Today, the malcontents who work in my school took a step I should have easily anticipated: they voted to begin using a reading series, Journeys, beginning in September 2017 in P – 6. I’ve worked at this school for 20 years, and have seen many bright hopes come and go in reading, in writing (oh, 6 + 1 Writing will change everything!) and in mathematics. No approach had anything different about it but the publication date and some of the stories, but essentially a basal reader is a basal reader is a basal reader. In case you’re unfamiliar, a basal reader is organized such that a story becomes the base for the week’s lessons, which include spelling, which is only peripherally related to a few words one might find in the story; vocabulary, only occasionally related to the story; grammar, totally unrelated to the story; and, of course, the SKILLS LESSON! Ah, yes, you, too, can teach a child to predict outcomes, even if they don’t know what predict outcomes means! Sure, all they need is a lesson or two each week and they’ll be experts.
Unfortunately, they will not be readers. They will have no knowledge to apply to what they read. They’ll be able to decode beautifully, elegantly; but when you tell a child who knows nothing outside the confines of her town to use context in figuring out new words, they will be able to pronounce the words quite nicely, thank you, but they will wonder why you’re talking about context when they don’t understand the context. They don’t have the content knowledge to apply to the passage under consideration. Take the following samples for consideration:
Complex structural effects in the nuclide production from the projectile fragmentation of 1 A GeV 238U nuclei in a titanium target, manifested as an even-odd effect, are reported. The structure seems to be insensitive to the excitation energy induced in the reaction. This is in contrast to the salient structural features found in nuclear fission and in transfer reactions, which gradually disappear with increasing excitation energy.
What does “salient” mean here? Come on, figure it out from context!
Maybe you’d prefer something more familiar, but just as complex for its subject:
Over the centuries, people settled in stable communities that were based on agriculture. Domesticated animals became more common. The invention of new tools—hoes, sickles, and plow sticks—made the task of farming easier. As people gradually developed the technology to control their natural environment, they reaped larger harvests. Settlements with a prodigal supply of food could support larger populations.
What does “prodigal” mean in that last sentence? You can probably figure it out from the context, because you know something about communities, people, and tools. But for a kid trying to read a new text that has, as a prerequsite, broad background knowledge of the world, it’s just as hard as the selection from a chapter on muons and complex nuclides.
So my school voted to get rid of a highly acclaimed English Language Arts program that incorporates the direct introduction of general background knowledge along with necessary skills in phonics, grammar, and text strategies. They voted to get rid of it so they could live on Easy Street with a basal that ensures kids will learn their phonics and their decoding — but ensures also that they will have no success in reading comprehension, because they don’t know — they simply don’t know — what the text is talking about.