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Reading Programs: What is Basal Reading Instruction?

Beyond "Dick and Jane"

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reading instruction

Basal reading instruction has come a long way from "Dick and Jane" readers.

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The Components of Basal Reading Instruction

Basal reading instruction differs from a guided reading program in that it uses texts that are written to teach reading, as opposed to using written texts to teach reading.  This type of program is sometimes referred to as a scientifically-based reading program

Simply put, this means that the program has been specifically designed to teach skills that have been proven to be helpful in learning to read, such as phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, text comprehension (including decoding and word attack skills) and prosody.

Learn more about phonemic awareness skills:
What is a phoneme?
What is phonemic awareness?
Building Phonemic Awareness at Home

Learn more about fluency:
What is a fluent reader?
What is reading fluency?
Reading Problems: The Non-Fluent  Reader
Ways to Improve Reading Fluency

What Basal Reading Programs Look Like

Basal readers are usually a grade-leveled series of textbooks produced by an educational publisher which focus on teaching reading either by a code-emphasis approach or a meaning-emphasis approach. A code emphasis approach relies heavily on phonemic awareness and decoding and word attack skills. These types of series will often have accompanying spelling programs, flash cards and sentence strips to go with them. A meaning-emphasis program, on the other hand, tends to stress the concept of "reading for understanding" and the accompanying workbooks have questions about the stories read, vocabulary lessons and lessons encouraging students to write about what they have read.

Do Teachers Use Basal Reading?

Over the past decade and a half, many teachers have moved away from using basal readers in favor of using a whole language approach, using guided reading as its core and incorporating all types of books to include language in lessons throughout the curriculum.

In response to this, many basal reading series, like McGraw-Hill's Open Court and Scott Forseman's Reading Street, have changed their textbooks to be more whole language friendly. The programs now have books for grades PreK-8 and include excerpts of chapter books, poems and entire picture books. These series do come with accompanying materials, the most notable of which is a teacher's manual, explaining how to follow the program and providing ideas for enrichment activities to use in science, social studies and math.

Advantages of a Basal Reading Program

Basal reading programs do have some advantages over other programs. A few of the more notable advantages are:

  • It's systematic and follows a logical sequence.
  • The levels progress from emergent reader to advanced reader with smooth transitions and consistency.
  • Teachers are provided with the tools they need to evaluate students' knowledge and progress, as well as guidance as to how to teach and extend each lesson.

Disadvantages of a Basal Reading Program

Like any packaged program, there are disadvantages to a basal reading program. In fact, some educators would argue that the things some people consider to be advantages are exactly what is wrong with such a program. That systematic learning system which distills reading into a textbook can feel rigid and limiting to a teacher. It's designed for groups of readers, which makes it difficult to teach the gifted or self-taught reader and just as difficult to modify for the student who has learning disabilities in reading.

The Bottom Line About Basal Reading

While in some circles, basal reading programs may have a bad rap, the program can be useful in a classroom in which a teacher knows how to supplement the program, either by using other types of reading instruction in the classroom or by bringing in other materials to for extension.

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