Dr. John C. Sessoms, Superintendent of Norton City Schools in Norton, Virginia, asked me to compare the most recent versions of Houghton-Mifflin Reading (Houghton-Mifflin, 2003) and Open Court Reading (SRA/McGraw-Hill, 2002; note that Open Court has not produced as 2003 series but continues to market its 2002 edition). Both basal reading series are candidates for adoption by Norton City Schools. I am a university professor and reading researcher with no commitments of any kind to any basal publisher; I have had no contact with or financial inducement from either Houghton-Mifflin or SRA/McGraw-Hill. My sole commitment is to the findings of reading research. I write as an independent reviewer and arbiter of these basal series. In this review, I freely praise methods, materials, and activities that appear to be well-grounded applications of research findings and criticize any shortcomings or deviations from research-based practices.Bruce Murray, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Reading Education
5040 Haley Center, Auburn University, AL 36849
Reading Genie Website: http://www.auburn.edu/rdggenie
Method. For the purpose of this review, I
did not use the usual means of analyzing basal series by the application
of checklists rating various features of competing texts. This method
fails to provide appropriate weight to the most important features of elementary
reading textbooks. For example, if our checklist includes “colorful
illustrations” and “decodable text,” it looks as if these features are
equally important in teaching children to read—but the research literature
says otherwise. Moreover, it tends to offer a superficial look at
many qualities rather than an in-depth study of any single lesson.
Instead, I selected instructional texts in the teacher's manuals at key developmental points, and examined the pedagogy in these texts as I would examine the lesson designs of preservice teachers: To determine whether they are effective in teaching reading. I believe we can safely grant that both reading series have good children’s literature, fine illustrations, sturdy bindings, abundant resources beyond the anthology, acceptable readability levels for the intended grade, and the like. The important way in which the series differ is in how the teacher is instructed to teach children to read.
I looked for lesson components at five points in a development sequence as represented by the teacher’s manuals. I chose three lessons at the first grade level because of the crucial nature of the task in first grade of teaching children how to read. Because first grade is a crucial foundational year for learning to read, I view instruction during that year of paramount importance for evaluating a basal series. Research strongly supports systematic, explicit, intensive phonics instruction built on a foundation of phoneme awareness, featuring decodable texts for reading practice. In large-scale, federally funded experiments, children learning to read with such a program gained reading independence faster, more rapidly acquired sight vocabulary, and improved reading comprehension relative to peers who learned from incidental, analytic, and gradual phonics programs. Three points were identified within the first grade basal: Lessons that teach the short vowels a and u and the long vowel i signaled by silent e. I also examined a representative fluency lesson in grade two and a lesson on summarization in grade four. In considering these lessons, I have taken particular note of the clarity of explanations, explicitness in modeling, and simplicity of initial guided practice. Throughout this evaluation, I apply criterion established by scientific studies of reading, given the crucial achievements of each developmental phase: phoneme awareness, accurate decoding, fluent reading, and acquisition of comprehension strategies.
I. Teaching short a in Grade 1: Houghton-Mifflin
System and pace in introducing correspondences. Houghton-Mifflin Reading (the pronunciation is HOAT-un) uses 10 teacher's manuals to present the first grade curriculum. Each manual encompasses about 3 weeks of teaching. The short-a lesson begins on p. T27, Day 1 of the first lesson in first unit (following an optional 12-day kindergarten review). The program gets right down to business teaching a vowel correspondence to use in reading and spelling words. The program introduces two short vowels (a = /a/, i = /i/) in a three-week cycle while reviewing consonants, a moderately fast instructional pace.
Phoneme awareness review. The teacher reads
a silly poem about a cat that sat on a hat. She provides words to
blend from the poem in a left-to-right sequence, e.g., /h/a/t/. This
is practice without instruction at a difficult blending level; an easier
vowel-first, body-coda sequence (see the Reading Genie webpage on how to
teach blending, http://www.auburn.edu/rdggenie/blending.html)
would require children to deal with only two elements at a time, e.g.,
/a/, /h/a/—/ha/, /ha/t/, hat. Body-coda blending was demonstrated
in a recent experimental study to be slightly easier than onset-rime blending
and considerably easier than blending fully segmented words. Next
children review /m/ using a standard alphabet reference card with Mm and
an illustration of a mouse. Students hold up various cards to spell
the beginning or ending phonemes /s/, /t/, /m/, and /k/ (c) in response
to spoken words, an effective phoneme awareness review activity.
Individual students are asked to produce words that begin or end with each
phoneme. Next children spell the phonemes at the beginning and ending
of spoken words with letters m, s, c, and t;
no explicit directions are given for letter formation, leaving some children
to discover the sequence of letter features on their own.
The a = /a/ correspondence is introduced using a standard alphabet card with Aa and an illustration of an apple. The teacher stretches cat and explains that a stands for /a/ in the middle of cat, unnecessarily confusing the letter name /A/ with the phoneme /a/. Students practice by testing spoken words for /a/, holding up the apple card for spoken words with /a/, a valuable phoneme awareness activity.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher
leads the class to spell at, am, cat, mat,
and tam in Elkonin boxes drawn on the chalkboard by questioning
rather than modeling, e.g., "What sound do you hear at the beginning of
What letter should I write in the first box?" Volunteers come to
the board to complete the spellings. Explicit modeling with a "think-aloud"
that explains how problems are solved is usually preferable to questioning
as less confusing and easier to imitate. A practice page has children
color the illustrated words with /a/ (e.g.,
map) and not the others
Children are asked to name the letters c, m, s, and t and give their sounds, again activating letter names that may compete with phonemes (e.g., cee vs. /k/). Using large letter cards, the teacher "models" how to blend mat and Sam by stretching the pronunciation while pointing to the letters with a "sweeping motion." This is not really modeling because it doesn't reveal the hidden strategies of sounding out the phonemes from the letter symbols and blending them, and it doesn't use the simplest vowel-first, body-coda blending sequence. Then children (or likely a few more advanced readers) blend words like sat and Cam and read the sentence "Sam Cat sat." Then they spell these words and the sentence "Cam sat" with letter cards. A practice page has children read cat and hat in Elkonin boxes and write the words next to illustrations; oddly, the boxes, which are spelling scaffolds, are presented for reading the words but not for spelling them. Next they read "Sam sat" and circle the correct illustration, a simple and appropriate early reading comprehension assessment. Six such practice pages are presented as an assignment in one sitting rather than distributed in conjunction with the lesson. They then independently read I Love Reading Books, Book 1, which I was unable to screen for decodability.
