Basal Readers are textbooks or "reading books" used in elementary schools across America to teach reading skills to children. Basal Readers often feature short stories written with teaching reading comprehension as their primary purpose. These textbooks also include activity workbooks based on the readings and separate manuals for the teachers.
Basal Readers were first known as the McGuffey Readers during the 1860s. At that time, children of varying levels were taught in the same classroom. These books provided a standard teaching method for each level, enabling each student to learn according to his or her capabilities. Basal Readers have developed through time depending on evolving teaching practices. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Basal Readers featured "Dick and Jane" stories. Children reading these stories learned words based on sight according to the "look and say" method. It was not until the 1950s that enough criticism forced the books to take a more phonic approach.
These text books have received widespread criticism for offering severely simplistic forms of literature and failing to excite children's interest in reading. The books have been widely popular for so many years due to being extremely organized and helping teachers target children's individual reading levels. The teacher's guides also provide questions for teachers to ask the students, akin to a script, and suggest activities for the students.
In 1984, Richard C. Anderson, Jean Osborn and Robert J. Tierney questioned the dependency of teachers on Basal Readers in Learning to Read in American Schools: Basal Readers and Content Texts. The book describes a classroom observation conducted by The Center for the Study of Reading upon various classrooms all teaching the same Basal materials. They noticed that all teachers employed the same methodologies as prescribed by the manuals, allowing little variation for disparate students. The authors summarize: "Very little reading comprehension instruction was seen. Instead of being instructors, the 39 observed teachers were mentioners, assignment givers, assignment checkers, and interrogators." The observed teachers were judged as mere appendages to the Basal Readers, not initiators but enforcers of a prearranged method of teaching. The Basal materials were used exclusively, thereby defining the entire classroom experience.
Connie Cloud-Silva and Mark Sadoski published an article called "Reading Teacher's Attitudes Toward Basal Reader Use and State Adoption Policies," which delved into teachers' opinions of Basal instruction material. They quoted a statistic that claimed that during the course of 25 years, 90 percent of elementary school teachers across the United States were using Basal material. The authors attest that teachers are pressured by school administrators to use Basal Readers for the sake of uniformity. Surveys conducted among teachers showed that most teachers provided supplementary reading material aside from Basal Readers. Teachers displayed concern regarding a lack of activities surrounding phonics and a need for more stimulating literature throughout the grades.
Nicholas J. Karolides published Reader Response in Elementary Classrooms: Quest and Discovery in 1997. The book suggests that Basal Readers, though providing an organized format for both teacher and student, promote a spit-back approach to learning, wherein children come to view literature as a source of answers to questions. According to Karolides, Basal Readers "do not provide the impetus for students to reflect on their experience with the text, nor to express their involvement and uncertainties." In other words, students only learn reading comprehension on the most superficial level according to Basal methodology; they do not learn how to analyze or question. According to modern assessments of Basal Readers, students learn the basic skills of reading but fail to become independent readers.
Off Track: When Poor Readers Become Learning Disabled, written by Louise Spear-Swerling and Robert J. Sternberg, explores the elementary school classroom dynamics, specifically in regard to children with learning disabilities. The authors do not wholly condemn Basal Readers as other critics have. They claim that Basal materials "combine at least a modicum of direct instruction in word-recognition skills with instruction in comprehension; they provide teachers with a curriculum to follow in teaching reading; and they provide ready-made materials." Yet the authors view Basal Readers as a necessity only for teachers that require direction or exert little control over large classrooms. Children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia find Basal reading to be too difficult, as Basal expects word recognition of its readers. Basal programs have developed to accommodate more children with learning disabilities. Children with attention deficit disorders benefited from the various activities Basal Readers provided.