Should Children Read During Reading Instruction?

Whole Books vs. Basals

By Bob Peterson

Yet the media do not focus on this dislike of reading instruction as they examine illiteracy in America, nor is this situation emphasized by government reports that expose how poorly schools teach basic skills. Other than in a few classrooms and teacher lounges, one hears no challenge to the way reading is “taught” in an estimated 95% of elementary schools: the basal reader system.

While we can trace much of the illiteracy crisis to the nature of schooling in general, the method of reading instruction contributes significantly to the problem by parceling literature into meaningless units and transforming the experience of reading into an endless sequence of dull exercises. Rather than an exhaustive critique of the basal system, however, this article will pose an approach to the teaching of reading in elementary schools which requires students to read whole books. This holistic approach has proven successful in both laboratory and public school settings. (For descriptions of such successes see Dec. 14, 1983 issue of Education Week).

The basic premise of this “whole” or “trade book” method is simple: children learn how to read and the value of reading, by reading.

The basal approach, such as the Scott, Foresman system used in MPS, breaks down reading into hundreds of compartmentalized skills and emphasizes the acquisition of these separate skills above all other objectives. Workbooks, pupil lesson sheets and practice sheets tend to dominate reading time. Certainly the quality of the short stories and excerpts from children’s literature in the basals has improved in the past two decades, but the stories in most basals, such as MPS’s Scott, Foresman, are thrown together eclectically with little continuity of vocabulary or theme, making vocabulary instruction difficult and ongoing interdisciplinary approaches with science or social studies nearly impossible. Worst of all, children learn to associate reading with workbook pages, lesson sheets, section and end of the books tests — everything but reading.

The tradebook approach, on the other hand, emphasizes reading high quality children’s books in homogenous groups of 7 or 8. Instead of breaking down reading into little parts, the approach emphasizes the synthesis of meaning. Crestwood School in Madison has used this approach since 1971. In the words of its principal, Joanne Yatvin, “we continually ask students to bring together their literal comprehension, intuitions, feelings, and aesthetic responses into a holistic understanding of what a writer is trying to say and do with the book.”

Writing, discussion and silent reading dominate the reading periods, with functional skills being taught within the context of whole books. At least one half hour of silent reading takes place daily’; this gives children ample time to finish their assignment and enjoy other reading. According to Yatvin, “During a year 35 to 45 books are used with a class, depending on the number of functioning groups…[and] each child will read eight to nine books for instructional reading.” 

The school as a whole buys sets of children’s paperbacks, and teachers develop units, with comprehension questions, writing and thinking activities, enrichment ideas, etc. to be used with particular books. Books include science, novels, poetry, biographies, science fiction, factual pieces, and short stories. Books can be chosen which highlight cultural and linguistic diversity as opposed to the ethnocentric characterizations and the sanitized language of most Basal reader selections. Such selections both broaden and deepen children’s understanding of the world.

In Crestwood School the tradebook approach is used most widely in the intermediate grades, and increasingly in third grade. In other schools teachers incorporate whole books into the reading program of first and second grade.

Donelle Johnson, currently an elementary teacher at 21st Street School, says that years ago she worked in a school that had a “multi-textbook policy.” She used a “combination of things,” including a variant of the tradebook approach by having children read paperbacks on an individualized basis. With 8 to 10 reading levels in her room, she thinks that having the children read whole books “stimulated their interest in reading.”

Presently, the’ rigid emphasis on the basal throughout the Milwaukee system requires a teacher to be clever and innovative in their implementation of a whole book policy. For example, Flory Sommers, currently at Longfellow School, explained how in her split 4th-5th class she implemented a partial trade book policy during her regular basal reading time. “I bought 8 to 10 sets of paperback books that I liked and the children chose which book they wanted to read.” She then developed vocabulary exercises and questions to “guide the readers.” She admitted it took some work, but added, “once you’ve done the questions, you have it!” She only used the basal selectively, choosing the stories and skills she thought her students needed, with the rest of the time devoted to reading and discussion of the books.

Point to a Story

Sommers contends that “when a writer writes a book she or he does so for a purpose, but when they write a story for a basal reader their purpose is just to use certain words. There isn’t a point to the story.”

The Scott, Foresman basal does have literary units which include quality literature, but their inclusion causes other problems. Vocabulary development is difficult, not worth the time and effort. For example, the selection from O’Dells Island of the Blue Dolphins in Scott, Foresman’s Sky Climbers, the 5th grade basal reader, contains so much unusual vocabulary that it makes the excerpt difficult to teach and unlikely that students will retain much from the short selection. Teaching words such as headland, sandspit, Aleut, Ghalasat, and pitch, seems futile and wasteful for a piece that students and teachers might spend only a day or two on. If the whole book were read, however, there would be greater incentive to learn unusual words because they would help unlock the marvelous world the novel creates. Sommers adds that “for character portrayal to occur you need to read a whole book, not just a short 5 or 6 page story.” One only has to think about Karana, the Indian child who was accidentally left to live alone on an island off California between 1835 and 1852, and the changes she went through in O’Dell’s (Newberry) Award winning book, to realize how much benefit children would receive from reading the entire book.

Sommers and other teachers who have used the trade book approach tell how their students’ appetite for reading grows. The more diversity students are exposed to in good literature, Sommers says, the more interested they become in reading. As opposed to what is usually seen as the colorless style of most basals, Sommers points out that it is the style of the author that comes through in reading a novel that is important. “That’s why books are written and that’s why people don’t go out and buy basal readers to read for enjoyment.”

Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at our basal reader approach to the teaching of reading.

Bob Peterson teaches 5th grade at Vieau Elementary School.