Next children reassemble to read a simple 4-page decodable story, Tam Cat; the entire text reads, "Tam Cat / mat. Tam Cat sat. Tam Cat sat, sat, sat." The story is introduced by having children describe the pictures. The teacher explains four decoding steps: 1) Look at the letters from left to right, 2) think about the sounds of the letters, 3) blend the sounds to read the word, and 4) ask yourself, "Is it a word I know?" and "Does it make sense in what I am reading?" This basic procedure correctly emphasizes the key strategies of decoding and cross checking. She then models how to read the title, and sample modeling dialogue is presented in the manual, e.g., "Look at the first word. I see the letters T, a, m. I put the sounds together: /t/a/m/, Tam. That is a name I know," etc. Children then read the text independently or with a partner. The teacher scaffolds with students having trouble by asking questions based on the four steps in the strategy, e.g., "What are the letters from left to right?" (which unfortunately cues letter names rather than phonemes). The teacher also says, "Say each sound and hold it until you say the next sound," which only works with continuants. In general, using cover-ups is preferable as a scaffold because it is less obtrusive and doesn't require children to answer questions while trying to read (see the Reading Genie page on how to help with oral reading, http://www.auburn.edu/rdggenie/oralrdg.html). After reading the story, students answer questions using the illustrations.
Children next review the letters m and s with alphabet cards mouse and seal. They complete a workbook page in which they spell the first letters of moon, six, mouth, seal, monkey, and saw, an appropriate beginning spelling activity. Children needing extra practice write lower case m's and s's on primary paper following the teacher's example, which is important in learning to identify letters; however, there is no talk through to focus attention on the letter features. Words from the lesson (at, cat, mat, and sat) are then posted on a "word pattern board" organized by concepts or spelling patterns, and drilled as rote spellings, e.g., by clapping and spelling a-t, at. This not only emphasizes letter names over phonemes, but also suggests a memorization strategy rather than a decoding strategy.
In other activities, children write in their journals to prompts or to self-selected topics, and listen to a read aloud and answer inferential questions, both valuable early literacy activities.
Blending method. The lesson directs left-to-right, letter-by-letter sequential blending. Children are instructed to continue saying each sound until they say the next, but this only works with continuant sounds. Stops like /t/ and /p/ cannot be elongated in this way.
Decodability of practice texts. The text used in the lesson was fully decodable, but it had no real story. Children read three other books (one is titled Bear Play), but no inset copy is presented in the teacher's manual. Such omissions probably hide the fact that these other texts are not decodable given the correspondences taught. Beginners attempting to read texts like Bear Play will not find that a decoding strategy works, and will likely resort to phonetic cue reading, contextual guessing, memorization, or other compensatory strategies.
I. Teaching short a in Grade 1: Open Court
System and pace in introducing correspondences. Open Court uses 10 basal manuals for guiding first grade reading instruction. I located the lesson introducing /a/ (short a) spelled with the single letter a in the first manual, Let's Read (p. T262ff), in Unit I, lesson 13. I estimate students would be in their third week of first grade. Considerable previous instructional time is spent on consonant correspondences, which most students learn in kindergarten. My impression is that early correspondences are taught at a below average pace; only one vowel is taught is the first unit, corresponding roughly to a month of instruction. However, past editions of Open Court have been criticized for moving too rapidly; several weeks of review of consonant phonemes is not unreasonable.
Phoneme awareness review. The short a lesson
begins with phonemic awareness warm-up activities. In an alliterative
word game, the instructor reviews /m/ by having children notice /m/ in
an alliteration. The instructor also teaches the term alliteration,
which seems unnecessary vocabulary at this level. Children are asked
to suggest other /m/ and /s/ example words, a good assessment, but an activity
that doesn't provide any real instruction for children who haven't caught
on yet. The next activity is initial consonant blending, which requires
practice blending unsorted phonemes with the context clue of a walk in
the jungle to suggest words. As a follow-up, children supply segmented
words for the class to blend.
Then instruction gets more explicit. To teach oral blending, the teacher demonstrates how mend can change to send. Children practice by changing other words pronounced by the teacher, who supplies new initial consonants for children to add in phonetic cue reading. This is a very appropriate practice supporting alphabetic insight and built on previous instruction. Next children work with segmentation. A puppet character orally deletes the final consonant phoneme of words; students are to supply the missing phoneme and restate the word. This is probably a useful phoneme review, presuming phonemes in the practice words have been taught previously. However, it is essentially a spelling activity, and would likely work better with letters and Elkonin boxes. Altogether, the lesson presents a rich array of phoneme awareness activities.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher introduces
/a/ spelled a first by reviewing the concept of vowel as a "letter"
required in every word (vowels are actually phonemes made with open, shaped
mouth, but this usage is common). The teacher explains that vowels
have long and short sounds, and that its name is its long sound.
A sound-spelling card is introduced with the letters A and a
and an illustration of a lamb, whose actual bleat is similar to the phoneme
/a/. A green band on the card serves as a color cue signaling that
the phoneme /a/ is a short vowel. Open Court pioneered the use of
meaningful names for phonemes, and it is still virtually alone among reading
programs in using them. By representing phonemes with illustrations
that recall similar sounds in children's experiences, the program provides
a powerful mnemonic link to the phonemes, making them more memorable.
With the card, the teacher explains that the short sound of a is the sound heard in the middle of lamb. This is confusing because the letter name a (the long vowel) is used to identify the short vowel /a/; it would be better to point to the letter while saying the phoneme /a/. Next children practice recognizing /a/ in words in a lamb story, which includes isolating the phoneme /a/, e.g., "This is how I tell my Mommy where I am: /a/ /a/ /a/ /a/ /a/." Such stories were included in Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley's highly successful Sound Foundations program for thorough and explicit teaching of phoneme identities.
