How can you support basal readers when we know it's teachers that matter?

  • effective teachers
  • 04 June, 2016

Why do you support the use of basal readers for teaching reading? Isn’t it the teachers that make the difference, not the textbooks?

          What an peculiar—but all-too-common—question.

           What has led to this weird belief that schools can have either textbooks or good teachers? That investments in teacher development and textbook adoption are opposites? Or, that the good teachers will run screaming from the room upon textbook purchases?

           The real issue isn’t whether teachers or programs matter, but whether students are best served by a corps of good teachers using a shared program of instruction.

           There is no research showing that textbooks automatically lead to higher reading achievement. But, the reverse is true too… there is no research showing that teachers without programs are in any way advantaged by their omission.

           Over the years, I have known many schools without reading programs. As director of reading in the Chicago schools, there were principals who refused to buy reading programs. Like you, they believed that teachers and kids would do better without them. Achievement levels in those schools were in the bottom 20 percent nationally. I remember proudly telling those teachers I wouldn’t “impose” a reading program on them; their cries of anguish and dismay still haunt me. I’m not blaming their low achievement on the lack of textbooks necessarily, since there were other equally low achieving schools in Chicago that did have them.

           Of course, I also know high achieving schools without textbooks. I’d not credit their high attainment to the dearth of textbooks, but their lack was conferring no obvious disadvantage either. (The schools have particularly well to do clienteles, so I suspect that if you did away with classrooms and teachers, too, they would still be in pretty good shape).

           Anyone honest on this issue knows that it isn’t “scripted boring basal readers” versus “brilliant committed talented teachers” any more than it is “research-based high quality engaging textbooks” versus “lazy underprepared washout teachers.” If it were, it would be an easy choice. Textbooks and teachers are both mixed bags—when looked at collectively.

           To my knowledge only in teaching would anyone make such bizarre decisions… imagine if hospitals agonized over whether to hire highly qualified physicians or to stock the pharmacy!

           Some reasons to have a program, and not just each teacher constructing her own:

1.    Teaching is a team sport, not an individual event.

If teaching were akin to a track event, like a marathon, I’d gladly defer to individual talent. Just hire a good teacher (or runner) and let her do her thing to the best of her ability. The more those individuals hone their idiosyncratic skills the better they’ll be, and their individual styles and choices won’t matter.

But teaching is a collective activity, more like running a relay than a 50-yard dash. Make the separate machinery mesh, you win. In team sports, it’s rare that the best players all end up on one team. Instead, they figure out how to combine all the varied parts into a transcendent whole.

Your metaphor for teaching might be “To Sir With Love” or “The Dead Poet’s Society”—films in which hero teachers, without support of colleagues or administration and certainly with neither textbook nor curriculum, save the world. My metaphor of choice will be the Chicago Bulls—back when Michael Jordan stopped trying to be the hero and learned to pass the ball to his less talented teammates; and when the whole team agreed to the discipline of a structured offense, rather than everyone playing up to their individual ability. A coherent PreK-5 program makes more sense for teaching students to read than 6-7 teachers each doing their own thing, even if they are really nice people and are trying hard.

2.  Teachers have lives, too.

      Another reason I don’t think elementary teachers should be expected to spend their nights designing all the lessons from scratch is because so many teachers do crazy things like get married, have babies, get divorces, take grad classes, take care of ill parents, get ill themselves, and, well, you get the idea. Teaching, when you do it right, is exhausting. Add to that grading papers, IEP meetings, parent phone calls, finding a way to get Bobby home since he missed his bus, and then the less arduous lesson planning (like figuring out the best way to deliver the lesson in the textbook).

     In most situations, teachers simply don’t have the time on their own to put together great lessons everyday. Alternatively, textbook companies hire people who do little besides designing such lessons; they can put all of their energy and resources into that portion of the job. If teacher plans are so sacrosanct, then why do so many teachers without textbooks scan the internet in search of workable lessons other teachers have posted or illegally photocopying texts and materials from elsewhere? The issue isn’t whether teachers can formulate lessons as good as those in the textbooks. On average, they definitely can. The real questions are whether most teachers can do so over long periods of time, or whether their time might be better devoted to studying the kids and fitting textbook to those diverse needs.

