Using Basal Readers for a Literature Study

In my combined first and second grade there was a literature study for the first semester, using basal readers.. All second graders took part, and every year a few first graders were included who were beyond the beginning reading programs. People often asked why basal readers were used with the controlled vocabulary that eliminated the style of the author – and call it a literature study. Well, first of all, the fiction, non-fiction, plays, and poems in the basal series that were used were excellent.1 A few, such as poems, did not have a controlled vocabulary. But even those that did were well-written in an interesting manner. We talked about the style of the author in the afternoons when literature was read to them, sometimes comparing a current piece with a story in a basal reader. But the major reason might well be that keeping track of so many different books for a semester might not be manageable. Also, in those beginning years there wasn’t much money for new books, prohibiting the collection of multiple copies of various pieces of literature. The final reason, but not the least important, is that although many children could read various children’s literature comfortably, some could not, usually because of perceptual problems.

The program included questions that combined components of literature with cognitive processes. Children interacted orally with a peer and then a large group, sandwiched between reading and writing at their own ability level. My hope was that the knowledge gained transferred into each child’s own reading in selected books of interest.

1. Early, Margaret, Senior Author. 1979. “The World of Giants and  Monsters”, People and Places, 7-57. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (It has long been out of print but there are used book stores on the web that still carry the series.)

Learn  about using this literature study, in a class or how to design your own, in my book, Early Childhood Programs: Opportunities for Academic, Cognitive, and Personal Success. Included is a web site where this program and others, plus classroom activities, can be downloaded for use in a classroom. Also, see 7 reviews on

Reading Comprehension for Young Readers

Reading specialists believe that reading for comprehension is the most important goal of reading and naturally I do too – but not at first. In my combined first and second grade, there was no stress upon comprehension while the beginners were learning how to read, not even in their own reading book. A child’s first book was a basal reader of interest to the child – one that she would want to understand. At first, each beginner was with an adult or child partner. Then later on, when they were capable enough, children read only stories or articles of interest and skipped others. These beginners were learning how to read – with or without phonics – relying upon their strengths.

If children were using basal readers and concentrating on breaking-the-code in their own way, how would they acquire good comprehension? Well, simultaneously while they were learning how to read, during the afternoons when stories were read to the class various types of comprehension were explored – about characterization, the style of the author, the setting, moods and feelings, the plot, the theme, etc. Also, they were writing constantly with a big emphasis upon stories. They each were thinking about introducing their characters and developing the plot with a good conclusion. I believe that’s where much of their comprehension developed, during discussions of stories read to them and through their own  writing, perhaps before they could understand all that they’d read themselves. Some understood what they’d read while they were very busy decoding, but others did not.

One time at a conference, the presenter put up a paragraph and covered up the top half of the words which we were to decode. My friend and I were so absorbed trying to decipher the words and soon thrilled that we were able to. Then the presenter put up another paragraph and covered up the bottom half of the words. This was really difficult. I don’t remember now if we were just able to do some of it or if we accomplished the whole thing with much struggle, but it suddenly occurred to me when it was over that I had no idea what I had just read. What it was about.

That’s exactly what I think happens when these beginners had their own book, and they wanted to read so much that they strived, willingly and enthusiastically, to decode. And as their decoding became easier, they proceeded from pure decoding to the inclusion of good comprehension – indicated by the high comprehension scores in standardized tests. Perhaps when children are accomplished readers and have poor comprehension, it’s because they are forced to read material they weren’t interested in.

Read more about beginning reading and the various reading programs in my book, Early Childhood Programs: Opportunities for Academic, Cognitive, and Personal Success. Included is a web site where programs and activities can be downloaded for use in a classroom. Also, see 7 reviews on

A Variety of Readers Learning to Read With or Without Phonics

In my combined first and second grade, each successful beginning reader after being offered materials and guidance and support, in one way or another, taught herself to read. She may have participated fully in all parts of the program offered, or perhaps only in part of the designed program with special attention unique from anything offered. But she, and every beginning reader, made choices along the way, perhaps unaware of making those choices, but choices never-the-less about how she learned to read. She chose to use phonics or avoided them because innately, she knew a better way.

Although there were commonalities among children, no two children learned in exactly the same way as indicated by the following:

  • Marie’s mother related the pediatrician’s comment that if a child had hearing problems during pre-school years when language was developing, the child would always have poor auditory skills. (And  I found this true with other non-phonics users.) Marie, a very bright child, attended an all-day kindergarten with much one-to-one teaching of phonics. Many classmates started to read – but not Marie. Her teacher said she couldn’t apply phonics. During first grade, Marie was a very dedicated reader often reading at Choice Time as well as Book Time – learning all phonics but never applying them to her reading. It wasn’t long before she broke-the-code and became an excellent student in all but complex spelling.
  • Seven-year-old Heinz, from Germany, was placed in my first grade instead of second because English was so new to him. At home, he had learned to read German. When he arrived in the United States the previous April however, his parents couldn’t convince him to learn English until they bought a book and tape from a favorite movie he had seen. In September he appeared to be speaking English fluently and reading at a 22 level. Did he learn with a phonics program? Unlikely. He finished both first and second grade in one year.
  • Jim, with a very low I.Q., only spent first grade with me. He learned phonics well and read many of the old basal books. Whenever I told him I’d help him find a more interesting book, he’d reject it saying he preferred the ones he had. He also broke-the-code and comprehended very well at his level in story books of interest.
  • Amy broke-the-code so quickly, that I couldn’t find enough time to teach the phonics before she broke-the-code. She learned them later. And she learned them just as fast and easily as she had learned to read.
  • Chase loved phonics. He arrived at a second pre-primer level, sounding out every letter of every new word as he had learned, such as s-s-s, tuh, eh, puh, hesitating before saying “step”. Good Heavens!!! First he had to remember his sounds and then translate those sounds before pronouncing “step” – and how could he ever become a smooth reader that way? So as he learned phonograms, he was helped to give up his old way as he learned to read well, relying heavily on a new phonetic approach.
  • Isaac entered second grade in late winter from another state. His records revealed on-grade-level reading in a basal program. He knew phonics well, including most phonograms. After finishing one reader after another, in a month he had broken-the-code and relished reading all kinds of novels.
  • Then there was Bernice, a multiply handicapped, low I.Q. student, fully mainstreamed from a special education class, functioning throughout, I’d guess, at a kindergarten level. We all helped her to read. She learned phonics and ended second grade reading comfortably in second grade readers or easy literature books. Reading was by far her greatest strength academically.

It was always hoped that during and after learning how to read, these choices allowed each child’s self-confidence to grow, leading to continued motivation, responsibility, and independence – and realizing the purposes for learning how to read and enjoying many different books, stories, and articles.

Read more about the reading programs in my book, Early Childhood Programs: Opportunities for Academic, Cognitive, and Personal Success. Also, see 7 reviews on

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