The teacher writes letter a on the board and says /a/. The students copy the letter, but the program misses an opportunity for guided printing practice, which would have been valuable review here. Then the teacher reads words with either /a/ or /A/ (i.e., short a or long a) and has students point either to a long, thin Aa drawn at the right side of the chalkboard or a short, stout Aa at the left. This is a good exercise for discriminating the two phonemes, but it uses confusing symbols. Next students sing a short vowel song ("The short a is in lamb") to the tune of "Farmer in the Dell." Again, this practice likely brings unnecessary confusion by using the term "short a," which contains the long /A/ phoneme. Why not sing, "The /a/ sound is in lamb"? Interestingly, a marginal note points out the problem of confusing the name with the sound of a letter, the very problem with the instruction in this lesson.
Next comes blending practice in which students blend /a/ to consonants to make words, using letters. The teacher models blending am, using hand motions to cue letters, and students echo the teacher. Students make up sentences with am. The lesson ends prematurely without practice opportunities and extension to other simple /a/ words, e.g., an and at. Children then practice in workbooks writing rows of a and A as they say /a/; again, the opportunity of reteaching letter formation is missed. Students also write a complete sentence "I am in a . . ." by supplying a word or picture. In a further exercise, students complete multiple-choice sentence completions using rebus pictures, e.g., next to an illustration of chicks in a nest, the student reads "I am a . . ." and chooses a picture of a chick or a leaf. This is simple but effective reading practice with whole sentences; the high-frequency words have been previously learned by rote whole-word methods.
In further writing practice, students write upper and lower-case vowels. Then students are invited to write words with /a/ on the board. Others come to the board and point to a in words. Students write the words am, me, and an from dictation and correct their own papers. An intervention tip is suggested in the margin: Teach the rule that when one vowel is between two consonants, the vowel says its short sound. This rule is stated in simple first-grade language: "Think of two consonants in Sam squeezing the vowel letter a, so a hollers 'a-a-a-a.'". This rule is too important for mere mention in a marginal note; it should be presented thoroughly.
Decodability of practice texts. Reading a decodable
book follows writing practice. Reading decodable stories has been
shown by reading research to improve the learning of correspondences.
By reading stories carefully designed to be decodable, students find that
phonics "works" and use decoding strategies. With text uncontrolled
for known correspondences, phonics doesn't work, and children revert to
other strategies, such as examining pictures, detecting language patterns,
and contextual guessing using phonetic cues, to the detriment of decoding
progress. Before reading the book, students review several high frequency
memorized words in a word bank. The decodable book is Sam, Sam,
Sam. Four pages contain the identical text, "I am Sam," a predictable
language pattern. The story has humor and story structure, carried
in the illustrations, about the confusion over whether a boy, a girl, or
a dog, all named Sam, is being called. All words in the story are
either decodable or known, but the story offers little decoding practice
because of its predictability. The margin of the manual page cites research
on value of decodable texts, which is good information for teachers.
Students read the title Sam, Sam, Sam, browse the story, and then
read each page silently before reading it aloud. I doubt that most
beginning first graders can read silently; this is probably an unrealistic
expectation so early in first grade. Students reread each page, and
then reread the story, a laudable practice; rereading builds comprehension
and fluency. Students explain how they identified hard words
and retell the story. The manual provides both literal and
inferential comprehension questions to ask students. Students continue
to build fluency by rereading the text twice with a partner, trading off
pages each time.
The next activity is a directed listening lesson around the teacher's read-aloud of Mrs. Goose's Baby. Reading aloud familiarizes children with new vocabulary, background knowledge, book language, and story structure; Open Court uses read alouds as opportunities to teach comprehension strategies. For example, students practice making predictions, and they learn that speech balloons used in illustrations of Mrs. Goose's Baby indicate that the characters are talking. The teacher shows how to use Venn diagrams to chart a comparison and contrast of Mrs. Goose and her baby, and students practice by comparing and contrasting themselves with family or friends. Students work on individual alphabet books by recalling rhymes and adding words to their books. Other activities include modeling and practice deriving meanings from context, guided process writing (here a draft about pets), and work with capital letter and period conventions. Open Court works at integrated language arts in an extended workshop structure, one of the best innovations associated with the whole language philosophy. With Open Court as with other integrated language programs, schools can sometimes save money by not purchasing separate spelling, language arts, and handwriting programs, since all these strands are taught in the basal reading series.
Comparing the short a lessons:
Houghton-Mifflin starts teaching phonics at a slightly faster pace than
Open Court. Open Court more thoroughly teaches phoneme awareness
(its sound cards directly representing phonemes, e.g., a-a-a is the cry
of a lamb, remains a landmark in phonics instruction), but neither program
teaches phoneme identities optimally (see the Reading Genie page on "Making
Friends With Phonemes," http://www.auburn.edu/rdggenie/phon.html).
Both programs frequently err by using a letter name (ay) when they should
be pronouncing a phoneme (/a/). Both programs teach students to decode
and spell words with short a explicitly. The two-part vowel-first
blending method in Open Court is better than the sequential fully segmented
blending method in Houghton-Mifflin, but neither is well developed in the
short a lesson. Both programs use fully decodable practice
texts. Neither text is optimal because both texts use predictable
language, which obviates the need for decoding.
II. Teaching short u in Grade 1: Houghton-Mifflin
System and pace in introducing correspondences. The lesson teaching the short vowel u is found in Theme 2, p. T150. The lesson occurs in Week 3 of the second manual, at approximately the beginning of the sixth week of the program. A moderately fast pace continues; short u completes the introduction of short vowels.
Phoneme awareness review. Students are given the fully segmented words quiz, jug, buzz, job, jazz, and quit, and asked to blend them without scaffolding, explanation, or modeling. A conventional alphabet card with an illustration of a queen and the letters Qq is presented. The teacher points to the letters qu on the back of the card and explains that qu says /kw/. Students chant /kw/, /kw/, /kw/. Similar reviews with cards, picture naming, and chanting are conducted for /j/ and /z/. While this is a traditional way of teaching the "sound" of a letter, it fails to make the phoneme memorable, and thus gives minimal help in phoneme awareness, i.e., recognizing the phonemes in spoken word context. Only slightly more processing is provided for /z/; students hold up a card for z as the teacher says zzzip and quizzz, thus providing example words in which students can identify the phoneme in word context. They respond with appropriate cards to identify initial and final /j/, /z/, and /kw/ in nine spoken words. Then after a teacher example, volunteers write qu, j, or z on the board to spell the initial or final sounds of four other words.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher
displays a conventional alphabet card with an illustration of an umbrella
with the letters Uu and explains that u is a vowel that stands
for the /u/ "sound" at the beginning of umbrella and in the middle
of jug. Students chant /u/, /u/, /u/ as the teacher points
to the letter u, a drill of limited educational utility. Displaying
an illustration of a jug, the teacher stretches ju-u-ug, elongating
/u/. Children hold up umbrella cards when they recognize /u/ in 14
spoken words (9 examples and 5 nonexample words). However, having
only one card to hold up mitigates the effectiveness of this exercise by
allowing naïve learners to observe and imitate other students, thereby
obscuring who is having trouble. The simple expedient of having a
different card to display for nonexamples (every pupil response) would
make this exercise more valuable.
