Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

I began to work in schools in the late 1980’s, right around the time that the tides were turning away from packaged reading programs—otherwise known as basals—to what Ralph Peterson and Mary Ann Eeds, authors of the seminal book Grand Conversations, called “real books”—books “written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Those were the years in which teachers and schools heeded the words of the great children’s book author Katherine Paterson who said:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

To that end schools invested in classroom libraries where students could choose independent reading books. And teachers helped students form literature circles to discuss what they read in accordance with Peterson and Eeds’s four core beliefs:

    • Story is an exploration and illumination of life
    • Interpretation is the result of a transactional process in which readers bring meaning to as well as take meaning from a text
    • Children are born makers of meaning
    • Dialogue is the best method for teaching and learning about literature

It was a heady, invigorating time—and a challenging one, too, as many of us learned that it wasn’t always enough to just put a book in a child’s hand or let them talk with their peers. Some students couldn’t comprehend what they read; some didn’t know how to listen and talk in a way that could build and deepen understanding. And so many of us started teaching strategies and skills that would help students reap the rewards that Katherine Paterson so eloquently spelled out.

I’ve dedicated my work life to supporting teachers do this valuable work, but this year I’m seeing a disturbing trend back toward packaged reading programs, a.k.a. 21st century-style basals. I think this has happened for a number of reasons: the climate of testing, the obsession with data, the belief among some who wield power that corporate publishing conglomerates know more about teaching than teachers do. Plus there’s the fact that real, authentic reading—that transactional exchange that stretches imaginations and illuminates life—is hard to assess and quantify. But with so many schools going back to packaged programs, I decided that I needed to look at them more closely, both to see what I was up against and make sure I wasn’t misjudging them.

And so one day during a break I opened up the fourth grade version of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s program Journeys to see what I could see. Having been raised on Dick and Jane, the first thing I noticed was that the Table of Contents was filled with the name of real authors whose books were worth reading precisely for the reasons Katherine Paterson’s enumerated. There was Kate DiCamillo and Julia Alvarez, Laurence Yep and Pam Munoz Ryan. The illustrations were charming and I had to concede that the vocabulary component might be useful. But I ran into trouble when I looked more closely at one of the weekly lessons.

The text for that week was “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television,” which combined two chapters from Jean Craighead George‘s autobiographical collection of stories about animals, The Tarantula in My PurseThese two chapters recounted the George family’s experience with an injured gray screech owl they brought into their homes, and among the many things the story explores and illuminates is how little we can ever truly know the animals we share our lives with and how letting go is as much a part of love as trying to spare and shield those we love from the pain that letting go brings.

If we say that meaning is the ultimate goal, you would think that the week’s comprehension lesson would focus on a strategy or skill that helped students access and consider the text’s deeper meaning. But the comprehension lesson was on fact vs. opinion, with students asked to search the text for examples, as if reading were a scavenger hunt. I do think it might be possible to use an understanding of fact and opinion to get to those deeper levels, but the program didn’t ask students asked to do that. Instead they were asked to explain how the facts and opinions they collected could or couldn’t be verified as a means of proving what each sample was.

To be fair, there were some comprehension questions that seemed to circle the deeper meaning. But the students weren’t given any strategies to answer those beyond the literal level, which was all that seemed to be expected of them from the sample answers in the Teacher’s Guide. Mostly they were asked to recall information, not to stretch their imaginations and consider what their eyes and hearts were open to. In this way, the text seemed little more than the vehicle to practice a skill with, rather than one to read closely and examine in order to “gain the maximum insight,” as the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria requires instructional material to do.

So . . . my final verdict? The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. And that left me with one final question: Was it a fact or an opinion that all packaged reading programs were aligned to the Common Core Standards—despite whatever they claimed?  Verification seemed in order.

10 thoughts on “Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

  1. Thank you for such an insightful reflection and thoroughness in your research. I also question using parts of a text. It seems when I read about short texts in the document you attached that they should be “self-contained texts.” I. C (p. 4). I know as a coach, talking with teachers, the idea of finding their own texs is overwhelming, but the advice I hear is that we should use the texts we love and I am a BIG believer in integrating and it is the only way we can really get to the depth of these new standards.

