Basal Readers: 5 Ways to Make Them Work for Your Class

column | Language Arts

Basal Readers: 5 Ways to Make Them Work for Your Class

By Chrissy Romano-Arrabito (Columnist)     Sep 7, 2017

Basal Readers: 5 Ways to Make Them Work for Your Class

This is what a community of readers should look like...

Students are on the carpet, having a lively book club discussion about their current novel. A teacher is reading aloud with her audience enraptured and enthralled, waiting to hear what will happen next. Devoted readers are scattered about the room, getting lost in their books as they travel to other worlds, experience life from multiple perspectives and dig into their passions. Kids are taking “shelfies” to recommend must-read books to their peers.

This culture is what so many literacy teachers hope to achieve with their students. Unfortunately, this job can be easier said than done, especially when teachers are required to teach from a basal reading program, which according to Mark Weakland in “Super Core! Turbocharging Your Basal Reading Program with More Reading,” are in “almost three out of four U.S. elementary schools.”

Herein lies the problem with scripted curriculum. In the early 2000’s basal reading programs were rebranded as “core reading programs” and given the stamp of approval by many state agencies, which labelled many of them “research-based.” Jo Boaler, author of “Mathematical Mindsets,” reminds us that the federal government’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act put pressure on teachers to follow “scripted” curriculum and strict pacing guides. If taught with fidelity, your student’s reading problems would be solved, claimed the publishers and marketers. Teachers’ professional judgment was thrown out the window.

Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, and teachers are once again being trusted to make decisions in the best interest of their students. Regardless of their tools and resources, great teachers can meet their students’ needs.

So, you may be ready to ditch your basal reader and transition to the workshop model. Or maybe you love your basal but want to get more out of it. Either way, here are 5 ways to make your basal reader work for you.

1. Kickstart an Interest in an Authentic Piece of Literature

When I was a kid I loved Beverly Cleary’s books. When I was adding books to my classroom library last year I thought it would be a great idea to include some of her books so my third graders could fall in love with her storytelling the way I did. Those books sat in the book bins most of the year, untouched, until the day I shared an excerpt from Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” from our basal reading program, Journeys. Who knew it would take an introduction through Journeys for Cleary to reach an entirely new audience? After that reading it was impossible to keep Cleary’s books on the shelves!

Pick out some stories from your basal that are excerpts or chapters from an authentic piece of literature, and make sure you also have copies of the actual book in your classroom library. Once their interest is piqued, students will want access to the entire text.

Keep in mind that not all stories in a basal reading program are created equal. Take some time at the beginning of the year to pour over the excerpts to see which ones beckon to be highlighted. Even better, assess students’ interest by giving them time to browse the stories. Don’t be afraid to jump around either. It is most likely not set in stone that you have to read each story in the order in which it appears. Remember, countless stories and books can be used to teach the same content.

2. Do a Genre Study

Even though you may not want to use the mandated basal reader, it turns out they are actually good at meeting certain specific learning standards. For example, the Common Core Standards for grades K-5 require students to be familiar with a range of text types from diverse cultures and time periods.

If there is one thing a basal reader has going for it, it is variety. Most basal programs provide a handful of stories from various genres. What better way to attend to this reading standard than to pull out the folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends that I found in our Journeys basal reader?

I went one step further to round out our unit and added other traditional literature from our classroom library. We compared and contrasted the obstacles the main character faced, analyzed traits that best described the characters, and looked for similarities in structure, setting and other storytelling mechanics. My students then suggested rounding up various versions of fairy tales, analyzed them, and then took a stab at writing their own fairy tales.

3. Use the Basal to Let Your Kids “Have a Go at It”

Using a story from your basal reader provides you with a shared text that students can use to get in some guided, hands-on practice before they go off with their own texts when they read independently.

“Having a go at it,” the term for letting kids go off on their own to read and apply the strategy they just learned in the mini lesson, “provides students with guided practice as they try out what they learned in the teaching,” according to “A Guide to the Reading Workshop” by Lucy Calkins. Referring to a common text helps students better recall a reading strategy that they will use at a later time.

Think of it like this. After your mini lesson say, “Readers, remember when we read, [insert title from basal]? We practiced [insert teaching point]. This is a technique you can use when you go off and read on your own. So during reading workshop try to use that strategy while reading.”

4. Basals as Mentor Texts

One way I made good use of the basal reader is to use a story for teaching writing. Carl Anderson, an education consultant and writer, reminds us that “when we connect a student to a published author, we can explain what the author did in his piece that we’d like the student to try.”

I prefer to use picture books as mentor texts for students to return to to be studied and imitated in order to try out new writing strategies. I have to admit, there have been times that I dipped into my basal reader to use a story as a mentor text for a shared writing piece. During our writing workshop, before my students go off on their own to craft their own piece of writing, we write a class story together. With their own copy of the text in front of them, it is easier for students to analyze the author’s writing style and use it as a model so they can contribute to our shared piece of writing.

5. Standardized Test Preparation

There is a significant difference between reading comprehension strategies and test preparation. It would be a disservice to our students if we didn’t expose them to the style and format of a standardized test before sitting down for one. Make no mistake about it, asking students questions after reading is a form of testing, as stated by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in “Guided Reading.” If you have basal readers on hand here is yet another way to get the most out of them.

The stories in basal readers are a great alternative to worksheets and test prep booklets. Your students are still getting the experience of reading a story or nonfiction text—instead of the stale, contrived passages that many “test prep” workbooks are comprised of. In most cases, reading programs come with a set of questions that go along with each story.

In the End

In the end, it’s the teacher that makes the difference—not the textbook, or in this case, the basal reader. As Todd Whitaker, author and professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, tells us, “It is never about programs, it is always about people.”

How do you repurpose your basal reader?

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