Making the basal work for your readers

We’ve had several friends around the country who have said to us this summer, “but when school starts, I will be forced to use the basals.” One teacher even wrote, “there is no getting around it! The district office is coming down HARD on our principal because our state test scores aren’t the best and the schools that use the basal are getting good results.

I don’t understand how…any insight?”

Our thought is that the standardized state tests are similar to the basal in terms of isolated facts, kill and drill, or read-and-answer literal level questions. Teaching the basal is like teaching the test. Kids can “get by” and show growth on that one test (which is often the “be all/end all” in so many states). However, many of these children aren’t becoming proficient readers in the full sense of the word. Maybe they can pass the test, but can they navigate a newspaper? A guidebook? Pursue topics of interest? Follow a favorite author? Infer beyond the literal level? Do they choose reading as a pastime? Carry on conversations about their understandings or reflections of a poem or short story? Find meaning in a book causing them to love it so much they want to read it all over again? All of these are things real readers do.  And most of them will not happen if you holdfast to solely teaching with the basal.

So what’s a teacher to do?  We suggest finding what’s good in those basal stories and using what you can in a sensible manner.  By sensible, we mean instead of doing the basal story with the whole class, figure out which children could actually benefit from a guided reading group with this story. Find your own teaching focus that supports those students in adding a word-solving or comprehension strategy to their repertoire (basals often go through a very prescriptive set of strategies and lessons that may or may not be what your students need at that time.) The point of guided reading is to help those students grow as readers, not to just “get through” another basal story.

For another group of children you may find that the basal story is too difficult. You might choose to do an interactive read aloud with those struggling students on that story.  Then supplement their reading with books they can actually handle. And surely there are others in the class who can read the basal stories independently, leaving lots of time for independent reading in books of their own choosing.

Make your read aloud time powerful by choosing texts that beg for deep discussions around topics that interest your students.  Our chapter 6 in Catching Readers gives lots of ideas for getting the most out of your interactive read aloud time.  Help your students learn how to choose books they love, authors they enjoy, or series they can follow.

By using the basal wisely you are putting more thought into what your students are reading and how you are teaching them rather than just following the manual page-by-page. You can still structure your reading workshop with a mini-lesson first, then independent time (while you meet with groups or individuals) and a whole-group sharing at the end. Use the basal stories, poems, and non-fiction entries, but supplement with lots of rich, meaningful texts that kids can relate to and that are on their reading levels. This may mean more work for you, but it’s been our experience that it’s worth the effort.  You will be helping all your students develop into proficient readers who enjoy reading, find out about their world by reading, live like literate beings – yet are still able to pass the tests!

And lastly we urge you to be an advocate. Go to your principal or administration with research about why teaching everyone the same thing at the same time will not work, speak out in faculty meetings about the big picture of developing well-rounded readers, and start conversations with colleagues about how best to meet the needs of individual learners, especially those who struggle with literacy.


  1. Great post.

    I think basal textbooks are part of the scary trend towards the automation of teaching–no thinking , planning, or skill necessary! Anyone can do it!

    I was at a conference recently, and saw a display for a new math textbook series. The company representative was excitedly telling anyone who would listen that no planning was necessary with this textbook…it was all done for you, right down to differentiation for individual students. How can a textbook differentiate for individual students it has no knowledge of?

    And yet, most teachers work in a place where basal readers and math textbooks are requirements. And they can be used as a starting point for teaching. However, only the teacher has the important individualized knowledge of each student and how she learns. Teaching is an art and a science—and thinking, planning and great skill are involved.

    We have to advocate for the voice of the teacher as expert and professional in an age of teaching that would rather put resources into use textbooks and standardized testing data than quality teachers and authentic means of data collection.

  2. Thanks for the information!!!! It is disheartening for sure. However…..when I look at my students’ scores carefully, and look at the numbers that demonstrate a full year’s growth…all my students had at least a full year’s growth if not more. Someone asked me how I did this, and, smiling, I replied, “I didn’t use the basal!” I had the lowest kids too. YEAH!!! Finally some proof in the numbers. I can’t say I didn’t use the basal at all, I did once in awhile, and did the “end of story” tests, just so I had proof that I did use it. Reflecting on the first entry up above though, I think the key was using the basal to fit the needs of my kids. That meant, I read the stories out loud to them as they followed along, and they would stop me at various points because they wanted to talk about something- a word they didn’t know the meaning of, an event in the story etc.
    If anyone has any links /resources to research that shows why the basal isn’t the most effective teaching piece, I’d love to see those.Thanks!

  3. How about the basal for shared???? It is benchmark to the grade level….teach your skills and strategies and then break into guided groups to differentiate for all kids!!!
    I can’t believe in this day and age, any teacher would be teaching whole class with a basal!

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