Sunday, March 3, 2013

Has Your Story been Basalized?

     The other day I ran across Jane Resh Thomas’ essay “Books in the Classroom: Unweaving the Rainbow” published in the Nov./Dec. 1987 issue of the Horn Book.  In it she bravely took issue with some basal reading programs.
     During those days basal readers were part of  reading programs designed to teach children to read by taking apart  an excerpt of a writer’s published story or book, changing the words and then publishing it in a reading textbook, workbook or other supplemental material for children to read in the classroom.  Teachers and children either loved -- or hated -- basals.
    Jane’s essay argued that teaching through basals seemed to “interfere” with kids’ overall enjoyment of reading, as well as interfered the ability of  writers --  whose “basalized” work was in those readers  -- to communicate with children through the writers’ art. She related some experiences about her own stories that faced  “basalization.”
    Many educators  rebelled against teaching basals in the 1980s and instead joined the “whole language ” movement. Whole language teachers (as I understood it ) allowed their students to read an author’s short story or  book, enjoy that story or book, and learn from  one or the other  across the curriculum. Folks who didn’t understand, who didn’t teach  or didn’t want to teach “whole language” in turn rebelled, too.
    Thanks, Jane. Your essay is still food for  thought for teachers who love to read themselves and teach reading, and for writers who want children to read exactly what they've written. 
     Reading methods will continue to  evolve, and I believe that we writers will continue to want to have our work connect in meaningful ways with one’s audiences. Writer Joseph Conrad  even said he had a task to do for his own audience.
     His task was … “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see.”


  1. Oh lovely, thank you Eleanora. There is a treasure trove of material in the Horn Book archives. How terrific that you uncovered one by our Jane.

    "Basalized" is quite the verb.

  2. Marsha, I was again recycling papers, magazines, folders, etc. and had for some reason way back then saved Jane's essay. I saved one of Joyce Hansen's, too. I'm sure I'll continue to find precious essays by more precious writers, like you.
    I thought "basalized" pretty much fit the mark on what was being done with folks' stories. I think one or another of my short stories was/were in reading programs. Bill Hooks had been my editor for an original story I wrote for one of his reading programs textbooks. I hadn't objected to anything that time myself. I was just happy that he was interested in publishing my story.
    Tell us about your experience, Marsha, with basal reading programs.

    1. As far as I know I've never been basalized. (I get a little twitchy just thinking about it, as if it involves small amounts of electricity).

  3. Basal readers remind me of what the New Yorker said about Reader's Digest, how they extract every other word, like a tooth. (I think E.B. White said that, actually, but it's been a while.) I agree, it's a terrible thing to do with a story excerpt.

    Same song, another verse: Here's a kerfluffle about a Daniel Pinkwater story rewritten for a test so that it made ... well, less sense than before:

    Wouldn't it be nice if educators and test writers would leave those blessed words alone?

  4. Oh Marsha, it does sound like we should be twitching each time we think of being "basalized," doesn't it? You are such an original!
    Melinda, thanks for telling us about Daniel Pinkwater's rewritten piece. Ug!
    Come to think of it, a couple of my published stories were used as pilots for tests. One was "Big Things Come in Small Packages." I just grabbed the money and ran the other way.
    In her Horn Book essay, Jane wrote that instead of each child reading her entire book "The Comeback Dog" they were each assigned one chapter apiece. When asked to write alternative endings to her book, two of the kids were so confused that they "moved the setting from a poor midwestern farm to a Texas hotel." (782, Thomas)

  5. I had an E.B. White article resold to Pearson's. I'm always for earning extra bucks, but I've always been curious how it looked once it hit the test page, and what the poor kids reading it are thinking. When I was in school, I used to read these excerpts in tests and I was like, "Geez, if they're going to make us do these dang day-long tests, they should at least give us something fun to read!"

    Think of the children, test-makers!

  6. hi! Nice blog you got here. btw I use this software for my ipad, it really makes storytelling for kids easier., check it out! your kids will love it! - Janice

  7. As an educator who used those basals in the 1980's, I am so sorry they are no longer the foundation for our reading programs. What you may not have realized, is that many basals were set up in thematic units, with two or three short stories for the students, and then an excerpt of a novel or longer work as the final reading of the unit. Yes, we used those exerpts to teach. However, I either bought multiple copies of the book for select students to enjoy the entire book (if they wanted to read it), bought classroom sets of some novels the students liked best for the entire class to use as a whole, or read the entire book aloud to the class as we moved on in the basal. In reality, the use of excerpts in the basal actually boosted sales of children's books. Be careful what you wish for.