Review of Open Court 2002 Basal Reading Series
Published by SRA/McGraw-Hill

        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 Auburn University students:  To determine if they are effective in teaching reading.  I believe we can safely grant that virtually all contending 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 Open Court teacher’s manuals.  Three points were identified in the first grade basal: Lessons that teach the short vowels a and u and the long vowel i signaled by silent e.  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.  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.  Research strongly supports systematic, explicit, intensive phonics instruction built on a foundation of phoneme awareness, and featuring decodable texts for reading practice.  In large-scale, federally funded experiments, children learning to read with such a program gained reading independence faster, rapidly acquired sight vocabulary, and improved reading comprehension relative to peers who learned from incidental, analytic, and gradual phonics programs.  I also examined a representative fluency lesson in grade two and a lesson on summarization in grade four.  Throughout this evaluation, I will 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.
        For comparison, I have posted reviews of five competing basal series (Harcourt, Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Scott-Foresman) on the Reading Genie website at  Though the present evaluation will be somewhat more detailed than previous comparisons, I will summarize by comparing Open Court to its chief competitors.

Grade 1:  Teaching short a

        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 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 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 program 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 an open, shaped mouth, but this common explanation is acceptable).  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 manual 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 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.  For example, the consonants in Sam squeeze a, so a hollers /a/.  This rule 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 and detecting language patterns, 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," providing a predictable 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 because 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.

II. Grade 1:  Teaching short u

        System and pace in introducing correspondences. I found the short u lesson in Animals (Level 1, Unit 2, Lesson 13, p. 288).  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 sound /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 "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).
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.
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.
        Students are asked to report the vowel sound they hear in each of the words (which is rather silly because every word in the exercise has the vowel /u/; to make this exercise work, the manual should include review words with other taught vowels for discrimination).  Students are also asked to tell whether the vowel is at the beginning, middle, or end; since all but up have the vowel in the middle, the design of this exercise is similarly flawed.
In other phonics work, students are taught to count vowels to determine the number of syllables in a word; this is unreliable in the long run because of silent e patterns and vowel digraphs.  Such syllabication rules are typically unnecessary in phonics instruction. Students are also taught to sound out both consonants at a syllable juncture, which is again unreliable:  It works with unpack, but not with hiccup or most other words with doubled consonants.  The high-frequency words does, for, and he are taught by rote.  Later students work in workbooks.  The first page has children copy letters and words on guidelines to practice printing, and the second assesses reading comprehension by having students select and copy the sentence matching an illustration.  Then students write selected short-u words and a sentence from dictation; the teacher scaffolds each letter by asking, "What's the sound?" and having students check sound-spelling cards, which seems as likely to interfere with children's concentration as to help with spelling; using Elkonin boxes (squares representing the phonemes in a word) to show children the number of phonemes to spell would probably be more helpful.  Later capitalization and punctuation are reviewed and checked.  This exercise is followed by a spelling test; unfortunately, no review words are included to discriminate the new short-u vowel.

        Decodability of practice texts.  Students read a 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.  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.

III. Grade 1:  Teaching long i signaled by silent e

        System and pace in introducing correspondences. I located the lesson on long i signaled by silent e (I'll call it the i_e pattern) in Unit 4, Our Neighborhood at Work, 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 an 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 pattern.
        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 apparently 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 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 decodable books, The Pilot and Spice Cake, the latter fully decodable.  The Pilot 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.  Both readings are followed by retelling, literal comprehension questions, and partner rereadings for fluency.  Next students read along (though many readers would simply listen) as the teacher reads aloud the nondecodable story "Firefighters," with much more difficult words than the two decodable texts.  The teacher uses the read-aloud to teach comprehension strategies such as visualization.  The introduction of comprehension strategies during such listening experiences is highly appropriate; as students gain word recognition fluency, they will be well-positioned to integrate these strategies in reading.  Language arts lessons follow up the read aloud, with vocabulary, writing process, and penmanship practice.  Students learn about compound words, thank you notes, and forming the letter p on primary paper.

