Students Thrive on the Whole Books Approach

By Flory Sommers

As a teacher, are you notorious for giving books as Christmas and birthday presents? The gift of good literature is a tradition for many. If you count yourself among this number, or are equally diligent in purchasing books for your own offspring, you might consider shopping for a basal reader on your next trip to your local bookstore.

Why not? Basal readers have attractive names like Hang onto Your Hats and Star Flight. There is an. illustration on almost every page and none of the stories is more than ten pages long — which is an important factor in these days of short attention spans. Many ethnic groups are represented, at least in terms-of characters’ names and illustrations, and sometimes they even all fit neatly into the same story. There is a wide array of poems, fiction, factual articles and fantasy.

Can you picture yourself eagerly selecting a basal reader as a gift, wrapping it up with the anticipation of seeing the smiles of delight with which your niece or nephew will greet the treasure unearthed from the pretty wrapping paper? 

Can you picture yourself buying a basal reader?

Why not?

Reading through a basal can be equated to being enrolled in a literature class where the text offered to you is compiled of writings by unknown authors whose works you will not find in any bookstore or library. Occasional excerpts from well-known books might also be included. (It’s sort of like walking into a movie that is half over.) Wouldn’t you prefer to read the entire book, instead of a few pages extracted from the middle of a story? Twould, and believe that my students would also.

We know, that good literature endures for centuries because good authors write with the purpose of communicating in some depth about the human condition. Well-written children’s books that were popular when you were a child are still being sold in bookstores and checked out of libraries today. But how many basal reader stories left an impact on you in your youth? How many can you even recall? These stories don’t endure. When the new basal reader seizes is adopted next year, how many stories in the current edition that Milwaukee Public Schools has been using will resurface? How many stories from “obsolete” readers have ever appeared again in subsequent texts? We can pretty well guarantee that you won’t see “Giants Are Very Brave People” or “You Look Ridiculous” outside of this crop of basal readers, and you’ll never see them again when this series is “obsolete”.

Instead of using the basal, why not teach children to read using real books? It can be done and some teachers are doing it now.

Whole Books as an Alternative 

In a recent workshop sponsored by the Wisconsin State Reading Association, four staff members from Crestwood Elementary School in Madison explained the “whole book” approach to reading instruction that they have been using school-wide for twelve years.

Principal Joanne Yatvin presented a detailed list of the scope and sequence of skills needed for reading. This is the underlying structure of the reading program at Crestwood. The staff believes that skills should not be taught in isolation, that children learn phonics inductively as well as deductively. Knowing that reading, writing and language arts are closely integrated, they have developed a program that does not include basal readers or workbooks. Instead they use “whole books”. The staff works together to prepare the materials needed. They have also developed questioning techniques and other devices to accompany instruction.

Children at the 4th and 5th grade levels read approximately twelve books a year — a spectrum that includes biographies, historical fiction, science fiction, mysteries and poetry. Instruction is given in small groups and each child has a second book at her desk to read when she has completed the paced reading assignment for the book she is reading with the teacher. There is-an established period of silent reading daily when children are either reading the pages they are signed or other reading material.

Marlys Sloop, a 4th/5th grade teacher at Crestwood, meets with each group of children for a pre-reading and post-reading discussion of the material assigned. In the pre reading instruction time, she covers vocabulary that will be unfamiliar to the students and prepares them for the events they will be reading about, explaining geography, historical background, etc. The post-reading instruction is used to flesh out students’ ideas and opinions of what they have read, and their predictions for. what will transpire.

Language development is closely integrated with the reading instruction at Crestwood and students are involved in a variety, of activities to enrich their understanding of an author’s work. Often they correspond with an author.’ One writer from Holland wrote back to the children explaining that he based his novel on experiences he had had as a war correspondent. 

After reading The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the children visited a museum. They then wrote to the Minister of Culture in France, in hopes of arranging an art exchange between the French piece of art they had read about, and a local piece. The minister politely declined, in French.

When reading books like Endless-Steppe and My Side of the Mountain, children are encouraged to keep a diary as if they were one of the characters in the story. While reading The Story of Laura Bridgeman, about a blind woman who kept a cigar box of “treasures”, the students did the same. Blindfolded, the students shared their “treasures” with each other. Many realized that feeling an object was not always enough; one has to have a picture of an object in mind. Mapping assignments accompany Island of the Blue Dolphins. Sequencing strips for each cycle of a snake’s life are constructed for King Shake. 

It might be argued that one can “enrich” the basal through use of similar creative techniques, but the very nature of the basal makes this difficult. Since so many skills and lessons have to be covered, and because the reading selections are so short, even for the best-intentioned teachers, such activities are usually peripheral, if not altogether omitted.

The instruction of research skills is taught on an interdisciplinary basis. Historical novels, science fiction, etc., provide opportunities to relate the research to the students’ reading material. Students are given weekly vocabulary assignments and research projects in which they must use a variety of resources, evaluate the information they find, and compare the sources they used to locate the information. How thorough was the material they read? How up-to-date was the information? Was one source better than another for the particular kind of research they were doing?

