and correction, the song is written down in minutes. The teacher tells them they will be illustrators and hands the pages to the students who quickly work together to add the hearts and flowers necessary to complete their “big book.” In another few minutes the book is finished and brought back to the whole class where everyone can read the book with ease and success.

At another school, students work in the writing center to complete their own dinosaur books. They work diligently to copy the lengthy, complex names given to  the prehistoric creatures and have no problems reading what they have written. At the same time their teacher is taking dictation related to the paintings other children have done the day before. Some of them have very detailed descriptions and show little hesitation in composing a story about their picture. Another group working in the blocks has finished a structure and is beginning to use “invented spelling” to make the labels necessary for the rest of the class to understand what they have created. They may ask their teacher for help with some difficult words, but clearly they have the confidence to try to write on their own and can reread the signs with no help at all.

Across town, in another five-year-old kindergarten, the children get out their journal folders. Some start by drawing a picture. The conversation at the tables is quiet and informal, as students discuss what they plan to write about that day. As the children begin to write on their individual topics, they help each other to find written words around the room. Others “sound out” a word or give clues to help a friend, like, “It starts MMMMM, like Melissa’s name.” All the children are busy, their teacher being there to check and “interpret” for those who think their parents or others might not understand their writing.

MPS Kindergartens Without Workbooks

The five-year-old students in these real Milwaukee kindergartens are reading and writing. Yet, there is not a single workbook page in sight. While words, books, and writing are an important part of each day, these students are lucky enough to be part of programs in several Milwaukee Public Schools where the Scott, Foresman basal reading program is not being used in the kindergarten. Their teachers are among a growing number of early childhood educators throughout the country who are using innovative approaches to teaching beginning reading and writing. With the support of their building administrators and permission from the MPS Central Administration, these teachers are developing successful curriculum for the emergent reader.

In recent years there has been great concern over the methods being used to teach reading in the kindergarten. Increasingly, we expect children entering first grade to be “reading”. More specifically, school systems look for proof that each child has completed a series of skills and is able to read a set of isolated “mastery words”, most of them with little relevance or meaning to most kindergarteners. Real reading involves much more. The isolated skills taught in the basal readers do little to help children make the necessary connections between oral language and the written word. (See the review of the NCTE’s Report Card in this issue.)

Immersing Children in Language

However, researchers in Australia, New Zealand and in the United States are exploring another approach which sees reading development as a process similar to children’s oral language development. Brian Cambourne, for example, believes that insights gained by looking at how infants learn to speak can be used to aid emergent readers and writers. Educators need to provide an environment that will foster the development necessary for learning to read. That environment should include immersion in the language. Children learning to speak are flooded with sounds, cadences, meanings, rhythms in meaningful, purposeful ways — whole language, not bits and pieces. Children witness thousands of demonstrations by adults and peers in the use of oral language, in functional ways, face-to-face and through a variety of other media — again in situations that are meaningful. Children are responsible for learning to talk; they decide what they will learn and when. There is no precise “scope and sequence” for learning to speak; some learn early, others later, yet by the time children are six-years-old most are fluent in their mother tongue.

In applying these thoughts to literacy, it would seem that children should then be “flooded” with printed material of all kinds: books, newspapers, magazines, signs, and other materials that communicate meaning to all of us. We as teachers should be modeling reading and writing as much as possible for them, showing them the function and purpose it has in our lives. Children should have some choice in what they want to learn and when, and they should be given ample time and opportunity to practice and develop these skills. It would be difficult to find these conditions in any basal program that isolates skills and prescribes what is to be learned when.

Do We Really Expect All Our Students To Read?

Perhaps one of the most interesting insights of Cambourne’s research relates to expectations. Every parent would readily say that they expect their child to learn to speak fluently, yet do we as teachers, and as a society, feel the same way about literacy? When one considers that children are already labeled “at risk” during their kindergarten year, and when we see the large number of first-grade failures, we have to question our expectations and our methods. Do we set up environments that will lead to success in reading and writing for all our students? Or is the use of the basal an impediment to a stimulating, nurturing setting for those who are trying to make sense of the written word?