Next the teacher spells up with large magnetic letters as children chorally segment and blend (a pure teacher model would probably be clearer). Then the teacher asks the class questions to scaffold the spelling of jut, not, bug, sun, rug, and cup. The teacher has students name letters and give phonemes for j, g, h, and t (both series continually and needlessly mix letter names and phonemes). The teacher "models" reading jug as follows: "Point to each letter in a sweeping motion as you model how to blend: j u u u g, jug." Unfortunately, this demonstration neither reveals how to blend nor simplifies blending in a vowel first, body-coda sequence. Students imitate the demonstration twice (though they already know the identity of the word, and are thus not actually reading it). The routine is repeated with hut and tug, and then students blend rub. Eight additional practice words are provided, as is a sentence, "Bud let us quit." Then students use letter cards to individually spell the words fun, bus, cub, hut, us, and bug, and the sentence "Gus dug up mud."
Four workbook pages are prescribed for independent practice. In the first, children circle the grapheme j, qu, or z to spell the initial sounds of illustrated words (I presume the teacher names the illustrated words with such exercises, though this instruction is not specified). In the second, students color pictures with the same vowel as the illustrated word cup; the page has five examples and three nonexamples, a useful though limited phoneme awareness exercise. In the third students match four short-u words with their illustrations, requiring independent word reading. The fourth page is partly obscured in the manual.
Next students read a four-page decodable book with 23 words. For a book introduction, students are asked to tell what is happening in the pictures; this seems a default stratagem in lieu of a more engaging introduction. Sample dialogue is provided to model decoding the title, The Bug Kit, e.g., "I see three words in the title. I know that the first word is The. I look at the second word and see the letters B, u, g. I put the sounds together: /b/, /u/. /g/, Bug. That is a word I know," etc. However, this model needlessly pronounces letter names, which are not involved in decoding, presumes blending skill, which is, and gives no special emphasis to the obscure new vowel correspondence u = /u/. Then students are instructed to look for letters and words they know, which seems pointless, and instructed to read the story independently or with a partner. Those having trouble are asked to name letters and phonemes and to "say each sound and hold it until you say the next sound," which doesn't even work for but, the example word provided, because the voiced stop /b/ can't be elongated. Afterwards, students answer three inferential questions about the simple story.
As a review, the teacher displays conventional alphabet cards for j and z, models how to write these letters (but no sample dialogue is provided, suggesting that a wordless demonstration is a sufficient model), and asks children to spell the initial phonemes of eight picture cards whose names begin with these letters. Students needing extra practice write the letters on primary paper to a specified sequence of letter features, which is useful in learning letter identities. On a workbook page, students write j or z to spell the initial phoneme of nine illustrated words.
Students volunteer to read eight words on a word pattern board (word wall) in the -ug family ( jug, bug, dug, etc.). Then students clap and spell each word, and then repeat the exercise with six -ut words. This is an inappropriate spelling memorization drill for words students should be able to decode; they need to understand spellings as pronunciation maps, after which remembering them is much easier. Restricting the words to a single word families obviates the need for complete decoding because sounding out the initial letter is sufficient to identify rhyming words.
Decodability of practice texts. The brief lesson text is fully decodable given correspondences taught to date, assuming students know the common word said. The story is incomplete; though it has a problem (to capture a big bug), the main character Jen fails in her single attempt, and the problem is left unresolved. The texts of three other books read are not displayed the manual; from the discussion, one (Where is Tug Bug) appears to be fully decodable given correspondences taught to date, one (Spots) partly decodable, and one (Jasper's Beanstalk) mostly not decodable at this stage.
II. Teaching short u in Grade 1: Open Court
System and pace in introducing correspondences. I found the short u lesson in Animals (Level 1, Unit 2, Lesson 13, p. 288ff.). Short u follows the introduction of short vowels a, i, and o (with short e still to come). With three vowels introduced in the second unit, the pace has picked up considerably; now phonics lessons have become more intensive, a characteristic of effective code-emphasis programs.
Phoneme awareness review. In the phoneme awareness warm-up, most phonemes have been individually introduced, so activities are likely review for students. In an initial sound review, the teacher provides alliterative word lists for students to identify common initial phonemes. In a "sound-spelling chain," the teacher provides a spelling (e.g., cat), and asks students to add or change a letter to spell a similar word (e.g., cut). Unfortunately, the teacher has not yet introduced the short u correspondence, making this activity frustrating for most students. For initial consonant substitution, the teacher provides an alliteration, "Silly Sammy sang songs," and provides written letters to substitute to make nonsense, e.g., with letter l: "Lilly Lammy lang longs." This provides valuable practice both in securing the identities of previously learned phonemes and in blending. Then children practice blending orally, combining phonemes (e.g., /h/, /a/, /m/) to identify words. This is a worthwhile goal, since oral practice eases children into the blending they must do as they decode, but no instructions are provided for a review of how to blend, nor are words broken down for vowel-first, body-coda blending (e.g., /a/; /h/a/, /ha/; /ha/m/, ham), which is the simplest sequence for struggling beginners. Next, following a puppet model, children isolate the beginning consonants of words with initial consonant clusters, e.g., locating /f/ at the beginning of fry. This is valuable practice identifying consonant phonemes in a particularly difficult part of the word.
Components of phonics lesson. The u
= /u/ (short u) correspondence is introduced with a sound-spelling card
for /u/ with an illustration of a tugboat. This is an excellent meaningful
representation for /u/ because /u/ approximates the actual sound of the
foghorn of a tugboat. Such names assist the beginner in the crucial
phoneme awareness task of learning phoneme identities. I did note
an error in the manual: "Remind the students that the green color
shows that this is the /u/ sound." Actually, the green band on the
card denotes any of the short vowels.
