Educators often turn to their core reading program for assistance in meeting increased demands as they offer instruction for a wide array of literacy skills. However, these programs are not without fault.
Comprehensive programs, referred to as core or basal programs, include more instruction than teachers can possibly implement; with only some instruction done well, and much focused on foundational reading skills.
“Research on basal reading programs has always cast doubts on their instruction and curriculum design.” (Dewitz & Jones, 2012)
Specifically, research suggests that the instruction in most reading programs is not effective at developing children’s vocabulary or reading comprehension (Biemiller, 2001; Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013).
Inadequate Vocabulary Instruction
All core reading programs include some form of vocabulary support. Yet, despite this, test scores continue to suggest that current educational practices and materials are not having enough impact.
Fourth graders have failed to make significant gains in literacy since 1992, with only 35 percent scoring at or above a proficient level (NCES, 2013). In addition, large vocabulary gaps still exist between socio-economic groups (NCES, 2012).
So what is causing these problems? Research points to the fact that core reading programs lack sufficient time focused on vocabulary instruction, feature words with limited instructional value, and deliver instruction that is brief and shallow. In addition, words are often taught before a text is read and rarely followed up with any meaningful instructional activities (Rimbey et al., 2016).
“Unfortunately the vocabulary instruction in basals provides students with a surface-level understanding of new words, which students find uninteresting and, ultimately, forgettable.” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013)
David Liben—a former New York City teacher and principal who helped write the Common Core State Standards—criticized the basals for paying too much attention to low-level vocabulary and asking questions that students could answer without reading the text passages.
According to Mr. Liben, ignoring the rich words and asking the wrong questions “is the achievement gap expanding in front of you” (Gewertz, 2012).
Inadequate Comprehension Instruction
When it comes to building comprehension, research also highlights some areas of concern.
75% of the instruction provided in core reading programs is driven by questions (Dewitz, Jones, & Leahy, 2009), which makes the quality of these questions critical. However, close examination of these questions uncovers significant limitations and instructional failings.
“The questions in core programs 'do not represent the kind of thinking that we want children to develop, the kind of thinking that even young children are quite capable of—with some practice.’” (McKeown & Beck, 2006)
Specifically, the prompts and questions provided in basals do little to aid teachers in developing deeper levels of comprehension.
• First, these questions are too narrowly focused on discrete skills and strategies. In addition to distracting students and sidetracking them into thinking about decoding, structural analysis, and even the mechanics of writing, these questions fail to support students in understanding the central meaning of the text (McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009).
• Second, these questions do not go deep enough. In most basal reading programs, “students are asked many questions, but rarely are they directed to discuss their thinking so the teacher can guide and develop it” (Dewitz & Jones, 2012).
• Third, these questions do not invite or leave time for interactive dialogue. Less than 10% of instruction in basals gives teachers support for modeling and guiding the comprehension process (McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009). When students discuss their thinking with the teacher, the teacher can help develop language and ideas. When students think aloud, they also develop some insight into their own comprehension processes, which can help them apply these skills on their own.
Core Program + Supplemental Materials = Literacy Success
“Basal denotes a basic, foundational tool, whereas core suggests the program should be the central, most essential part of a reading program. These programs should be used as basals with the understanding that additional books and tools are necessary to equip students for literary success.” (Dewitz & Jones, 2012)
We cannot ignore the significant investment that districts have made in adopting core reading programs. With time, dollars, and resources at stake, it makes sense that teachers would be required to implement these programs with fidelity.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the the critical role that vocabulary and comprehension play in the trajectory of a student's future reading success. Nor can we ignore core reading programs' inability to effectively deliver instruction in these crucial areas.
So, what if it didn't have to be an either/or proposition?
What if there were manageable and effective ways to supplement your existing program with vocabulary and comprehension instruction that works?