IV. Grade Two: A representative fluency lesson

        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.  I selected the lesson in the grade two basal in Unit 3, Look Again, pp. 268K ff., as a representative fluency lesson.
        The lesson begins with a display of words with silent consonants (scent, answer, 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.  Next the teacher reviews contractions with questions on which letters are replaced by apostrophes.  Then students are directed to make up sentences for the words; the teacher probes their efforts with questions inviting students to expand their sentences.  The manual also advises, "Have a student act out on (sic) of the words from the word lines."
        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 provided.
        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 entitled "phonics and fluency."
Next, selected students read a decodable book, an activity that continues to be important for struggling readers working on accurate decoding. Most books should be decodable for normally achieving students by mid-second grade, 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.  They 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 directs teachers to build background knowledge about hares and to have students browse the selection.  The teacher models how to browse and directs student browsing of the title, author, illustrator, and illustrations.  She uses a jot chart on an overhead with columns for "clues" (inferences from browsing), "problems" (unfamiliar words), and "wonderings" (questions). Students are directed to read several prequestions before reading the story (e.g., Can animals ever be in danger because they are camouflaged?).  A transparency is used to preteach the new vocabulary words scent, sneaky, disguise, avoid, and invisible. For each word, two contexts are provided on transparency.  This type of thorough vocabulary instruction with multiple contexts is consistent with research on vocabulary learning.
        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.  At appropriate places in the text, the teacher is urged to model and prompt the comprehension strategies of asking questions, summarizing, making predictions, and making connections.  There is also more detailed comprehension instruction on understanding cause and effect and making inferences.  Magenta circles in the manual indicate places in text for comprehension instruction and modeling.  Helpful sample dialogues give students many examples of making predictions, inferences, etc.
        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.
        To follow up the reading, the manual provides comprehension questions covering literal, interpretive, and applied levels of understanding, as well as suggestions for open-ended questions to spur discussion.  In discussions, the teacher participates as discussant, even raising her hand to be called on by the previous speaker, to model how to contribute.  In other postreading work, students reread definitions from their notebooks and compose synonyms or antonyms for the words.  This activity, while valuable, seems desultory and less than optimally engaging for learning new vocabulary.  A work sheet is distributed to involve parents in nature study with their children; this handout also previews the next text reading to promote parental interest and involvement.  Children receive explicit instruction in making and confirming predictions and in the author's use of repetition in storytelling, in both cases with guided and independent practice activities.  Recommendations are made for science connections (animal camouflage) and author and illustrator study.  Enrichment activities include a field trip to observe animals and insects, with a field log to record events (a nice model log is included in the manual).  Later small groups plan and carry out a project as a response to the lesson.  Related language arts lessons provide directions and guided and independent practice in taking notes, spelling and vocabulary lessons with long-i words using worksheets, writing process work with book reviews through the various phases (using both worksheets and actual compositions), and mechanics lessons on subject-verb agreement, word choice, and penmanship of numerals.

V. Grade 4: A representative comprehension lesson on summarization

        Summarization is the single most powerful comprehension strategy.  Readers who learn to summarize make greater progress in reading comprehension than by acquiring any other single comprehension strategy.  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, golf, and tennis with the single term sports).  Summarization also requires deleting inconsequential information and either locating or devising a topic sentence.
        I found what appeared to be the most concentrated fourth-grade approach to summarization in Unit 1, Lesson 5, pp. 82K ff., of the fourth grade manual Risks 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 Ms. Jemison as the teacher asks questions to elicit information for a web diagram on an overhead.  Such diagrams, if not overused, demonstrate the work of summarization for students visually.  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.
        The activities built around "Mae Jemison: Space Scientist" continue with work on the text structure of biographies, science connections on the relative distances between the earth and the moon, an introduction to the author, postreading consolidation on making thematic connections, an investigation of the concept of courage, and a lesson on using a thesaurus.  In addition, the manual provides language arts threads on spelling, vocabulary, the writing process, writing conventions, penmanship, and other topics.


        A year ago I posted reviews on the Reading Genie website ( of five major basal reading series.  My ranking of these series, from first to worst, was 1. McGraw-Hill, 2. Houghton-Mifflin, 3. Scott-Foresman, 4. Scholastic, and 5. Harcourt.  In general, all of the series appeared to have made progress toward more explicit, systematic, and intensive phonics with decodable text in the primary grades over their earlier incarnations.  The Open Court 2002 basal reading series, with all its flaws, surpasses each of the other series.
        Open Court provides the best approximation of effective phoneme awareness instruction on the current market.  In line with the best experimental efforts in teaching phoneme identity knowledge, the Open Court program teaches 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.  In most cases, the phoneme awareness activities follow up earlier instruction and do not fall into the common trap of expecting children to practice what they have not been taught.  Where the other basal series I've reviewed offer at best only perfunctory phoneme awareness instruction, Open Court provides thorough and explicit teaching of phoneme identities, with many activities to develop phoneme awareness and continual reteaching of this crucial foundation of reading.
        Open Court continues to set the standard for code-emphasis phonics.  The program teaches phonics explicitly by modeling how to sound out and blend to approximate spoken words and by providing numerous practice activities in blending and spelling.  As with phoneme awareness instruction, the program consistently provides more phonics practice activities than its competitors to allow every child adequate work with each new correspondence.  Open Court phonics is also systematic in moving steadily through all or most of the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences children need for decoding expertise.  After a minor delay, the program picks up an intensive pace to supply these major correspondences by mid-second grade.  Open Court provides practice texts in phonics lessons that are typically fully decodable, allowing students to practice decoding strategies in authentic reading, thereby improving their sight vocabulary while encouraging a decoding strategy.  In this review, I have highlighted many minor flaws and inconsistencies in the practical minutiae of lesson details; readers should understand these as calls to teachers to read the manuals critically to correct such concerns, and as an alert to Open Court to consider revising such elements in future additions.
        Where Open Court demonstrates clear superiority in the teaching of phoneme awareness and phonics, my analysis suggests it stands as an equal to other programs in instruction in fluency and in comprehension strategies.  With each text reading, multiple rereadings are programmed into instructional sequence.  The most successful practices from the whole language movement, including integrated language arts instruction and thematic connections to other disciplines, provide a rich instructional smorgasbord from which teachers can choose activities.  From the earliest lessons in first grade, students are taught comprehension strategies, first in connection with read-alouds by the teacher, and later with students' own reading.  The manual is filled with exemplary sample dialogues that teachers can use to model strategies.   I was impressed by how many of the stories anthologized by Open Court are expository texts, and how early expository texts are included in the program.  Clearly this series not only teaches children to decode, but prepares them for reading challenging texts with many nonfiction text structures.
        In short, I find that of the programs I've reviewed, Open Court offers the best basal reading series for learning to read given a typical population of elementary school children, and it is the equal of other leading programs in developing fluency and reading comprehension.

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