The teacher reads a rhyming story featuring many /u/ words and including the isolated phoneme /u/. Then the teacher has students discriminate the vowel phonemes /u/ and /U/. She reads words with /u/ or /U/ and has students point to a long, thin Uu at the right side of the chalkboard or a short, stout Uu at the left. This is a good exercise, but the symbols are confusing. Next students sing a short-vowel song to tune of "The Farmer in the Dell," including "The short u is in tug." This song needlessly confuses the letter name (which is the long vowel) with the short vowel /u/. As students sing, they pretend to tug a rope with both hand over one shoulder. Such gestures are effective in identifying phonemes; they can cue the phoneme in the absence of the sound-spelling card.
Subsequently, students read regular short-u, one-syllable words and simple sentences (e.g., The truck is stuck in the mud) with teacher guidance. The manual supplies several blending procedures for various student groups:
1. Sound by sound: The teacher spells a word letter by letter, directing students to blend after the vowel (cu-), adding the final letter and reblending, and then rereading the word and using it in a sentence. Another student extends the sentence by adding information (explaining how, when, where, or why).All these procedures are quite helpful, and the choice of procedures for dealing with different student groups is appropriate. The vowel-first sequence is the easiest because it minimizes distortion of phonemes while typically requiring students to hold only two "chunks" of a word in their minds at a time. Sound-by-sound and whole-word blending are short cuts that children who have made good progress can profitably employ.
2. Whole word: Students sound out phonemes as teacher points to each grapheme, and then read the word, use it in a sentence, and extend the sentence as above.
3. Vowel-first blending: First the teacher writes the vowel grapheme for each word (e.g., u) and students sound out the vowel. Then the teacher adds the initial consonant while students blend, (e.g., cu-). To complete the word, the teachers adds the final consonant and students blend. As above, the students reread the word, use it in a sentence, and extend the sentence.
Decodability of practice texts. Students
read a 70-word decodable book, Ron on the Run, which is fully decodable
given students' previous instruction in correspondences. The only
non-decodable words are the high frequency words does, for,
and he, which were previously taught as whole words. The text
is not at all predictable and has a lively feel for decodable text ("Ron
mops and dusts his hut. Ron hums as he dusts and mops." Procedures
for directing the reading of Ron on the Run stress having children
read silently before they read aloud, normally a good idea, but probably
unrealistic in early first grade. There are several opportunities
for repeated reading, which improves fluency: A second student reads
each page aloud after the first reader finishes. The entire story
is read twice, and then choral-read by the class for fluency. Later
pairs of students reread the story twice, trading pages.
Oral reading by the students is followed by a read aloud by the teacher featuring the expository text, The Hermit Crab. Comprehension strategies, such as asking questions and drawing conclusions, are taught and modeled in connection with the read aloud. In the integrated language arts strand that follows, students learn new vocabulary, use a writing process approach with autobiographies, and study usage in exercises similar to those described in the short-a lesson.
Comparing the short u lessons:
With the increased pace of Open Court, both series are presenting vowel
correspondences, the essential content of phonics, at a moderately fast
pace, characteristic of intensive phonics programs. Open Court appears
superior to Houghton-Mifflin in developing phoneme awareness. Short
is an obscure vowel that many children find difficult to identify, but
Houghton-Mifflin does little to make it memorable or help children locate
/u/ in spoken word contexts. Open Court offers more and more varied
activities, more alliterations for learning phoneme identities, and the
unique feature of memorable representations, here the sound of a tugboat
/u/, supported by a rope-tugging gesture for /u/. In addition, the
Open Court lesson better teaches blending, with a selection of methods
appropriate to achievement groups, rather than the one-size-fits-all, fully
segmented sequential method recommended in Houghton-Mifflin. One
of the Open Court methods is the research-tested vowel-first, body-coda
method (see the Reading Genie blending page, http://www.auburn.edu/rdggenie/blending.html).
Both series use fully decodable practice texts, but the Open Court story
is three times longer than the story in Houghton-Mifflin, providing significantly
more reading practice.
III. Teaching long i signaled by silent e in Grade 1: Houghton-Mifflin
System and pace in introducing correspondences. The Houghton-Mifflin lesson teaching the long vowel i signaled by silent e is found in Theme 5, beginning on manual page T-148. The pace has slowed considerably after a moderately fast introduction of the five short vowels. In roughly six weeks of instruction with manuals for Theme 3 and 4, no new vowel correspondences have been introduced. The i_e = /I/ lesson takes place in week 3 of Theme 5, at least the 14th week (or fourth month) of instruction, one week after the introduction of a_e = /A/.
Phoneme awareness review. The lesson opens by having students segment the phonemes in pipe, bend, stick, wind, and game. They pronounce the phonemes, clap for each phoneme, and count the phonemes. Then they add initial phonemes (e.g., ill, pill, spill), report the new words and count their phonemes. (The lesson also has a daily message introducing a story, read by the teacher, with phonics elements identified by volunteers, and a teacher read-aloud of the story with high-level comprehension questions.) Then the teacher "models" how to segment like (no sample dialogue is provided), and students segment, clap, and count the phonemes in fin, fine, pin, pine, ride, and spine. No explanations, modeling instructions, or scaffolding is provided for the phoneme awareness review.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher
displays a conventional alphabet card with an illustration of an ice cream
cone and the letter i. This seems misleading because letter
was previously displayed with an igloo for short i; a sounder approach
would be to introduce i_e as the principal grapheme. Students
chant /I/, /I/, /I/ as the teacher points to the single letter
The teacher says nine other words with the /I/ phoneme. Then the
teacher writes kit, has the students read kit, and has them
pronounce the underlined vowel. She adds e and blends
explaining that "kite has the vowel-consonant-e pattern,"
and that "in words of this pattern, the vowel usually has the long sound."
This explanation seems a bit arcane for first graders. Then the teacher
blends ride, the students repeat, and the students collectively
blend nine other i_e words. Then the students individually blend
15 words printed on cards; these words include mice, nice,
and rice, with the additionally complication of c representing
/s/, a concept briefly introduced the previous week in connection with
a_e. The teacher models how to spell bike with student
input, and elicits spellings of eight other illustrated i_e words.