Andrea Butler, a consultant for the Rigby Publishing Company in Australia, likes to compare the basal reader approach and the whole language approach in this way: using the basal approach with children is like asking them to put a complex jigsaw puzzle together piece by piece without ever showing them the picture on the box. They won’t know what it is that they are going to end up with. Eventually, through trial and error and horrible effort, some children will have managed to put the puzzle together, and after they’ve done it they say, “Aha!, That’s what it is. It’s reading.” The difference in a whole language program is that you are continuously showing them the picture on the box. In addition, you are taking pieces out of the puzzle and saying, “Look this is phonics,” or “Here’s punctuation,” and, in putting it back, you show how it fits.

Many kindergarten teachers have questioned the use of the basal workbook to teach reading, and this year there are several sites in MPS in which the Scott, Foresman is not being used.

Whole Language Programs in Action 

Bonnie Edwards teaches at Garfield School, where the teachers follow the program prescribed by David Weikart of the High/Scope Foundation. “Weikart is about children making choices,” Edwards says. “Children are taught to be responsible for their own learning.” Since Weikart believes that children learn best through play, direct instruction with a workbook would be very inappropriate. Instead, children plan, using books that they write in, carry out their plans and then take time each day to recall and review what they’ve done. Skills are developed in this framework through questioning techniques while they are playing, as well as through small group or individual instruction. Edwards says students at Garfield learn to read words by being involved with them every day. “They’re learning and they’re playing and they’re having fun, and they don’t even realize that they’ve done some work. They are always wanting to learn more.”

At Sherman School, Carol Herrle also uses the Weikart model. ‘We do a lot with the language experience approach, and a lot of question analysis: getting kids to think. We focus on teaching children independence and responsibility.” Sherman School uses a multicultural curriculum with a specific focus each year. This was one of the main reasons Herrle. wanted to use an alternative method. The basal reader does not fit well in this program either. Since teachers are encouraged to tie in the multicultural theme to all subject areas, Herrle found the pressures of the reading program frustrating. “It was just too much to try to do (the basal). I never had time to do anything multicultural. It’s much better this way.” This year Sherman School is focusing on Native American cultures. Herrle explains that her activity centers contain materials that will promote learning and reinforcement of the culture. “In the music center, the kids will find shakers and drums that are traditionally used by the Indian culture. With the materials in the art center they can make the props they need to play the feather game.” Experience charts will reflect the things that are learned, and the literature read to the children will contain the same themes. The centers are planned to promote active learning. Rather than being an isolated part of the curriculum, limited to a short time period, activities that promote reading can be incorporated into science, math, social studies and the arts as the children work and play in the various centers.

Chris Holicek uses the whole language approach at Victory School. She sets up an environment to promote discovery learning. Ken Goodman’s cardinal precept is the core of the Victory program. In Language and Thinking in School – A Whole Language Curriculum, Goodman stresses “no language without experience and no experience without language.” Holicek’s curriculum is based on thematic units, such as “I Am Special”, or units on seasons and family. Reading and writing are integrated into the total day’s curriculum through learning centers, journal writing, experience stories, dictation, book making, and field trips. Good literature in the form of fiction, nonfiction and poetry make up another important part of the program. While specific activities are planned for the students, there is also ample time each day for independent exploration in reading and writing. Materials are available for students to experiment with paper, try various writing instruments, design their own books and interact with books of many kinds. 

