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18 Feb 2003

Are There Alternatives in Reading Textbooks? An Examination of Three Beginning Reading Programs

Elfrieda H. Hiebert & Leigh Ann Martin, University of Michigan
Shailaja Menon, University of Colorado

Journal Article

Hiebert, E.H., Martin, L.A. & Menon, S. (2005). Are there alternatives in reading textbooks? An examination of three beginning reading programs. Reading & Writing Quarterly 21(1), 7 – 32.


Amidst the advocacy and mandates regarding beginning reading instruction, an examination of textbook programs that are presented as offering different philosophical orientations seemed in order. Three philosophically different programs were selected for study—a mainstream, basal program, a combined phonics and literature program, and a phonics emphasis program. Texts from each of these programs were compared on features of cognitive load (e.g., number of different words) and linguistic content (e.g., number of monosyllabic, simple vowel words). All three programs offer different components as a part of their comprehensive offerings—literature, decodable texts, and leveled texts. Three levels of each component (representing different points in the text-based curriculum) were compared.

Analyses of text features showed that each program presents a different set of tasks for beginning readers. In the mainstream, basal program, texts across levels differ primarily in length, but do not differ substantially in either cognitive load or linguistic content. In the early levels of the combined phonics and literature program, decodable texts are plentiful and emphasize particular linguistic content. By the middle of grade one, however, these texts become few, while the literature and leveled texts are similar to those of the mainstream, basal program. The phonics program has differentiated cognitive load and linguistic content in some, but not all, components of its program. Its decodable texts have a low number of unique words and few multisyllabic words. Its literature, however, has no clear connections to tasks of the decodable component. These analyses bring to the fore questions about what constitutes an instructional program for beginning readers.