Then students spell all these words on paper. The teacher writes the words
on the board for self-correction, and then spell life,
bride, smile, and the sentence "Mike rides." While
the early application of the i_e = /I/ concept in spelling is useful,
the instruction does not use Elkonin boxes to help students connect letters
with phonemes and thus understand spellings as pronunciation maps.
Students complete two workbook pages. On the first, they spell illustrated
words where blanks are provided for the number of letters (not the number
of phonemes; this invites memorization rather than understanding); scrambled
names are provided, offering as much confusion as assistance. The
second page is obscured in the manual.
The teacher reviews nine high frequency words by an unspecified method, and demonstrates the contraction she'll. Students sound out and blend 15 other contractions; the blending method, as always in these texts, is sequential, grapheme-by-grapheme blending. Students read she'll and he's and provide the words contracted. Then students read a_e and i_e words and decodable sentences. On a workbook page, children draw lines to connect contractions with their contracted words.
Students then read a four-page decodable book, Pine Lake. The teacher models reading the title; sample dialogue demonstrates how to model. The teacher helps struggling readers by asking questions rather than less intrusive scaffolds. After the students read the story independently or with a partner, the teacher asks two literal questions and one inferential question. Students are given a spelling test with i_e words; sentence contexts are provided. They receive a spelling list that includes review words to take home for practice. The teacher posts kite and ride on the word pattern board (word wall); students work with partners to substitute initial letters to create as many new words as they can.
Decodability of practice texts. Pine Lake, a 54-word story presented in a four-page text, is fully decodable given the correspondences taught to date. Though the language is not predictable, making the story valuable for decoding practice, there is little story structure; events are desultory with no problem to solve or humorous situation. Stripe and the Nice Mice is also likely decodable, but the text was not provided in the manual. The texts of other recommended books From Here to There and Another Fine Mess were not provided and are probably not selected for decodability.
III. Teaching long i signaled by silent e in Grade 1: Open Court
System and pace in introducing correspondences. I located the lesson on long i signaled by silent e (the i_e pattern) in Unit 4, Lesson 10, beginning at p. T192. Given that there are 10 manuals for the first-grade program, I infer this lesson might be taught about November of first grade. Again, this indicates a fairly intensive pace, associated in research by Jeanne Chall and others with optimal phonics progress.
Phoneme awareness review. In warm-up activities, the teacher reviews the signaling function of silent e, taught previously with the a_e pattern, by having students change at to ate. Then students spell and later read a_e example words, e.g., gate, made, game, etc. In a game of "A Tisket, a Tasket," the player designated "it" drops a review word (a copy of a decodable short vowel example word) for a fellow student to read; this student becomes the next "it." Students also play "Riddle Me This," an oral blending exercise using sound-spelling cards as cues to phonemes. All these activities review and build on previous learning in ways likely to be constructive, fun, and non-frustrating.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher
introduces the i and i_e spellings for the long-i
phoneme using a "Long I" card (not pictured, but I believe an illustration
of the block capital letter I) and contrasts the Long I card with
the pig card representing the short-i vowel. Using i to represent
both the long and short vowel correspondences in this introductory lesson
seems ill advised because it is likely to undermine children's use of the
single letter i spelling to represent the short-vowel phoneme /i/
at a time when this correspondence is incompletely established. Words
like mind are essentially exception words at this point, and their
premature introduction is likely to delay the acquisition of the i_e
The introduction continues with a rhyme: ". . . Short i in pig, long i in pie," featuring a confusing conjunction of phoneme and letter name. The teacher elicits or re-explains that a consonant goes in the blank for i_e, and e helps i "say its name." Naming the pattern i_e (read "i-blank-e") is a clear way of describing this pattern that appears to be unique to Open Court. To help students blend, i_e is written as a unit, e.g., bi_e is written and blended before completing bike. This is helpful for teaching the i_e pattern, which could be understood as a divided digraph. For guided practice, students read long-i words spelled with i and i_e as well as simple sentences (e.g., "Jill hiked nine miles up the hill") with teacher guidance, reviewing the short i vowel while adding the new i_e pattern. Including the words bit and bite, and hid and hide, assists vowel discrimination. Unfortunately, the sentences include the irregular words find and wild and the polysyllabic words spider, tiger, pilot, and title, undermining pattern recognition with nonexamples. It is better to learn a pattern with regular example words before broaching the exceptions. Two-syllable words are divided for students prior to decoding, a helpful scaffold. The high frequency word please is taught as a whole word by rote; I would like to see such instruction focus on the decodable parts of the word by this point in the series. Students find, pronounce, and erase selected /I/ words, given in sentence contexts, from the blending exercise list. They complete two workbook pages, copying words and sentences on primary guidelines on the first, and completing the correct word in a maze exercise from two choices, e.g., "I like to rid/ride my bike." This type of work builds from phonics to comprehension. In a word building "game" (which seems to be a spelling assessment), students write words with and without silent e (e.g., hid and hide). This is again a helpful review for noting the signaling function of silent e, but it includes the confusing example words rice, nice, and mice, which use soft c, and the irregular words wild and mild.
Decodability of practice texts. Students read two 9-page decodable books, The Pilot and Spice Cake, the latter fully decodable. The Pilot, with 92 words, is mostly decodable; it contains two-syllable (e.g., giant) and irregular long-i words similar to others presented in the lesson, and the rote word please. It presents a humorous story of a boy imagining that his ride in a toy plane is an actual flight in which the plane becomes suddenly silent—because it needs another coin to continue. Spice Cake is 64 words in length, and tells how a mouse makes a cake. Both readings are followed by retelling, literal comprehension questions, and partner rereadings for fluency.
Comparing the long i (i_e) lessons: The pace of phonics instruction appears similar at this point; Houghton-Mifflin has slowed its introduction of vowel correspondences while Open Court has picked up its pace. In both series, the phoneme awareness review is somewhat perfunctory, but this likely reflects the fact that phoneme awareness should be well established for most students in mid-first grade, and that long vowels are more salient than short vowels. Both series appear comparable in explicitly teaching children about the i_e pattern. Open Court may be faulted for introducing irregular spellings of /I/ before the i_e pattern is well established, but credited with superior vowel-first blending methods. Again, the Open Court series provides about three times as much decodable text, and the stories are more engaging.
