Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Basal Reading Programs, Literature-Based Reading Programs, and Literature Programs

In the past twenty years, criticisms of basal reading programs have increased dramatically.  Most importantly, teachers, teacher educators, and researchers have argued that, as a whole, these reading programs misrepresent why people read and even what people do when they read. In addition, teachers and researchers have shown that stories in basals often use stilted and sometimes nonsensical language.

In response to this criticism, publishers, state departments of education, and school districts have announced major changes in programs for reading instruction. They have developed literature-based reading programs which rely on literature (texts written to be read) instead of basals (texts written to teach reading). But how different are the new literature-based programs from basal programs? Do they merely substitute a piece of literature for a story about Dick and Jane? Or do they fundamentally change the basis for reading instruction to bring it more in line with most current knowledge about reading? 

To answer these questions and also to examine particular reading programs in specific schools and districts, it is important to consider the following questions and general answers:

1. What are the assumptions about reading that undergird the program?

Basal and literature-based programs assume that learning to read (and possibly even fluent reading) is a matter of exercising component skills that unite in the end  to form a complex, mechanical process. This is a technological view that is not supported by highly regarded theoretical models of reading.

By contrast, literature programs view reading as a unitary process that cannot be separated into parts. This process always accounts for readers' purposes and for the contexts in which readers read.

2. What is the primary reason the texts appear in the program? Are they there primarily  to be read and enjoyed, or are they there mainly to teach "skills of reading"?

In both literature-based programs and basal programs, even if the texts are unabridged and unadapted, the texts are there to teach skills arranged according to grade level.  In literature programs, however, the texts are there to be read and enjoyed. They are chosen because they suit particular teachers' and children's interests or tastes.  Through reading and enjoying those texts and with the help of teaching tailored to individuals reading books, children become better readers.

3. What kinds of limits are placed on the texts children read?

Budgets put obvious limits on how much literature is available in a classroom (though here too there are alternatives; money can be spent on a rich heritage of literature or on the impoverished language of work books). But there are other constraints.  In both basal and literature-based programs, literature is organized into grade levels so that all children at a given grade level read the same books. In fact, in some districts, teachers are not allowed to read books to their class or give their students books that are designated to be used at a different grade level.

In literature programs, however, the constraints follow from students' and teachers' interests rather than from an externally imposed grade-level list. Literature programs assume that good literature is appropriate for any age level if readers are interested.

4. What supplementary materials go along with the literature?

In basals using adapted literature and in literature-based programs, publishers or districts provide supplementary materials, including summaries of stories, comprehension questions, suggested activities, units, workbook exercises, and vocabulary lists.  These materials, organized by grade level just like the literature, embody several erroneous assumptions:

(a) that all children should use the books in the same way and get the same meaning from the texts,
(b) that all children in the same grade have the same background knowledge and interests.

By contrast, in literature programs the "supplementary" materials are other pieces of literature and peers and teachers with whom students can talk about the literature.  When children are drawn to a particular author, they read other books by that same author. When one child gets hooked on historical fiction, that child reads another piece of historical fiction. When an author uses an unfamiliar literary device or a puzzling new vocabulary item, teacher and children discuss that device or word in small group sessions.

5. How much choice and responsibility do teachers and students have?

Both basal and literature-based programs are organized and planned ahead of time for classroom use; therefore, learners and teachers have few real choices. Instead, they are controlled by the materials which tell them what to read, when to read, and how to read. The units, workbooks, comprehension questions, exercises, and activities provided in basal and literature-based programs force students and teachers to search for someone else's meanings. Instead of following students' interests, the materials induce participants to follow the directions given in the guides. Even when choice is included in reading or writing activities, the choices have been provided by someone outside the classroom who does not know that particular classroom context.

Literature programs, by contrast, draw on a particular classroom community. Teachers and students in classrooms with literature programs choose from a wide range of real, unadapted literature. They explore literature together, read and write their own responses and stories, and create units based on their own questions. When teachers can provide real, unadapted and unabridged literature along with opportunities for choice and exploration, they can capture students' interest and challenge them to explore  new avenues with books.


Freeman, Y. (1989). Literature vs. Iiterature~based: Where do we stand? Teachers  Networking, 9(4), pp. 13-15. 

Goodman, K. (1988). Look what they've done to Judy Blume! The basalization of children's  literature. The New Advocate, 1, pp. 29-41. 

Pace, G. (1991). When teachers use literature for literacy instruction: Ways that  constrain, ways that free. Language Arts, 68, pp. 12-25.

Peterson, R., & Eeds, M. (1990). Grand conversations: Literature groups in action.  Richmond Hill, Ontario Scholastic-Tab, Ltd.

Shannon, P., & Goodman, K. (1994). Basal readers: A second look. Katonah, NY: Richard  C. Owen.

Short, K. (1997). Literature as a way of knowing. York, ME, Stenhouse.

Short, K., Harste, J., & Burke, C. (1996). Creating classrooms for authors and inquirers.  Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Weaver, C. (Ed.). (1998). Reconsidering a balanced approach to reading. Urbana: NCTE.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602~929~929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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