3.  Programs sometimes are better.

     One of the things the National Reading Panel looked at was whether teachers should teach “responsive phonics,” that is teaching phonics skills as students need them rather than following a predetermined curriculum. It certainly makes sense that kids would benefit from such personally tailored teaching; very personal, very individualized… and relatively ineffective, when compared to the use of a systematic program. Having tried to teach responsive phonics to first-graders myself, I’m not surprised that following a well-designed phonics curriculum would guarantee high levels of decoding performance to more kids than the jerry-rigged approach.

4.  Systematic improvement.

     If all teachers in a school or district employ the same fourth-grade program, then it is easier to deal with a problem like low fourth-grade vocabulary. Addressing, or even noticing, such patterns is less likely when everyone is does their own thing. If vocabulary were low then apparently everyone needs to change—both those who teach vocabulary poorly and those who teach it well. Sorting out which teachers are struggling gets really touchy, so it usually isn’t addressed at all. In schools in which all teachers are highly effective experts, laissez-faire is usually the school improvement policy of choice.

It is time that we start trying to build quality on quality in education. By all means hire the best teachers you can find, and then invest heavily in their professional development (you’ll find few people who've spent more on teacher’s professional development than me). But then give those teachers the best instructional tools available for supporting their work so that they can, in concert, teach their students to high levels of achievement. (And, don't leave principals, parents, specialists, assessments, etc. out of the equation either).


See what others have to say about this topic.

EdEd Apr 06, 2017 05:36 PM

What a fantastic post Dr. Shanahan. This is such an often misunderstood area of education. To add a bit, there is an ongoing, public conversation that is being shaped by folks like Diane Ravitch who are trying to polarize the conversation and create an "us vs. them" way of thinking - EITHER teachers OR ________ (for-profit education companies, tests, charter schools, etc.) can help students. Things like scripted curricula are often put in this "OR" category. This has been a most destructive trend and led us significantly off course.

Thanks for your commentary - going to pass this on...


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:36 PM

You and I don't always agree, but boy are we on the same page this time. Diane Ravitch has very little experience with schools (taking away nothing from her bona fides as an educational historian). In the 1990s she ignored the social science research and prescribed testing as the solution to our educational problems. She was wrong and there was good reason to predict that she was going to be wrong (as she was). She wouldn't listen; too smart for that. Now her solution is laissez-faire; all teachers know best no matter what they do, just let each individual teacher do his/her own thing and education will improve. Again, her "plan" doesn't match the science, but she isn't in the schools and doesn't know the research (still). Still too smart to listen. As long as people want simplistic answers to complex problems, there will be "experts"--usually with little or no actual experience--willing to provide them.


tim 6/5/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 05:37 PM

You mentioned research showing as needed phonics vs. a structured phonics program. Do you know of any research on an individualized phonics program, such as Words Their Way? My district has recently gone to this and I'm concerned about the low kids never catching up to the grade level content. 6/6/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:37 PM

I very much like the methodology of Words their Way and have not doubt that they can be effective, because of its consistency with past research. However, there are no studies of that approach when compared to a program. I think you'd be better off with a program of instruction (when those have been compared to teachers trying to to phonics on their own--not Words their Way specifically--programs do better).

tim 6/6/16

EdEd Apr 06, 2017 05:37 PM

Glad to sit in agreement for once! 6/7/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 05:38 PM

I had been thinking of Words Their Way as a program. You can purchase it, there are teaching materials, workbooks for the kids, etc.

What would you say constitutes a program if Words Their Way isn't one? Can you recommend something that you would consider to be a phonics program? 6/7/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:38 PM

Sorry. I know the books for teachers, but not the program. If it is thorough enough, I think it could be a good choice.

tim 6/8/16

Dara Taylor May 09, 2019 07:40 PM

Hi there, I have a question about several phonics and reading resources that have been recommended through my district. We have been asked to pilot one program next year. Our first task is to look at several programs and decide which ones we would prefer to use in our classrooms (K-2). SIPPS, Fountas & Pinnell, and Lucy Calkins are the ones being considered to pilot next year. Any thoughts on how to decide which one to try out?

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How can you support basal readers when we know it's teachers that matter?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.