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Multicultural Representations in Basal Reader Series (2003)
by Kira Isak Pirofski, San Jose State University


During the 1970s and 1980s race related content of state adopted basal reading series became the subject of scrutiny and criticism. A number of academic research projects found that minorities were underrepresented in basals. In addition researchers found that when basals did include African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian characters these depictions were stereotyped and racially biased. This article it reviews the substance of past critiques of basals, explores the current status of basal literature in regards to racial portrayals, and it defines what basal readers are as well as describes how they are used in language arts programs.


State adopted basal reader series have been used as one component of elementary school language arts curriculum in the United States for decades. These books are designed to increase reading ability and facilitate language arts skills in emergent readers by introducing children to selected reading series the level of which gradually escalates in difficulty. Elementary school language arts program use basals are in conjunction with other children's literature. Stories in basals may be fiction, non-fiction, biographies, adaptations of original children's books, condensations of classic children's literature, or original stories. Elementary basal texts are frequently accompanied by illustrations, a glossary, and vocabulary drill words (Hall, 1997). Some of the instructional basals that are used by schools include: the Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt-Brace, Open Court, Scholastic, and Scott Foresman Collections famous for the Dick and Jane series.


Meriam (1928) was among the first educators to raise concerns about the lack of and import of Native American representation in texts for children. This pioneer, educator, administrator, believed that many Native American children were disillusioned with school and reading and were dropping out of school, in part, because they were not provided with literature regarding their history and culture.

The question of Native Americans in basals was broached by Gillilald (1983) who found that there were very few fiction and nonfiction stories about Native American in state approved basals. Gillilald (1983) found as well that when basal reader stories did include Native Americans, the tales were set in the past and did not address issues current and relevant to the Native American community.

Rehyer (1986) conducted an extensive analysis of Native American representation in basal reader series. His sample included basals. Included in the study were 8 basal reading series written for 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade readers. All of the reader series he used had been approved for states with populations in excess of 5 million. Selected series included: the Allyn & Bacon Reading Program (1978) by Robert Rudell; American Readers (1983) by Sandra Maccarone; Ginn Reading Program (1982) by Theodore Clymer; Houghton Mifflin Reading Program (1981) by William K. Durr; The Laidlaw Reading Program (1980) by William Eller and Kathleen B. Hester.

Based on random sampling of the cited basals, Rehyer (1986) selected 203 stories (1986). Sixteen of the 203 stories included Indian or Eskimo characters. One story in a first grade basal, 6 were in third grade basals, 9 were in fifth grade basals. Stories were evenly distributed among the different reader series. Two reader series had 3 stories, four series had 2 stories, and two series had one story with Native American characters (Rehyer, 1986).

Basal stories did not represent all tribes of Native Americans equitably: Pueblo and Navajo Indians were in a third of the basals, but here were no stories about Atlantic and Pacific coast tribes (Rehyer, 1986). One story about Sacajawea, a Plains Indian, was in the sample. The stories in basals placed Native American in rural settings: thirteen were in rural settings, and two were in urban settings. Males and female Native American were represented equally in all age groups (Rehyer, 1986).

Rehyer (1986) found that the numbers of basal reader's stories about Hispanics was equal to the number of stories about Native Americans. African- Americans appeared twice as frequently in stories than did Native Americans and Hispanics. Caucasians appeared seven times more often than did minority characters. The stories about African- Americans were primarily found in first grade level basal readers. Hispanic, Asian, Native Americans were more likely to appear in basals designed for students in the fifth grade reading level (Rehyer (1986).

Garcia and Sadoski (1986) reviewed nine major basal reader series for grades one through 6 published between years 1979 and 1981. Of the 3,389 stores reviewed, eighteen percent featured African- Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. The researchers had rated the stories in terms of the social and economic status of the characters, the locale of the story, the time in which the story was set, and the characters life situations. Findings were that that many of the above criteria were used in ways that presented distorted images of minority groups, and that race relations existing between minority and majority populations were unrealistic. However, the researchers concluded by noting that, in general, treatment of ethnic minorities had improved in comparison to earlier literature (Garcia and Sadoski, 1986).

Reimer (1992) that basals reading programs designed for their grade readers lacked minority characters and variations with ethnicities were ignored. The different cultural and ethic background of Asians and Hispanics in terms of places of origin, language, customs, and traditions were not fully explored. Reimer concluded that more basals have included minority characters but, stereotyping, lack of attention to individual differences within ethnic groups, and failure to move beyond a set number of literary genres are persistent problems in multicultural stories published in basals.

Shannon and Crawford (1997) submit that state approved basal reader texts transmit the values of upper middle class, Caucasians, and they submit this has created reading problems among those of lower socioeconomic groups (Shannon and Crawford, 1997).

McDermott and others (1997) surveyed basals readers Harcourt Brace (1995), Houghton Mifflin (1993), Macmillan (1993), which, at the time of the study, were used in Capital District of New York State. In terms of depiction of racial diversity, researchers found that Harcourt Brace written for readers grades 4-6 offered 18 stories with minority characters. Macmillan basals designed for grades 4-6 contained nearly forty stories with minority characters. Houghton basals had eleven stories with minority characters. McDermott and others (1997) concluded that the stories tended to understate racial conflicts and present race relations in a positive, conflict-free manner (McDermott and others, 1997).


The literature review of research on race and ethnicity in basals reader series cited in this article can be summarized as follows:

* Early basal readers either completely omitted minorities or underrepresented minorities,
* Basals have begun to include minority characters, but many of the representations are inauthentic,
* Basals which do have minority characters do not explore conflicts between ethnic groups and present a harmonious picture of race relations.

Other conclusions that can be drawn from cited research is that of the three main deficiencies regarding basal readers and minority group representation, the issue of under representation and omission has shown the most change. One study included in this paper suggests that African-Americans are represented more often in basal readers than Hispanics or Native-Americans. However Caucasian characters continue to outnumber all minority characters by a large margin.

Garcia, Jesus; Sadoski, Mark. The Treatment of Minorities in Nine Recently Published Basal Series. 1986

Gilliland, Hap. (1980). Indian children's books. Billings, Montana: Council for Indian Education.

Gilliland, Hap. (1983,). Modern Indian stories are essential to the success of modern Indian children. Native American Education, February 1-2.

Gilliland, Hap. (1982,). The new view of Native Americans in children's books. The Reading Teacher, May 912-16.

Hill, David R.(1997). Graded (Basal) Readers--Choosing The best, EPER (The Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading), Edinburgh University

Meriam, Lewis (Ed.). (1928). The problem of Indian administration. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Reimer, Kathryn Meyer; (1992), "Multiethnic literature: Holding fast to dreams," Technical Report No. 551, ERIC_NO: ED343128

Reyhner , John (1986) NATIVE AMERICANS IN BASAL READING TEXTBOOKS:ARE THERE ENOUGH? Journal of American Indian Education Vol 26 No 1, October 1986

Shannon, Patrick; Crawford, Patricia. Manufacturing Descent: Basal Readers and the Creation of Reading Failures. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties; v13 n3 p227-43 Jul-Sep 1997.

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