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Putting Reading First or Putting Basal Reading First?

by Molly Ness - February 24, 2005

The following article provides a critique of Reading First’s heavy reliance on basal readers. The author questions the policy and its implementation, arguing that basal readers provide little room for differentiation, have weak research bases, and detract from the instructional skills of teachers.

In response to stagnant levels of reading achievement, public schools now face the challenge of implementing Reading First in elementary classrooms nationwide. Over a six-year period, five billion dollars worth of reading initiatives will trickle down to our students, with particular attention paid to those from low-income backgrounds. Reading First provides additional funding, professional development, and the use of scientifically-based reading research to enable our children to read on grade level by the end of third grade. Yet the application of Reading First has paved the way for an over-reliance on basal readers, a trend that should be viewed with a skeptical eye. With regard to their use in elementary classrooms, basal readers have weak support in the scientific literature, provide little room for differentiation, and may reduce the power of teacher-led literacy instruction.


What Reading First Purports to Do

A close examination of the No Child Left Behind legislation reveals the following:

Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government to mandate, direct or control a state, local educational agency or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum or program of instruction (No Child Left Behind, 2002, Online).

Yet in perusing the actual Reading First grant, the wording leads to confusion for school leaders and local school boards. The grant purports to do this:

To provide assistance to State educational agencies and local educational agencies in selecting or developing effective instructional materials (including classroom-based materials to assist teachers in implementing the essential components of reading instruction), programs, learning systems and strategies to implement methods that have proven to prevent or remediate reading failure within a State (Reading First, 2002, Online).

Reading First focuses instruction on scientifically-based research with measures of validity, reliability, efficacy, and rigorous methodology. Tensions in policy implementation arise in the actualization of basal program implementation, as well concern about the adopted basal readers.

Move Over Teachers; Make Room for Basals!

Basals narrow the authority of teachers to engage and instruct students creatively and effectively. For example, notoriously rigid Open Court is a tightly scripted program that provides explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension strategies, and language arts skills. Teachers read from a daily script, often verbatim. Consider the following direct-instruction classroom scenario:

Teachers follow scripted lessons, telling students, who do everything in unison, when to take out their books, when to start reading, when to touch specific words, when to repeat, when to stop, and when to put their books away. Instead of thinking for themselves and learning through trial and error, students parrot packaged answers to preselected questions .

The scripted nature of basals seems in direct conflict with years of research about the roles and responsibilities of teachers. Research highlights the importance of teachers in student achievement; a study of schools in thirty-two countries found that the basis of effective reading programs lies in the teacher . By pushing scripted curriculum into the classroom, teachers have their hands tied in impacting student performance. In Learning to Read: The Great Debate, Jeanne Chall writes the following:

Many teachers have developed methods of their own that are far superior to any that have been investigated and commercially published. In their quiet unassuming way, these teachers are getting results that would be the envy of any of the authors of ‘scientifically’ developed and tested methods. (Chall, 1996, p. 257)

The implementation of Reading First has taken decision-making power not only away from states, but also from individual teachers. Rather than being instructional leaders, basals disempower teachers nationwide.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Of equal concern is the “one-size-fits-all” instructional approach that basals are notorious for. In the fast-paced curriculum, there is little room for differentiation. The students who struggle the most are not allotted time for reteaching or reviewing. We have long known that students from low-income backgrounds come to school with much weaker lexicons than their wealthier peers . In a program with little differentiation and a heavy reliance on whole group instruction, our low-income students are shortchanged. Rather than being exposed to texts which give them the ability to become independent proficient readers, students are instead forced into commercial products that are at their frustration reading level. Will they even be able to read and comprehend such high-level books? While schools and teachers are relying on creative ways around the problem, such as cross-grade grouping, the problem is still evident: a law which claims to equal the educational playing field for all students may truly leave the bottom quartile of our readers behind.

