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Basals Are Not For Reading

by Fred Busch - 1970

The author contends that the bland, insipid content of first-grade readers not only complicates the process of "learning to read," but may, in fact, later contribute to an adolescent's anxiety.

Dr. Busch, presently with the Children's Psychiatric Hospital, University of Michigan Medical Center, contends that the bland, insipid content of first-grade readers not only complicates the process of "learning to read," but may, in fact, later contribute to an adolescent's anxiety. That the content does not deal with a child's developmental concerns and the mastery of issues that are crucial to him may lead the youngster to conclude that his conflicts are unique and something to be frightened of and avoided. Dr. Busch was supported in his research by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In the past decade there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the content of first grade reading textbooks. The crux of this dissatisfaction revolves around the lack of relatedness of these textbooks to the developmental concerns and interests of most children in America who are learning to read. Various authors have indicated that on an a priori basis, the predictably pollyannaish, affectless, suburban life depicted in first-grade readers is either alien or inappropriate to the experiences and lives of most first-grade children. The assertion of inappropriate content in first-grade readers has received support from systematic studies as well.i In a content analysis of the twelve most frequently used first grade-reading series, Blom et alii found the themes of stories to be bland and pollyannaish, with very few character types except parents and young children (ages six and below), whose behavior was influenced mainly by trivial external events, with sex role differentiations being conspicuously absent. There is evidence that attempts to overcome these deficiencies in the more recent "multi-ethnic" readers have not met with any greater success.iii That bland stories with little relevance to the experiences of first graders are also uninteresting to them is shown in studies of children's free choices of library books to read.iv Here one finds a marked discrepancy between the story content children choose to read and the content of first-grade readers.

The question must be asked, though, why interest and relevance should play a role in learning to read. McCracken and Walcutt,v in their definition of reading, do not seem to consider the content of what is being read of particular importance in the child's learning to read. It is the thesis of this paper that content is of crucial significance in the process of learning to read, and that interest and relevance are significant content variables. Even McCracken and Walcutt,vi while emphasizing the importance of their instructional process in learning to read, imply that there is a need for the young learner to read stories that include rewarding content. In an attempt to specify the importance of interest and relevance in learning to read, each will be treated separately for the purpose of clarity. However, these must be considered interdependent issues.


It would seem a priori that content of interest to a child (i.e., content of importance that excites curiosity and attention) would facilitate the process of learning to read. This in itself is not convincing, though, and the one study in this area is encouraging but not conclusive.vii Although in the Whipple studyviii a new multi-ethnic reader compared favorably to a traditional primer on various tests of reading skill and interest appeal, the small actual differences and lack of follow-up to determine long range effects make the data inconclusive.

In order to look at the role of interest in learning to read, one must first look at the motivations of a child in learning to read. Namnum and Prelingerix point out that motives for learning to read are conspicuously absent in most writings dealing with the teaching of reading, and for the most part, the concept that a child will be motivated to learn to read is usually taken for granted. In their review of the literature on why children learn to read, the authors do mention, however, two motives implicitly discussed by various writers. The first of these can be broadly defined as the child's relationship to adults. That is, due to the social pressure adults put on the child to learn how to read, and the child's need to win approval from adults and to strongly identify with adult activities, the child will want to learn to read. The second motivational factor mentioned by those writing on why children learn to read has to do with the child's need for mastering his surroundings. In other words, the child faced with a new situation like reading will, because of his particular developmental stage, want to master the unique task. While not disagreeing with these motivations as important factors in learning to read, there are dangers in depending upon these as the child's only motives when teaching him to learn how to read.

If the child's motives for reading are viewed only as a reaction to external pressures or intrapsychic needs, while the motivational qualities inherent in the reading process are ignored, then the process of learning to read can become an end in itself. The complex job of translating perception of symbols into vocalizations and thoughts is something that can totally involve the child. Thus if "learning to read" is presented to the child as an autonomous process that is unrelated to anything in particular, once this challenge is past, loss of interest should occur. That is, if by "learning to read'* one has met the expectations of society and satisfied the need for mastery, then reading could become unimportant or irrelevant.