Obviously, it would take more than one workshop to explain exactly how the program at Crestwood works, more than one article to detail the various activities employed. But for the 200 or so teachers attending the workshop it was helpful to know that such a program exists, that the teachers are still enthusiastic about it after twelve years, and that their ideas and suggestions for reading material are available. 

Putting It Into Practice

Back, in my own classroom where I had already attempted to use whole books as a supplement to the basal, I.decided to make it the primary focus of my reading instruction. In the past few weeks of use. I’ve found that the students really enjoy the silent reading period. Even children, who complained. frequently that they hated reading have been asking for a second and third book to keep at their desks or take-home. Idioms that first appeared in the literature they are reading, now appear in their speech.

But there is more to it than their enjoyment. The books themselves raise; controversial issues. For example, in one chapter of Half Magic, by Edward Eager, the children are confronted with a dilemma. The talisman that brought them to the Sahara Desert’ was stolen long ago from *the indigenous people inhabiting the desert*. These children.-are the descendants of die colonizers. The character they meet in the desert is a descendant of the colonized, of those who first possessed this sacred charm. To whom does this priceless object belong? To the children who need it to return to their home, or to the desert nomad, who needs it to deliver- him from his present poverty? In the discussion that ensued, my students not only learned about desert life, but they began to consider how inequalities develop between the conquered and the conquerors, and the cost of giving up privilege. The opportunity was there for us to-make connections between the historical situations and the world today. 

In another chapter, students are introduced to King Arthur’s Court, important in itself because of the frequent references made to this age in a cross-section of modern literature. But several ethical issues arise also: the code of chivalry, the dangers of interfering in a culture that you don’t understand, and the rationalizations that one uses to camouflage self-serving motives. 

One might argue that basal reader stories also take place in a variety of locations, but in a “whole book” the reader does not just move from one location to another without any connections. They are following and witnessing the development of the character against the various backgrounds. This coherence is an important contrast to the fragmentation of the basal where one story has absolutely no connection with the story preceding or following. Reading a basal is a transient experience, like someone who moves often and never has the time or opportunity to develop more than superficial friendships. Reading a novel allows the student to develop strong bonds to or antipathies toward the characters in the story. This is a crucial difference. Another advantage I’ve found is the flexibility. Presently in the basal system, if a child fails-the end of the-book test, they have nowhere to go: They repeat the book they have just completed or enter an old basal at the same level. If they pass the test with the minimal score, and sometimes even if they fail, they struggle through the next book, and pass the next test with a low score also, and struggle through the next book, ad infinitum. This pattern is frequent in the reading groups that teachers inherit. The same students are consistently “at the bottom”. If you are bound to using the basals, what choice as a teacher do you have to break this cycle?

Teachers are often criticized for not teaching to think. Reading should be one of the major vehicles for critical thinking. It is hard, though, to-teach children to think when the problems they encounter in their reading material are solved in a few pages. The problems, out of necessity (when brevity is a consideration), are simplistic and so are the solution’s. In a basal reader story, there is no time for mulling over a situation, for taking-into consideration the complexities that develop. Unlike a novel, there are no complex plots, there aren’t characters with justifiable motives and selfish motives struggling for the upper hand. There are no grey areas.

The reading experience should be so much richer than understanding the simple plot of a seven page story, more than putting vocabulary words in alphabetical order or completing a comprehension worksheet. Children should experience the “joy of reading” and come to realize the insights and power than can be attained on a personal basis. All reading-teachers want this for their students, but it’s not happening in many places. I don’t believe it can happen in the confines of a basal.

An Opportunity For Change

At this time, the Milwaukee Public Schools uses the basal systemwide. Teachers are very used to it; some are very comfortable with it. I understand that teachers en masse do not want, nor do they deserve, to be thrown into a new program and told, “Here. Develop it.” A reading program like Crestwood’s took a lot of time to create. They have had time to make changes and add to it for a number of years. Though the Milwaukee system d’s ‘a whole uses-the basal, there should be* some flexibility for those-teachers here who are ready now to devise the “whole books” approach to reading instruction. There should be some support for-compiling a repertoire of good reading material so we can teach reading without being shackled by numerous worksheets of miscellaneous skills dictated by the basal company.

Not all teachers who first come to Crestwood are ready to surrender their basals and adopt the whole book method. They say it takes time. It is unlikely that all teachers here would want that transition, but many teachers are ready, now, to bring the “whole books” approach into their classrooms. In the upcoming evaluation of the reading program in MPS, consideration must be given to those of us who are concerned about the shortcomings of the basal program. I believe that the “whole books” approach should be developed and promoted here in Milwaukee. There is a lot we can learn from the experience of the staff at Crestwood. Give those of us who are excited about this idea the chance to help in; the ‘development’. Allow us to share up the beginning of a richer, more meaningful reading experience for our students.

Flory Sommers is a 4th grade teacher in the bilingual program at Longfellow Elementary School in Milwaukee.