IV. A representative fluency lesson in Grade 2: Houghton Mifflin
A crucial developmental task for second
graders is to consolidate the word learning strategies of first grade so
that word recognition becomes "modular," that is, a self-contained, automatic
process in which words are recognized effortlessly so that readers can
give their full attention to comprehension. A representative fluency
lesson in grade two was found in Theme 1, p. 31, of the Houghton-Mifflin
Reading manual for second grade. Fluency does not appear to be a
major objective in Houghton-Mifflin Grade 2, despite its prominence in
the report of the National Reading Panel. I found no formal fluency
instruction throughout the six themes (manuals) of the second grade 2003
series. Typical of the fluency instruction is a small boxed text
suggesting that students choose part of the story to reread orally in small
groups, suggesting they reread page 28 (which has only 14 words in two
sentences of dialogue by a single character). The teacher is directed
to model fluent reading without any sample dialogue or instructions on
how to model. A second, easier text, Len and Linda's Picnic,
is recommended for additional fluency practice; this text is not provided
in the manual. For this text teachers are directed to "model and
coach as needed," which provides little guidance to neophyte teachers.
Another recommendation for building fluency was found on p. 44K. The teacher posts the words brought, reason, special, and surprise on a word wall, points to each word, and prompts students to read the word repeatedly. Sample dialogue is provided as follows:
Teacher: The word is special. What's the word?Apparently rote memorization substitutes for any analysis of the spelling of the word that would enable the student to understand it and add the word efficiently to memory.
Child: Special! Special! Special!
IV. A representative fluency lesson in Grade 2: Open Court
I selected a lesson in the grade two
basal in Unit 3, pp. 268K ff., as a representative fluency lesson.
The lesson begins with a display of words with silent consonants (scent,
listen, etc.) and sentences (e.g., "Little Hare followed the scent
of raspberry leaves.") Students are directed to read the words and
sentences aloud in unison. Students are asked to identify silent
consonants in the words. This is consistent with research on learning irregular
words, which indicates that irregular words are learned much the same as
regular words, except that readers must take the additional step of noting
irregularities. For example, to learn the word answer, the reader
decodes the letters ans_er, and completes word learning by mentally
marking the silent letter w. In a marginal note related to
fluency, the manual says, "Students should now be reading 106 WPM."
Students needing improved fluency are directed to choose a section of text
with a minimum of 160 words to read several times to build fluency. This
is a valuable instructional idea, but few details on implementation are
In a section entitled "Phonics and Fluency," students read more words and sentences from a display and receive instruction on diphthongs, the prefix re, and the suffix ful. They make up sentences for the words, and the teacher provides a cloze exercise, e.g., The painting was very ____ (colorful). This work is followed by a dictated spelling assessment. I found nothing likely to build fluency in this section, despite its title.
Next, selected students read a decodable book, an activity that continues to be important for struggling readers working on accurate decoding. Most text should be decodable by mid-second grade—that is, within the word recognition range for normally achieving students—particularly in a code-emphasis basal like Open Court featuring explicit, systematic, and intensive phonics. The commendable provision of simple short-vowel texts for struggling second graders recognizes the need to help transfer students or delayed readers. Students read A Pig for a Pet; I was unable to assess decodability because the text was not included in the manual. The manual directs the teacher to review high frequency words. No instructions are provided for engaging students in reading or using the text to build fluency.
Students making normal progress read the story "Hungry Little Hare." The manual recommends reading the story "Hungry Little Hare" aloud because of its plentiful dialogue and repetitive language patterns. It directs teachers to make sure students read fluently and accurately with appropriate expression, in phrases, attending to punctuation; however, it gives no specific recommendations as to how to teach these fluency goals.
The manual provides separate teaching ideas for the first and second reading of "Hungry Little Hare," setting the stage for two readings of the story. This not only spaces comprehension instruction effectively, but provides built-in fluency practice through repeated readings. The comprehension instruction seems thorough and well conceived. The story "Hungry Little Hare" is good literature, replete with charming illustrations and interesting factual information on protective coloration of animals. It bridges the fiction-nonfiction gap by presenting facts via the dialogue of animal characters. As a fluency activity, students listen to a taped reading of "Hungry Little Hare" as a model of fluent, proficient oral reading. However, students are given the assignment to record vocabulary words as they listen and later to look them up in the dictionary. The vocabulary assignment, which is not very productive for vocabulary learning, essentially cancels out the benefits of the fluency work.
Comparing the fluency lessons: I found barely a feint at teaching fluency in the Houghton-Mifflin readers. In a representative lesson, students are given brief two-sentence passages to reread with no clear fluency goal, no instructions for modeling, and a recommendation to teach single words by rote. In contrast, the Open Court series sets fluency goals and provides some instructional ideas for building fluency in second graders. Rereadings, listening to fluency models, and fluency assessment, which are components of the Open Court lesson, are research-based means of improving fluency.
V. A representative comprehension lesson on summarization in Grade 4: Houghton-Mifflin
Summarization is one of the most powerful
comprehension strategies. Research by Kintsch and Van Dyke suggests
that summarization skill is acquired by applying a set of summarization
rules, for example, to subsume a list of topics or actions under a superordinate
term (e.g., to replace basketball, football, baseball,
and tennis with the single term sports). Summarization
also requires deleting inconsequential information and either locating
or devising a topic sentence.
I located a lesson on summarization for grade 4 in Houghton-Mifflin's Theme 6, p. 685ff, "Topic, Main Idea, and Supporting Details." I had some difficulty locating a representative summarization lesson. In the five of six manuals in the fourth grade anthology in my possession (I did not have the first manual), I found only two nonfiction expository texts and three biographies. This suggests that Houghton-Mifflin, once the leading basal for teaching comprehension strategies, is presently cutting back on its presentation of important strategies for reading expository text. Also, the index in Theme 6 (the one with the two expository texts) does not even mention question generation (self-questioning), the other comprehension strategy supported most strongly by experimental evidence. The complete listing under the topic "comprehension skills" includes author's viewpoint, categorize and classify, cause and effect, compare and contrast, drawing conclusions, noting details, following oral and written directions, fact and opinion, making generalizations, making inferences, making judgments, predicting outcomes, synthesis, text organization and summarizing, and topic, main idea, and supporting details. There is no mention either of how to ask good questions or where to look for information to answer questions.