Capitalizing on Content

What if one tried to stimulate and then capitalized on the child's interest in the content of what is to be read, and this was made an inherent part of learning to read? The purpose of learning to read then would not only be "learning to read," but also the satisfaction and excitement of engagement with the whole range of experiences available through reading including obtaining information. That this is where the child starts his involvement with reading can be seen by observing a toddler's introduction to books. His involvement is not with how the material is communicated from the printed word, but with the interest the content provides for him. By teaching the child to learn how to read with material of little interest or with a total emphasis on mechanics, it would seem that we are clearly delineating between work and play, school and non-school experiences. This is of questionable worth both educationally and psychologically. More than fifty years ago Deweyx warned against the danger of isolating the child's experiences in school from those outside the school, especially in the early years. In similar terms to the discussion above, he cautioned against the problems inherent in material unrelated to immediate and direct experience, and also warned against media of representation becoming an end in themselves. From a psychological point of view to arbitrarily separate work from play (in its broadest sense) is not to use the child's developmental involvement with each.xi Furthermore, for the child only recently able to put off need gratification for any length of time, and just discovering means of receiving gratifications in modified fashion,xii the demand to put off pleasure in the task of reading for some unspecified future gain is, at best, inconsistent with the child's developmental readiness to meet such a demand.

Reading Given a Purpose

In a recent study of children who are successful readers,xiii the authors point out that these children most often come from homes where reading is an important aspect of the parent's life, and where the children are included in numerous experiences involving books (i.e., they are frequently read to, books are given as gifts on special occasions, the library habit is established early, etc.). While most educators have probably suspected this for a long time, its full implications seem never to have been realized nor capitalized upon. It would seem that the most heuristic interpretation of the McCarthy et al. dataxiv would be that these children have already been shown the purposes behind learning to read, both through adult example and their own experience. If a child has already been shown how books can be interesting and of value to him through previous experience, then important motivational factors for learning to read are there from the beginning. It then becomes the school's task to stimulate the child to learn how to read who has not come from the type of background identified above, by interesting him in the content as well as the process of reading, and thus specifying the purposes. Again, if the child can see the value of books for him through content, the process of learning to read then becomes more meaningful.

It does not seem to be a very bold prediction to state that other media beside the printed word have and will increasingly take over the role of disseminators of information and conveyors of intellectual enjoyment and emotional experience. As this occurs, it will become clear to schools that they must first interest the child not only in the process of reading but in its purposes, or reading will become the Edsel of the school system. In looking at McLuhan's discussions of television,xv one can see that its attraction to children when compared to first grade reading texts is that television's purposes are inherent within the process itself. The boundary between the how and the why of television simply does not exist as it does in present day means of learning to read. How to learn to read is taught, but why seems left to the child's previous experiences—experiences that may be slowly disappearing.


Implicit in the fact that the content of first grade reading texts are bland and pollyannaish is that the child learning to read is a precariously balanced object who will tip if touched even lightly. That is, the child will be harmed in some way if confronted in books by the issues he is experiencing and living in his daily life. That nothing is further from the truth can be documented by the writings on the needs and developmental tasks of latency age children.

Eriksonxvi discusses the importance in this stage of the need for mastery and how the child's personality crystalizes around the idea, "I am what I learn."xvii What the child needs to master and has to learn during this stage is not only the rational, practical techniques and means of behavior that allow for a feeling of being part of the adult world, but also a means of dealing with one's inner world. For example, Erikson, in discussing play, talks of the importance of a child mastering objects in the toy world and how this becomes associated with the mastery of conflicts, resulting in an experiential feeling of prestige for the child. This allows the child to advance to new stages of mastery not restricted to toys and objects, but which "includes an infantile way of mastering experiences by meditating, experimenting, planning, and sharing."xviii What Erikson is saying, then, is that the child needs to have the feeling of mastery of conflict at this stage of development to facilitate future growth. The outcome of this process and the means by which it is accomplished have much to do with future development. Most important, though, is that the child's normal developmental concerns during this period lead him to be both interested and involved in working on mastery of his inner as well as his outer world. The results of each are inextricably intertwined.

Other psychoanalytic writers,xix while not discussing latency in the descriptively illuminating language that Erikson uses, view the crucial aspects of the latency age period in an essentially similar way. For them the most important issue for the latency age child is the development of mechanisms which allow for adaptive behavior that is increasingly oriented toward reality. The child is driven to find means of dealing with the conflicts of the present and earlier stages of development in order that growth may occur. Although external factors certainly exist, this process is primarily viewed as determined by internal factors that drive the child toward mastery that will allow both for the unfolding of the socialization process and for the child's becoming progressively less dependent upon the external world for controls. The key for these writers, as with Erikson, is the development of healthy mechanisms (i.e., ego functions) for the child's ability to cope with what is going on inside of him and with the realities of the external world, as well as with the interaction of these two.

