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Basal readers are textbooks used to teach reading and associated skills to schoolchildren. Commonly called "reading books" or "readers" they are usually published as anthologies that combine previously published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works. A standard basal series comes with individual identical books for students, a Teacher's Edition of the book, and a collection of workbooks, assessments, and activities.
Basal readers are typically organized. Stories are chosen to illustrate and develop specific skills, which are taught in a pre-determined sequence. The teacher's editions are also tightly organized, containing much more than the answer key to the questions that usually appear at the end of each reading passage. The teacher's book also contains suggestions for pre-reading and post-reading activities and assessments, as well as scripted questions to ask students at specific points in a story.
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Basal readers have been in use in the United States since the mid-1860s, beginning with a series called the McGuffey Readers. This was the first reader published with the idea of having one text for each grade level. Since then, teaching methodologies in school basals have shifted regularly. The Scott Foresman Company published what is perhaps the most famous basal series, whose stories starred two children named Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane books emphasized memorizing words on sight, a method which came to be known as "look and say." This philosophy came under attack in the late 1950s, largely due to Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read. This was a scathing condemnation of the "look say" method, and advocated a return to programs that stressed teaching phonics to beginning readers.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the pendulum did swing back toward a more phonics-based approach. During the latter part of the 1980s, basal usage declined as reading programs began to turn to whole language programs that relied more heavily on trade books, rather than textbooks. The 1990s and early years of the 21st century have seen a renewed interest in skills acquisition which has sparked a resurgence in basal dominance.
The highly pre-planned nature of basal readers is seen as one of their strengths, as this eases the load on teachers, particularly those who are inexperienced. Specific skills can be easily targeted, tested, and remediated. Those with very controlled vocabulary usage may ease difficulties for beginner or weak readers.Students who are reading below grade level will receive some benefits from using the on-level basal. The exposure will prepare them for state testing. Using a basal reader as a starting point for grade level reading allows educators to quickly assess student reading level. Basals are not meant to be the only resource a student uses, just the starting point.
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Some of the ostensible benefits of basal readers are viewed as shortcomings by critics of these books. Critics charge that they focus on teaching isolated skills, rather than fostering an enjoyment and appreciation of reading for its own sake, and that more time is spent on the supplemental worksheets than on actually reading authentic texts. The quality of the literature in the reading books is another target of criticism. Works chosen mainly to allow skills practice may not be particularly meaningful, authentic, or interesting. Critics of the basal reader industry, such as Rafe Esquith in his book, Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire, blame the readers for the failure of schools to teach reading. Esquith questions the ability of the basal readers to stimulate students' interest in reading. Other critics question the use of materials which lack any scientific evidence of effectiveness[which?] and point to the widespread failure of schools to teach reading as proof that basal readers are a waste of time.
- Hare, Rabinowitz, & Schieble, 1989, cited in Williams & Snipper, 1990