Move over, Dick and Jane

The Education Beat

Stories: Trade books and nonfiction are displacing the traditional primary reader.

July 30, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN EDUSPEAK, it's called the basal reader. It's been a staple of elementary education for generations. And it's going the way of the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

You can still find basals in public and private schools, and textbook publishers still peddle them in colorful packages, accompanied these days by a plethora of supplements - workbooks, CD-ROMs, even Internet Web sites.

But the place to look for basals in many schools is the storage closet.

The basal reader is - supposedly - the foundation of schoolhouse reading. Since the late 1930s, when publishers purged textbooks of "real" literature such as folk and fairy tales, and filled reading books with insipid stories (and characters) like Dick and Jane, basals have dominated reading instruction.

A 1998 study found 83 percent of teachers nationally using the basal as the centerpiece in the teaching of reading. But 56 percent were supplementing basals with "trade books" - genuine literature such as Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" and other picture books.

The trend continues with nonfiction. Children are cutting their reading teeth on books such as David Owen Bell's "Awesome Chesapeake: A Kid's Guide to the Bay." And good teachers employ newspaper and magazine articles, public documents and stuff found in dusty attics.

I know of no statistics for Maryland, but I'm willing to bet that the basal is fading as the mainstay of instruction in many classrooms. John T. Guthrie, a reading researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park, traces the move away from basals in part to the demands of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

Guthrie notes that MSPAP (which is patterned after the National Assessment of Educational Progress) requires reading for literary experience, reading to be informed and reading to perform a task. Although state education officials are secretive about MSPAP, they say that none of the questions or "tasks" has the artificiality of Dick and Jane. "You need a diversity of texts and a lot of real stories to meet the demands of MSPAP," Guthrie says.

Research by Guthrie and his College Park colleagues appears to bear out his observation. Surveying 33 schools in three Maryland districts, the researchers set out to determine the kinds of instruction that have positive effect on MSPAP performance.

They found that a broad array of books and other resources is a better promoter of MSPAP success than basals or drills. And the pattern extends to science, mathematics and writing. (These results are limited to the fifth grade. The researchers found no such pattern in the third grade.)

The University of Maryland study, published in the spring in The Journal of Educational Research, is a rare example of independent research on MSPAP. Parents, educators and outside researchers who want to know more about the high-stakes battery of performance tests, including the reading level of test questions, are out of luck. The few "public release tasks" issued so far are long since retired. MSPAP has been fairly secure but at the cost of suspicion in some quarters that something nefarious is afoot.

Aware of the criticism, the state Education Department is working on a MSPAP Web site that officials say will explain the program in understandable terms. It's long overdue.

Harry Potter's spell extends to the wallet

Surely the most dramatic affirmation of reading in many a moon is the thundering popularity of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

In the Barnes & Noble store in Ellicott City recently, J. K. Rowling's blockbuster was sold out, but plenty of unabridged audio versions on cassette and compact disc were available.

"Could it be," my wife mused, "that children would rather read Harry Potter than listen to him on tape?"

It's a thought, but economics probably has more to do with it. Marketed simultaneously with the book, cassettes cost twice as much as the hardcover, and CDs nearly four times as much. That's a goblet of money, even for Harry Potter.

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