Developmental Concerns

From what is known about the child learning to read, it would seem that the content of first grade reading texts should include the developmental concerns of children and the mastery of issues that are crucial to them. That this type of content is not something that will frighten the child, but to the contrary will intrigue him, is not just a hypothesis based upon knowledge of latency, but receives support from others. Although Zimetxx has pointed to the difficulties in research on children's reading preferences, two studies seem relevant here.xxi These authors, in discussing children's stories which have successfully endured over time, mention two important factors in these stories. They are: the stories are related to the developmental concerns of latency age children;xxii and at the core of each story there is a universal daydream containing within it the conflicts with which each child must struggle.xxiii It would seem, indeed, that the child is drawn to stories that include within them the conflicts of the type he is experiencing and which current first grade reading texts strenuously avoid. While Friedlander and Peller stress the importance of instinctual gratification in the stories they identify as enduring, this seems to be only a partial answer. Although it is true that areas of conflict contain elements of gratification, the essential nature of conflict is that it is painful. A more complete conceptualization of the child's interest in stories with conflictual themes can be viewed in Eriksonian terms. As in the child's play where he projects conflicts on toys and uses these in the mastery process, the child can use the story characters in conflict to identify with, utilizing the pain itself as well as the solution to aid in mastery.

Successful Stories

Pellerxxiv has pointed out how stories which have been read and enjoyed by successive generations of latency age boys repeat, on a larger scale, everyday experiences that are difficult to cope with. One recurrent theme in these stories is that of the latency age boy, apart from his parents, who encounters adult figures representing the whole spectrum of character types in situations of varying degrees of danger. This theme depicts, in an exaggerated fashion, the quality of experiences that are common to most latency age boys. First of all, the latency age boy is starting, on a consistent basis, to leave the protective influence of home for increasingly extended periods of independence. Secondly, he is coming in contact with numerous types of authority figures in school, community, and church. Thirdly, if nothing else, the uniqueness of the many new situations that the latency age boy must face causes much anxiety and perceived danger. In the exaggerated situations the story's hero is usually portrayed as clever, resourceful, and virtuous, with his actions resulting in triumph. One can see, then, how the story communicates to the latency age boy that he does have some control over and power in his environment and that he has qualities that are uniquely his own which allow him to successfully adapt. In summary, a simple theme related to developmental concerns of latency age boys can be extremely beneficial There is the sharing of a series of anxiety-provoking, painful experiences common, in a qualitative fashion, to most latency age boys. This in itself can prove to be helpful. Most important, there is the main character's ability to cope with difficult experiences. The latency age boy can thus gain the impetus for dealing more actively with his own conflicts, both through identification and example. The problems he is facing no longer have to seem so ominous nor insurmountable. Although solutions aren't offered, the process of resolving conflict is presented as a possibility that should intrigue the child desirous of mastery.

What are the dangers involved in first grade reading texts avoiding areas that are germane to the developmental concerns of children learning to read? Pearson,xxv using a psychoanalytic model to discuss learning problems, points to the difficulties that arise when an external situation does not hold the attention of a child. He states, "An important function of the ego is to direct attention to a particular situation or stimulus in order to master it,"xxvi When the child is faced with a stimulus that he can invest in, the multitude of other stimuli which exist at the same time, but which do not have investment, can be deflected. However, if no such situation or stimulus of importance is present, the child appears distractible and uninterested. First grade reading texts, by not addressing themselves to the content appropriate to the ego functioning of the latency age child and the need to get on with the process of mastery of the external and internal world, further complicate "learning to read."