The Illegitimacy of Scientifically-Based Research Programs

Before delving into the effectiveness of basals, we must keep in mind their commercial nature. The textbook industry is lucrative and competitive; each year, the nation’s school districts spend over a billion dollars on reading textbooks. A basic inquiry of such programs reveals that much of their curriculum and instructional tools are determined by publishers . Shouldn’t our curricular decisions be made by teachers, administrators, and researchers within the field, not a commercially-driven publishing powerhouse?

The question of effectiveness evokes conflict among reading researchers, schools, and teachers, particularly in regard to SRA/McGraw-Hill’s Open Court. Researchers on behalf of McGraw Hill cite the program’s ability to produce significant gains among students of all ability levels. Yet in 2002, independent researchers said the exact opposite. Professors Margaret Moustafa and Robert Land (Moustafa and Land, 2002) of California State University delivered a crippling blow to Open Court in 2002. Explaining that students followed from grade to grade did not undergo any significant improvement, the researchers concluded that Open Court is simply not time efficient; the large blocks of time required to implement the program were not translating to higher test scores or reading growth. Additionally Moustafa and Land found no evidence that Open Court was associated with higher reading achievement among low-income students, the exact population that Reading First targets. So who are we to trust?


Additionally basal publishers are quick to claim that their programs are built on scientifically-based research when the research merely concerns the components of the programs. Reid Lyon, the chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health and a proponent of the scientific approach to reading instruction, recently commented about false claims within research-based instruction:

The thing you have to remember, many programs are said to be research-based when they are not. In order for research to have scientific integrity, the study must use the appropriate research designs and methods to address the question at hand. For example, you can't figure out which programs are effective with which kids unless you employ experimental designs and randomized controlled trials are best for that (Lyon, 2004, p. 2).


How can we push teachers to instruct from basal programs to fidelity, when their research base is shaky at best? Clearly, reading researchers need to complete thorough, independent evaluations of basal programs, evaluations that strictly adhere to the principles of scientifically-based research.


The real truth is that there is no one way to teach reading that is effective for all students. As often cited by the National Education Association, the teacher is the key to successful reading instruction. The goals set out by Reading First are ambitious and necessary; the need for literacy policy initiatives cannot be understated or ignored: a mere 32% of fourth graders qualify as proficient readers, and 70% of low-income fourth graders not reading at even a basic level. However, the solution to this crisis comes not from carefully scripted commercial programs, with little actual research basis. Rather the key to increasing the reading achievement of our students lies in concerted efforts for professional development, diligent research in effective reading instruction, and improving the materials used in our nation’s elementary classrooms.


Baron, D. (2004). The President's reading lesson. Education Week. September 8, 2004.

Berger, L., & Gunn, G. (2004). Challenging districts to 'put reading first'. T.H.E Journal, 30(10), p. 344.

Chall, J. (1996). Learning to read: The great debate (3rd edition). Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Hart, B., and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young american children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Lyon, G. R. (2004). G. Reid Lyon on evidence-based reading policy. Retrieved November 18, 2004 from http://www.edweek.org/chat/transcript_10-28-2004.html.

Moustafa, M,. and Land, R.E. (2002) The reading achievement of economically-disadvantages children in urban schools using Open Court vs. comparably disadvantaged children in urban schools using non-scripted reading programs. In American Educational Research Association (AERA), Urban learning, teaching, and research 2002 yearbook (pp. 44-53). Available at http://curriculum.calstatela.edu/margaret.moustafa.

Reading first (2002, January 8). Part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Public Law 107-110. http://www.ed.gov/legislation/ESEA02/pg4.html.

Strauss, V. (2002). Phonics pitch irks teachers: U.S. denies it's pushing commercial products. Washington Post, p. A01.

Yatvin, J., Weaver, C., & Garan, E. (2003). Reading first: Cautions and recommendations. Language Arts, 81(1), 28-33.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11766, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:40:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Molly Ness

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    MOLLY NESS, M.Ed., is a doctoral student in Reading Education at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Lessons to Learn: Voices From the Front Lines of Teach for American (Routledge, 2004)
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