Whole language techniques and the “shared book experience” from the basis of the readiness program at Lloyd Street School, where both administrator and kindergarten teachers are enthusiastically involved. Angie Wegner has done careful research into the methods of Don Holdaway related to “big books.” Holdaway’s program focuses on making the literacy process more like the “bedtime story,” a one-on-one, warm, interactive time with little pressure, an enjoyable time where the child has control over what is being read. As Wegner states, “The books that children will choose are good stories. They are not going to pick out Sally, Dick and Jane, or ‘Run, Spot, Run,’ or for that matter Rise and Shine (an MPS basal workbook). What they are hearing is good literature, which has all the story components. They’ve got setting, mood, character. They’ve got plot, humor, conclusion. THey are satisfying as literature. Children will ask to hear those types of stories over and over again.” Holdaway sees that through the use of “big books” and other good literature we can incorporate the bedtime story concept into the classroom. By making the books very large every child is intimately involved with the pictures. The print is large and visible as the teacher points to the words while she reads. The books are very carefully chosen. Wegner says, “A good big book has to have rhythm, repetition and predictability. It’s got to be a good story, one that they will want to hear again.”

The kindergartens at Lloyd are using the shared book experience as the core. They used the money that would have been spent on workbooks to buy “big books.” Wegner identifies three important components in the program; 1) reading quality literature to children every day and making the shared book experience a part of this; 2) giving the children opportunity every day to read individually and to each other. Wegner calls this part of the day DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). “This is time for them to experiment, to discover. The priority is for children to learn to read by reading.” 3) Children do a lot of writing, in journals, making books, writing notes, using the typewriter and computer. Wegner sees literacy as an extension of a child’s oral language development that must be presented to children in very concrete, meaningful terms.

Last year at Bryant School, Marion Metzow used the Anne Adams Success in Kindergarten Reading and Writing Program. Through the use of charts, the students gain experience in oral and written language by discussion, labeling, and watching the modeling of the teacher as she writes words and sentences on the charts. Children are also encouraged to have their own set  of words that they dictate around themes that are relevant to them. This year the program has evolved into the “shared book” and language experience model where the science curriculum is used as a thematic core. Each child has opportunity to write each day in their journals or make their own book. Once again “big books” and quality children’s literature play a major role in the reading program. When Metzow returned to the classroom several years ago after having taught at the university level, she found the basal to be very ineffective in helping children to acquire the skills necessary for reading and writing. She applied for funds from the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s TAP program and used the money to set up the whole language program she uses now. As Metzow states, “I had used these techniques in various forms and new that this type of method was much better for me and my students. My background with Weikart, and the language experience approach at the primary levels showed me the value of providing a print-rich environment for kindergarten where the students are given many opportunities daily to use language in a variety of ways.”

A More Rigorous But Rewarding Approach

Whole language builds on the child’s strengths. As Angie Wegner said, “It keys in on what is right, not ^ a t they’re missing. We must trust that in the right environment learning will occur in time.” Sensitivity to a child’s development does not mean a less rigorous approach. In fact it is far from this. Each of these teachers expressed the view that the approach they use takes more work, that they spend extra time in preparation for their students, yet each expressed enthusiasm for the approach and the rewards it brings to them and their students. Teachers who have used both basal and whole language report that whole language reaches more children and teaches them better. One teacher interviewed said, “Instruction, should be geared to the group you are teaching. The workbooks don’t really meet the needs of a great portion of the students. If the children already know their letters and sounds, the workbook is way below their ability, and if they don’t, the format of the Rise and Shine workbook does not do much to teach them the skill. I haven’t missed using the workbooks at all. They are a real bore. It’s hard to get it all in and there is too much pressure to do so. Children begin to think that workbooks are reading. Parents believe that this is reading. Reading should be meaningful. Workbooks are not meaningful!”

Marion Metzow expressed concern for those teachers in the system who have never had the opportunity to teach outside the basal program, and who may not know the advantages to a whole language approach, “It is important for the school system to offer opportunities to teachers to learn about other methods, to give those who have ideas a chance to share with their colleagues.”

Metzow said that what is better for students is better for teachers as well. She saw a real plus in the idea of teachers having some say in the planning of the reading curriculum. “When teachers buy into what they are using and have some control over their teaching they are going to do a better job.”

