What Is the Basal Reading Approach?

Basal readers follow a sequence, in which later books build on the skills developed previously.
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The basal reading approach is a method of teaching children to read that employs books, workbooks and activities in a sequence in which each book or activity is designed to build on the skills learned previously. The word “basal” means “basis” or “fundamental.” The basal reading approach creates and builds on a foundation of basic skills.

1 McGuffey Readers

The earliest version of the basal approach was McGuffey Readers, used in American schools from 1836 to 1960. These focused on teaching reading through phonetics, that is, learning to read by sounding out the words. While the earliest McGuffey Readers featured extremely simplistic texts and were often repetitive, books later in the series featured excerpts from literature, including Shakespeare, Byron and Wordsworth.

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2 Dick and Jane

The best known version of the basal approach was a series of books published by the Scott Foresman Co. from the 1930s to the 1960s, which featured the characters Dick and Jane. The “Dick and Jane” series was based on then-current Behaviorist theories of how children learned, often repeating a word on a page multiple times, along with a picture illustrating its meaning. For example, a page might feature a picture of Dick throwing a toy airplane into the sky, along with the words “Go up, up, up.”

3 Phonetics vs. Whole Word Method

The “Dick and Jane” series, rather than teach reading through phonetics, relied on a “look-say” or whole word method of reading. Through repetition, the child learned to recognize the look of a given word, and associate it with the spoken word. This method was heavily criticized in Rudolf Flesch’s 1955 book “Why Johnny Can't Read,” which argued that the whole word method led to children developing limited reading vocabularies, and that such children would have difficulty reading outside of the basal approach’s programmed sequence of books.

4 Contemporary Basal Reading Approach

The Scott Foresman Co. stopped publishing the “Dick and Jane” series by the end of the 1960s, but the basal approach to reading continues today. Contemporary basal readers often include supplements such as CDs, games, posters and puppets, but are still based on the idea of a programmed series of readings and activities, designed to incrementally build on a set of skills. Many contemporary publishers incorporate phonetics learning and engaging reading materials to overcome past criticisms of the basal approach.

Based in Chicago, Adam Jefferys has been writing since 2007. He teaches college writing and literature, and has tutored students in ESL. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and is currently completing a PhD in English Studies.