Chapter Books vs. Basals: Where Do You Stand?

 Funny thing about educational research is if you look hard enough you can usually find studies to support both sides of an issue. Very rarely do you find a straight yes or no answer to what is good and bad theory or practice. Generally it boils down to the common sense of the teacher in regards to his/her individual students and the level of freedom the teacher is given from administration.

Sadly in today's standardized test-heavy climate teachers are given less and less freedom to choose what is best for their students. So many curriculum guidelines have become so rigid that teachers are not able to modify or enrich with their own lessons and materials.

I struggled with this myself while teaching 4th grade. I taught in a very high poverty, low scoring school. Most of my 4th graders could read at a 1st-2nd grade level. Very few came to me over the years reading on grade level. The biggest challenge I had as a reading teacher was to get kids excited about reading. They saw it as such a challenge and our district used a basal series for reading instruction that was frankly very boring! The students saw no reward for their challenge of getting through a story because the stories were so unbelievably boring. I knew if I could "turn them on" to a book they would see more value in reading and see a "payback" so to say.

Fortunately I was blessed with a principal that valued my knowledge as a teacher and let me teach as I saw best for my students.  I started with a read loud time where the kids would get comfortable and I would read to them. Kids in the upper elementary grades don't get read to enough in my opinion. It is reserved for the emergent readers of the primary grades.  I chose high interest, generally humorous books that the kids could just enjoy. I didn't strive for any deep thinking for this activity. I just wanted to the kids to see reading can be enjoyable and fun. This turned into a favorite part of the school day for the students and for me.

Once I got my feet wet a bit in the classroom I started to develop novel units for books where a short excerpt had been made in the basal. It is only common sense that reading the whole book is more enjoyable and leads to a much greater understanding for the student. Of course I was careful to incorporate the skills taught in the basal in my units. I started teaching these novel units alongside the basal stories and the change between reading the basal versus the novel was amazing. I had kids who were reading at a 2nd grade level actually focused and challenging themselves reading the chapter books that were at a 4th grade reading level. They actually wanted to read them versus just getting through some worksheet assignment from the basal. More and more these lower level readers were chiming in on class discussions about the books and picking up age appropriate books by choice in free time. As a teacher I found it easier to use Bloom’s higher order questions using a novel instead of a short excerpt because you could really dive so much farther into the story and the characters.

As for the sought after test scores I didn’t do any formal research on the subject but my student’s scores certainly did not drop but their love of reading soared! Sadly this is not a statistic that is looked at often enough.

I am revisiting this discussion as a parent looking into the classroom from the outside. My oldest son is in 5th grade now. They follow a basal series. This fall they read two excerpts from novels, one for Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis and the other for Strider by Beverly Cleary. I am very familiar with these books having developed units for both. I was interested in my son’s opinions of the stories. The report from him was they were both BORING! He had absolutely no interest in picking up the actual books and exploring them further. This saddened me because they are both fantastic books. After Thanksgiving the class took a break from the basal and actually read a couple books, Dear Mr. Henshaw and Old Yeller. Surprisingly, or not, my son brought the books home at night to continue reading beyond the assigned pages. He loved both books and we had some good discussions about them, a total attitude change towards the basal excerpts.

Doesn’t it just make common sense for kids to read a full book rather than an excerpt? As both a teacher and a parent this seems glaringly obvious. I do see a value to complete short stories read that have a beginning, middle and end. This is more common to see in the primary level basals and that makes sense. Isn’t there room in our reading curriculum for a bit of both? What happened to trying to garner a love and respect for reading in our students?

How do you struggle with these issues? As a teacher do you have a freedom to change up and add to the curriculum? How do you see the effects of your changes on the student’s learning? Please share your stories and comments.


  1. I am a 4th grade teacher in an urban school (title 1) in Jacksonville, FL. My team and I started a book study last year during professional development that led us to replace the basil with strategy units in which we use chapter books and novel studies as you mentioned above. We found the same thing you did--the students absolutely LOVED the chapter books and were so engaged in the text that they were begging for more! My kids were doing the unthinkable in a low-income struggling school like mine--asking me to buy books for our classroom library by the same authors I was using in my lessons, taking home books to read ahead, challenging themselves to read on grade level, etc. Currently, my team and I are designing a schedule for next year that is broken into strategy units, each one focusing on a new author (of chapter books). I was wondering if you have any suggestions of chapter books to use in a Questioning unit? We are already using Louis Sachar, Andrew Clements, Beverly Cleary, and Roald Dahl in other units. Thanks for an intersting blog that confirms my newfound belief on teaching reading!

  2. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond Katie. Between the 4th weekend (my daughter's birthday is 7/4) and then off to FL for the shuttle launch I have been MIA on my blog!

    It is amazing when you see those kids really turn on the love of reading isn't it! Your team plans sound fantastic. Nice that you are given the freedom to explore off the beaten path a bit. I love all the authors that you mentioned and I have used them all as well. What exactly do you mean by a "questioning unit"? Are you looking for something where the kids will develop questions or answering of questions? Personally I gear my unit questions towards the higher level of Bloom's taxonomy. I really try and get the kids to analyze what they've read and to really try and understand the motivations of the characters/author. I do include some basic comprehension questions as well but not too many. I don't want my students to just regurgitate what they've read, I want them to think about it and ponder motivations.

    Good luck with your upcoming school year! You sound like a fantastic teacher and your students are very fortunate!