When asked if the Weikart technique has been a challenge, Bonnie Edwards’ response was, “It sure has. I have to come up with different techniques and different ways to teach the skills. It’s a challenge, but then at the same time you don’t get bored.”

Carol Herrle sees several advantages. “There’s a real comfortable feeling and flexibility. We can take off whenever we have a meaningful experience. Something happens in the room and we can just fly with it, rather than worry about whether we are on the right page or if the next class is some pages ahead of us. I think that is a great benefit for me. But the greatest reward is watching the children and how they react to all this.”

Assessing Progress

These teachers use various means for evaluating their students. While they are using programs other than Scott, Foresman, the children are still expected to complete the kindergarten checklist for the MPS reading program and the teacher is being held accountable for their learning. What these teachers are finding, though, is that children are learning the skills, are passing the end-of-book tests with ease. But what is more important is that they are getting an in-depth understanding of the literacy process. They go beyond what might be expected of a kindergarten child. They learning to understand the connections between the spoken and written word, and developing a love of literature that is not being fostered in the basal reading program. Since the whole language approach seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the many purposes and forms of reading, a broader repertoire of reading strategies and a true appreciation for the written word researchers and teachers are working to develop assessment measures that go beyond simpler tests of skills. Some MPS teachers working with whole language supplement the basal tests with such assessment forms as observation, anecdotal records, small group assessment and one-to-one testing. There are people at work on assessment measures to help those who are using whole language to better evaluate their students’ strengths and weaknesses. This type of approach does not lend itself to a brief, simple checklist of skills, and further work on good assessment measures is necessary.

Shouldn’t We Be Considering Whole Language?

This month the Milwaukee Public Schools Reading Textbook Adoption committee will make a recommendation to the School Board regarding the programs to be used for teaching reading. Those kindergarten teachers who are not using the basal this year feel strongly that all teachers must be given the option of using a whole language- based program in lieu of the basal. Teachers should be encouraged to explore the alternatives and the school system should give support through materials and inservice around the concept. Reading research points to the need to look at alternatives to the basal reading programs promoted by large publishing companies. Locally, kindergarten teachers are having success using the whole language approach. They and others have developed programs that are working with children here in Milwaukee. Yet, even with the positive results, there is concern that the whole language approach is not being given serious consideration during this reading program adoption process.

When asked what not using the basal Reader has meant to her, Angie Wegner responded this way, “What it’s meant for the children is what I think is really important. When we were using the basal, because it is so differentiated as to who is a winner and who is a loser, there were children who by the end of kindergarten felt like failures; that reading was something that they couldn’t do. I look at my kids now, and they all, to the last one. of them, perceive themselves as readers and writers! They are all reading in some sense or another. Their attitudes are different They all say ‘I can do it.’” This is a powerful statement. One that will hopefully add to the others expressed by teachers throughout the system who are looking to make education more meaningful for their students and give them successful experiences in school.

For Further Reading:

Adams, Anne H., Johnson, Mary S., Con­nors, Judith M. Success in Kindergarten Reading and Writing. Good Year Books, 1980.

Camboume, Brian, and Turnbill, Jan. Coping With Chaos. Primary English Teaching Association, 1987.

Goodman, K.· et al. Language and Think­ing in School A Whole Language Curriculum. New York: Richard Owen Publishers, 1987.

Graves, DoInald, and Stuart, Virginia. Write From the Start: Tapping Your Child’s Natural Writing Ability. New York: New American Library, 1985.

Hohmann, Mary; Banet, Bernard; and Weikart, David P. Young Children in Action. The High/Scope Press, 1979.

Holdaway, Don, The Foundations of Literacy. New York: Ashton Scholastic, 1979.

“Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Programs for 4- and 5-Year-Olds”. Young Children. September, 1986, pp.20-29. .

Schickadanz, Judith. More Than ABC’s: The Early Stages of Reading and Writing. Washington, D.C.: The National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1986.

Rita Tenorio teaches kindergarten at Morgandale School in Milwaukee,