Grade 1: Teaching short a.
System and pace in introducingcorrespondences. Though this series has introduced short vowels in kindergarten, the initial first-grade lessons focus on the consonants m and s, lessons unlikely to challenge students at this level. The series spends 3 full weeks on short a and single consonants, a slow pace.
Phoneme awareness review. The teacher uses a picture of an apple to isolate the phoneme /a/. Students are asked to produce rhymes beginning with /a/, e.g., What rhymes with sad? (answer: add). Students stretch words beginning with /a/, such as ant and ax. They identify words with /a/ from a read aloud. Later students draw pictures of words beginning with /a/. While the practice is effective, there is no instruction in how to identify or remember /a/.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher models spelling am and immediately sounds out the letters and blends to read it. Students review the formation of A and a on primary paper, a valuable review. Next they practice using letter m as a phonetic cue to "read" single words amply illustrated, which requires little or no decoding. Next students read a patterned predictable book in which each page begins, "I am a . . . ." A picture supplies each missing word, again obviating decoding. For review, the teacher prints am and asks students to name the letters, a counterproductive strategy in reading. She blends am, jam, ham, and Sam in a left-to-right sequence for students, though no talk-through accompanies the problem solving to reveal her thinking. Later students write am and ham in spelling dictation without the scaffolding of Elkonin boxes.
Decodability of practice texts. Students twice "read" illustrated predictable texts beginning "I am a . . . ." The main story, "A Big Surprise," is another predictable text with each page following the pattern, "Here is the [illustrated word]." The words are not decodable and the text has only slight story structure.
Grade 1: Teaching short u.
System and pace in introducing correspondences. I located this lesson in a midyear book on page T164. Manuals are not clearly labeled to reveal the instructional progression. Nor is there a clear sequence in presenting correspondences: The basal continues to introduce single consonants (j, z), usually a kindergarten objective, but interspersed are r-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, and ur) and vowel digraphs (oa), typically presented late in first grade.
Phoneme awareness review. Students are asked to brainstorm rhymes for thump. The teacher segments a word as an example without modeling how to segment, and then asks students to segment 3- and 4-phoneme words, counting their phonemes, a very demanding task. Next the teacher reads the title "Chuck Gets Stuck," stretches Chuck, and asks students what sounds they hear. She then asks students to join in as the teacher blends the words in the title, though the words are already activated for the students.
Components of phonics lesson. The teachers explains that u says /u/ in umbrella, and reads a poem pointing out u's. Students are directed to spell up, cup, cut, and other short vowel CVC's using manipulatives but no Elkonin box scaffolds. Then they write these words in their "journals," actually notebooks. Next they work on guided printing practice with U and u. In a later review, they build words with consonant substitution using letter manipulatives, and return to low level work with the single consonant r. The phonics instruction is heavily weighted with spelling work. Blending, when modeled by the teacher, is only stretching without isolating or joining phonemes.
Decodability of practice texts. Students read an untitled story that includes undecodable words such as home, made, couldn't, and couch, including the polysyllabic words until and sudden. The anthologized story is not decodable. The first sentence contains the polysyllabic words today's, story, farmer, family, and sitting! This is likely frustration level text for average readers in mid-first grade.
Grade 1: Teaching long i signaled by silent e.
System and pace in introducing correspondences. Harcourt's phonics sequence is unusual: long i signaled by silent e follows lessons on ee, ea, a_e, y representing /E/, and ie representing /E/.
Phoneme awareness review. The teacher stretches hide and tells students hide has the /I/ sound. Students are asked to identify /I/ in spoken words, and then listen for rhyming words. Such lessons practice or assess phoneme awareness without providing instruction.
Components of phonics lesson. The teacher writes ice (a poor example given that c more commonly represents /k/) and explains that the e is silent. She has students read time and five. After additional practice spotting /I/ in spoken words, students spell bit and bite with letter manipulatives, and then change letters to form and read bike, like, and line. No Elkonin boxes relate letters to phonemes, with the likely result that some struggling readers may memorize rather than understand these spellings. Next students take a pretest of i_e spelling words in their "journals." In a later review, the teacher spells and stretches time, and guides students to blend dime, dive, etc. Students choose words from a list to answer riddles, a communicative application, e.g., "I begin like brook and rhyme with ride." Then they copy spelling words and sort those with and without letter k, a questionable practice.
Decodability of practice texts. Students read an untitled story featuring i_e containing a number of polysyllabic words (started, hurry, gliding, pumpkin, etc.). The anthologized story only has two words (time and while) with the i_e pattern, insufficient practice to learn the pattern in actual reading. Texts of such limited decodability send the message that phonics doesn't work very well in reading stories, which in turn limits the motivation to teach and learn new correspondences thoroughly.
Grade 2: A representative fluency lesson.
I found a series of lessons designed around a story by the excellent children's author Kevin Henkes on manual page T364. The reading begins with prereading activities to access background knowledge on community workers, especially letter carriers. The teacher models deriving the meaning of honor from context clues (however, the context is not particularly revealing). Students answer vocabulary questions drawn from a "mailbox." The teacher explains that in summarization, you "tell only the most important events," and models summarizing a page of the story to be read. The manual suggests three reading options: directed reading with frequent stops for teacher questions and sometimes comprehension modeling; cooperative reading, in which groups or individual readers compare the text to other texts (the procedures here are unclear); and independent reading, in which readers record their reactions in a journal. Response activities include creating invitations and painting a mural (nonreading activities), as well as reader's theater, an activity likely to develop reading fluency.
Grade 4: A lesson on summarization.
I found instruction on summarization on page T832. Summarization is defined as "telling the most important events in a story," a definition that excludes expository text, a common fourth grade challenge. Two exemplary summaries are provided on a transparency. The teacher presents a paraphrase of the first page of a story without any talk-through showing how this paraphrase was created. The teacher models constructing the main idea from details in a paragraph, noting these details are important to the plot (without showing how importance is determined). Then students are asked to summarize important ideas from another paragraph. In a later review, students retell an interesting or humorous part of a story. Then they read an exemplary summary from the basal. A summary is defined as "restating the writer's ideas" in a way "much shorter than the original story." No summarization rules or procedures are introduced. Students are given several summarization exercises, essentially practice without instruction.
I found the Harcourt series to be the weakest of the five basal series I reviewed. The sequence of phonics instruction seemed haphazard. Instructions to teachers frequently assumed students would catch on with skimpy explanations and demonstrations without the sort of talk-throughs that reveal strategic thinking. Blending demonstrations do not show students how to isolate and combine phonemes. Texts at the first grade level were not consistently decodable given correspondences taught. Under these circumstances, many students adopt a decoding strategy more slowly, and are thus delayed in attaining reading independence. Though like most mainstream basals Harcourt presents fine literature, strategy instruction in the intermediate grades seemed weak.