  2. Thanks for another wonderful post.

    You said:
    “The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. ”

    Yes, they are better than the Dick and Jane of my foggy past. And, yes, the disconnect between the possibility of the text and a narrow focus on skills bothers me, too. This disconnect is on my mind because I scanned your blog while I was also helping to monitor an online test my children were taking. I felt the same sense of disconnection about the testing that teachers have to do for the purpose of “accountability” as you seem to describe in your post about disconnected skills learning. The tests we administer don’t really measure what they purport to measure; they do give us some darn fine numbers that actually sort kids along an axis (and teachers, too.) But too often we don’t really ask what this sorting actually accomplishes. Testing authorities act as if the meaning was self-evident. They think they know why kids perform differently because they do perform differently. However, having watched some of “my” children perform today (some great, some not so) I can’t confidently say that I, as one who knows them better than anyone other that their parents and close relatives, can really figure out what it all means. I suspect it has a lot to do with motivation and the ability to think in certain ways, and less about what one can actually do vis a vis the “skills” that were supposedly tested. I’m not entirely sure what all that effort was about and how the experience helped me know them better.

    Similarly, learning a set of “skills”, and practicing them in order to show that one has mastered them, can be done, and a test can sort children nicely along an axis. But why? What does being able to find instances of fact and opinion say about the important stuff? Where lies the passion in this? How does this help one learn the crucial skills of how to think clearly and deeply, and how to know well and flexibly? Or feel the immense joys of learning something new and important?

    And how does one even demonstrate, in these times, that these are questions worth pondering?

    This is one of the things that I got from your post today. Testing days are tough on the soul, it seems. 🙂

    • You’ve touched on so many important things here: the disconnection between skills and meaning, the assumption on the part of test designers that meaning is self-evident–and unequivocal–and the tragic omission of passion and joy. Too often I feel like we’re expected to be music teachers who focus only on students mastering fingering and scales without ever letting them play real music. And I’m reminded of a quote from Annie Dillard: ““Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” It’s my deepest hope that as the educational community wrestles with the Standards and what it means to be an effective teacher, we collectively come to our senses and acknowledge what we’re losing by focusing what’s easy to measure, not on what really matters. And in the meantime, I do take heart in knowing that there are others out there trying to make sense of it all.

    • It’s so good to hear other voices out there circling the canned produce issue! And what a wonderful plea for real professional development: the kind the doesn’t just train teachers to implement someone else’s program, but that introduces teachers to some new ideas and practices and lets them experiment and ultimately decide how to incorporate them into their classrooms. That latter kind sometimes seems to me like an endangered species, so it’s also really good to know that others are out there trying to keep it alive!

  3. As always, you hit the nail on the head (or the bookmark on the page?) Your post was refreshing and timely as our team prepares to become really “popular” with salivating publishers. We are looking for resources (text anthologies, etc.) to support secondary literacy teachers who are spending inordinate amounts of time “text hunting”…time that often pulls from other instructional planning and professional learning work.

    The more resources I preview the more I’m convinced there’s no such thing as an evil (or perfect) resource; just more and less effective ways to use resources and texts with kids. Your point about the fact and opinion lesson being harnessed to a rich text is what often frustrates me about packaged resources — they attempt to take the thinking and creating work out of teaching and learning. They aspire to “be the teacher” vs. knowing their place as simply a resource. I think they often assume that kids (and their teachers) aren’t capable of designing compelling lessons or layers for reading the texts themselves. My greatest hope for implementation of the CCSS is that it will elevate teacher choice and voice in the process of curriculum development and instructional decision-making; and that these voices and choices will drive purchasing decisions, not the other way around.

    • Your hope is my hope, too! And knowing how many smart teachers you work with, I have faith that they’ll be able to ignore what will inevitably be the publishers call to follow the program exactly or risk having their students fail. But I also think the reason that so much time is spent on text hunting is because we don’t always have a way of sharing the texts we do find that work, or of keeping track of them in some kind of systematic, accessible way. I, for instance, was thrilled to discover a piece from The Onion that I saw Julie McEldowney use years ago in Aurora in a great book a colleague just introduced me to called “Strange Bedfellows.” It offers short paired texts with some lesson suggestions aimed at secondary school students. And I’d highly recommend it as a great resources that comes without strings attached.

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