Probably the most important weakness in the current content of most first grade reading texts revolves around the whole growth and maturation process. Various authorsxxvii have pointed out that certain tasks in latency are important for further development in adolescence and adulthood. Certainly books could be helpful to the first-grade child in dealing with the conflicts he is primed to master during this stage. This hypothesis has been supported in general terms by numerous investigators.xxviii However, the bland, pollyannaish content found in most first grade reading texts not only stifles the growth process, but more importantly may communicate to the child that this must be something to be frightened of and avoided. Why else would the characters not show emotion that is negative as well as positive, feel anxiety and pain, or experience conflicts?


i Gaston E. Blom, Richard R. Waite, and Sara G. Zimet, "A Motivational Content Analysis of Children's Printers," in P. Mussen, J. Conger, and J. Kagen, Eds. Readings in Child Development and Personality. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

ii Ibid.

iii Gaston E. Blom, Richard R. Wake, and Sara G, Zimet, "Ethnic Integration and Urbanization of a First Grade Reading Textbook: A Research Study," Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 2, 1967, pp. 176-81. Richard R. Waite, "Further Attempts to Integrate and Urbanize First Grade Reading Textbooks: A Research Study," Journal of Negro Education, Winter, 1968, pp. 62-9.

iv R. C. Smith, "Children's Reading Choices and Basic Reader Content," Elementary English, Vol. 39, 1962, pp. 202-09. J, L. Wiberg and Marion Trost, "Comparison of First Grade Primers and Free Choice Library Selection," in press: Elementary English.

v C. McCracken and C. Walcutt. Basic Reading. New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1963.

vi Ibid.

vii G. Whipple. Appraisal of the City Schools Reading Program. Detroit: Detroit Public Schools Division for Improvement of Instruction, Language Education Department, 1963.

viii Ibid.

ix A. Namnum and E. Prelinger, "On the Psychology of the Reading Process/' American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 31, 1961, pp. 820-27.

x J. Dewey. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan Company, 1916.

xi Anna Freud. Normality and Pathology in Childhood, New York: International Universities Press, 1965.

xii Panel Report, "The Latency Period," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 5, 1957, pp. 525-8.

xiii P. McCarthy, L. Gillotey, and G. Wagner, "Let's Get Together," Education, Vol. 83, 1963, pp. 564-66.

xiv Ibid.

xv M. McLuhan. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967.

xvi E. H. Erikson, "Identity and the Life Cycle," Psychological Issues, Vol. 1, 1959, 82-88.

xvii Ibid.

xviii Ibid.

xix P. Bios. On Adolescence, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1962. E. Buxbaum, "A Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Knowledge of the Latency Period," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 21, 1951, pp. 182-98. F. S. Friedenberg, "Thoughts on the Latency Period," Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 44, 1957, pp. 390-400. Panel Report, op. cit.

xx Sara G. Zimet, "Children's Interest and Story Preferences: A Critical Review of the Literature," Elementary School Journal, Vol. 67, 1966, pp. 122-30.

xxi K. Friedlander, ''Children's Books and Their Function in Latency and Prepuberty," American Imago, Vol. 3, 1942, pp. 129-50. L. Peller, "Reading and Daydreams in Latency, Boy-Girl Differences," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 6,1958, pp. 57-70,

xxii Friedlander, op. cit.

xxiii Peller, op. cit.

xxiv Peller, op. cit.

xxv G. H. Pearson, "A Survey of Learning Difficulties," Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, Vol. 7, 1952, pp. 322-86.

xxvi Ibid.

xxvii Bios, op. cit. Erikson, op. cit. R. J. Havighurst. Developmental Tasks and Education, New York: David McKay Co., 1952.

xxviii L. Bender and R. Lourie, "The Effect of Comic Books on the Ideology of Children," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 11, 1941, pp. 540-50. P. J. Cianciolo, "Children's Literature Can Affect Coping Behavior," Personnel and Guidance Journal, Vol. 43, 1965, pp. 897-903. C. Martin, "But How Do Books Help Children?" Junior Libraries, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 83-7. C. Mattera, "Bibliotherapy in a Sixth Grade." Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Pennsylvania State University, 196L P. A. Witty, "Meeting Developmental Needs through Reading," Education, Vol. 84, 1964, pp. 451-58.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 72 Number 1, 1970, p. 23-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1640, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:52:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Fred Busch
    Medical Center, University of Michigan
    Dr. Busch, presently with the Children's Psychiatric Hospital, University of Michigan Medical Center, contends that the bland, insipid content of first-grade readers not only complicates the process of "learning to read," but may, in fact, later contribute to an adolescent's anxiety. That the content does not deal with a child's developmental concerns and the mastery of issues that are crucial to him may lead the youngster to conclude that his conflicts are unique and something to be frightened of and avoided. Dr. Busch was supported in his research by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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