The topic, main idea, and supporting details lesson follows the reading of "Wildfires," an expository text. The lesson begins with a review aided by a transparency with mark-on lines. The teacher explains that a topic is what the entire selection is about, that each main idea relates to the topic, and that each supporting idea connects to the main idea. A main idea may not be clearly stated, requiring the reader to read the entire section to determine it. Students practice on a workbook page in which they list supporting details for a stated main idea for one text page, and then supply both the main idea and supporting details for another paragraph; these exercises appear difficult given the minimal explanation provided. Sample dialogue is provided for modeling how to find the main idea of one paragraph where the main idea is not clearly stated. Though the sample dialogue reveals a sophisticated reader's thoughts and arrives at a reasonable answer, it does not reveal reproducible strategies for determining main ideas. Further practice is then provided with two other exercises where students are expected to supply both main idea and supporting detail on text pages. Again, given the minimal instruction and ineffective model, this task appears difficult, even if, as suggested, this exercise is completed cooperatively. Next students complete two workbook pages with an expository text and a chart in which students independently supply the main ideas and supporting details.
Although research on summarization supports the application of summarization rules involving deletion of trivial and redundant information, superordinating (classifying) lists of terms into more general summary terms, and locating or composing a topic sentence, these critical components are not evident in the text summarization lesson. In essence, the manual has the teacher define a few terms, provide an ineffective model, and then assign students complex summarization work.
V. A representative comprehension lesson on summarization in Grade 4: Open Court
The Open Court basal emphasizes non-fiction
text in the fourth grade basal. I counted 15 expository texts and
8 biographies among the works anthologized for fourth grade readers.
This allows for comprehension instruction with the type of texts offering
the chief challenge to fourth grade readers who are expected to learn from
math, science, and social studies textbooks. I found a lesson on
summarization in Unit 1, Lesson 5, pp. 82K ff., of the fourth grade manual
and Consequences in connection with the article, "Mae Jemison: Space
Scientist," an expository biography of the first black woman astronaut.
The manual presents sample dialogues for frequent teacher modeling of summarization
throughout the fourth-grade materials. Beginning on p. 95C, the manual
presents an explicit lesson on the comprehension strategy of recognizing
the main idea and details, which is implied in the idea of deleting inconsequential
information to arrive at a topic sentence.
The manual defines the main idea as what the paragraph is about, sometimes stated in a topic sentence with other sentences supplying supporting details. For guided practice, students reread a passage about Jemison as the teacher asks questions to elicit information for a web diagram on an overhead. Such diagrams, if not overused, visually demonstrate the work of summarization for students. For independent practice, students choose two paragraphs from "Mae Jemison: Space Scientist" and for each, provide the main idea and two supporting details. Then students write paragraphs about their after-school activities, underlining the topic sentences and identifying supporting details for each paragraph. Unfortunately the explanation erroneously suggests that the main idea is explicitly stated in a topic sentence, which is uncommon in most texts. However, it does make sense for students to work first with paragraphs with explicit topic sentences and only later to move to paragraphs where topic sentences must be generated. A more serious omission is that no means is provided to students for determining importance, e.g., by testing sentences to see if they encompass other ideas. The lesson does not appear thorough enough for students to learn to identify main ideas. On the other hand, this lesson appears in the context of continual modeling of summarization, going all the way back to first grade lessons during teacher read alouds.
Comparing the summarization lessons: The difference in presenting expository text in the fourth grade anthologies is striking: There are 15 expository articles in Open Court, but only 2 in Houghton-Mifflin (unless additional expository texts are found in the first Theme manual). The Houghton-Mifflin instruction defines terms, provides one model that does not reveal the use of strategic thinking, and assign complex summarization tasks. Open Court presents more sample dialogue for modeling summarization and helpful heuristics for scaffolding this strategy.
Houghton-Mifflin Reading and
Open Court Reading are two basal reading series that teach intensive, systematic,
and explicit phonics. Open Court has long led the league in explicit
phonics, pioneered the teaching of phoneme awareness before most teachers
had even heard the terms, and was cited for its fully decodable text in
Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985. Houghton-Mifflin made a concerted
effort only a few years ago to transform its literature-based, analytic
approach into an explicit phonics approach. That transformation remains
In line with the best experiment efforts in teaching phoneme identity knowledge, the Open Court program teaches phoneme awareness one phoneme at a time, uses multiple activities to make that phoneme memorable, and provides practice finding the phoneme in spoken word contexts. Open Court pioneered the practice of providing meaningful names and illustrations of phonemes, and continues to be the only major basal series that provides this excellent device for making phonemes familiar to children. Houghton-Mifflin relies on standard alphabetic example words (e.g., a is for apple) and provides lots of practice with minimal instruction on blending. Open Court uses more flexible blending methods, including vowel-first, body-coda blending, which limits the number of word parts in memory and joins syllables at the point of least resistance, where Houghton-Mifflin consistently relies on sequential fully segmented blending.
Phonics instruction appears to be comparably explicit across programs, and both series integrate phonics with spelling instruction. Both programs use fully decodable texts for initial practice. However, Open Court's decodable texts typically offer two or three times as much text reading practice, and its stories are more likely to be engaging texts with humor and story structure.
Fluency is addressed with rereadings toward fluency rate criteria, listening opportunities with fluency models, and fluency assessment in Open Court's second grade program. I found little attention to fluency in the second grade program of Houghton-Mifflin, an omission that should be addressed in light of the National Reading Panel's findings. Open Court presents at least five times more expository text in its fourth grade anthology, offering better opportunities for comprehension instruction to teach students to learn from text. In the representative lessons I examined, Houghton-Mifflin's program presents minimal instruction and modeling, and then asks students to perform complex summarization tasks; Open Court provides more instruction, better modeling, and helpful summarization heuristics.
Of the basal reading programs I've reviewed, Open Court offers the best basal reading series for learning to read given a typical population of elementary school children. It is a much stronger program than Houghton-Mifflin for teaching phoneme awareness. Though the two programs offer comparable phonics instruction, Open Court offers more and much better decodable text reading practice. Open Court presents more coherent fluency instruction in grade two and better-conceived summarization instruction in grade four.