Despansion: Defining the Paradoxical Effects of Commercially Produced Reading Materials

Submitted by:

Stephanie Ann Grote

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Early Childhood Development Center, 219K
6300 Ocean Drive
Corpus Christi, TX. 78412

Teachers are trained to design, evaluate, and implement effective curriculum. Separating curriculum planning from curriculum implementation causes teachers to lose their skills received in training. Just as an athlete beginning a sedentary lifestyle experiences atrophy, a teacher who does not construct curriculum will experience despansion. Despansion is a term I have created to describe the shrinking of skills instead of the expansion of skills and refers to the actual process of the deskilling of teachers. The paradoxical effects of despansion include the lost financial expense invested in extensive teacher training, the alienation of students, the separation of teachers from their occupation, and the separation of teachers from the discourse community that is held within the classroom.

Despansion Defined

Despansion describes how teachers are separated from their own occupation. First, teachers are highly trained through in-services and workshops to design and to implement highly effective curriculum. Teachers are particularly trained to create or adjust curriculum, based on students' individual needs. Second, teachers no longer create, critique, or implement their own self-designed curriculum because of the availability of the commercially produced reading materials. Third, teachers begin to experience deskilling due to the lack of designing individualized curriculum. This process reflects the saying, 'When you do not use it, you lose it.' Through despansion, teachers are separated from their own occupation of curriculum design. Consequently the means meant to achieve highly effective teachers, creates teachers unable to design highly effective curriculum for individual needs.

The Paradoxical Effects of Despansion

The most significant and damaging effect caused by the separation of curriculum design and implementation involves the alienation of students. The classroom teacher does not create the curriculum and occasionally can do little modification to mold the curriculum to fit the students' individual needs. Instead, a 'blanket lesson' is taught to cover the majority of students' needs. The term 'blanket lesson' is used to describe a lesson that is intended to teach all children regardless of their individual learning needs.

Along with content, many publishers determine the length of units and time distributions. A secondary source, which is not in the classroom, is not able to determine the success rate of students acquiring knowledge from lessons. Students acquire knowledge at different rates. Furthermore, what happens to the students who are struggling? Most lessons build upon one another in a systematic order. This systematic method of building is similar to building a foundation to support a building. A student who does not achieve success with the first lesson will not have the knowledge or skills to learn additional lessons. A struggling student will crumble or break just as a building with a poor foundation.

After the student has crumbed or begun to struggle with reading materials, how can we help the identified struggling reader? Thus far, the answer has been to purchase additional commercially produced reading programs. However, these new programs are meant to help struggling readers in a small group setting. Is this our best solution? Would a construction company rebuild a collapsed building with the same materials? Furthermore, would the construction company rebuild the collapsed building with the only modification consisting of building at a slower rate? No, a successful construction company would evaluate the building and find the missing brace. Secondly, the company would build a scaffold to reach each level after another, adding one level at a time. Thirdly, the company would not move to the next level until the initial level was secure and stable. Can the education field learn this from the construction field?

Reflect back to the 'blanket' lesson. Many publishers make a 'blanket' lesson format to standardize learning. Standardization refers to the conscious efforts of the school district to systematically use the same curriculum district wide in an effort to reach the same goals of reading competence across the entire district or just school wide. Eisner (2005) recognized that the dominating values guiding our curriculum focus on standardizing outcomes in order to boost text scores. Standardization reflects the learning theory that all students learn by the implementation of the same teaching methods and all students learn at the same rate.

As Patrick Shannon (1982a, 1982b, 1983, 1987) has argued, in the bureaucratization of instruction, planning is separated from implementation and the teaching process is condensed to a standard script or procedure to be recited and implemented despite the educational needs of the student. According to Shannon, commercial reading materials afford a device for standardization and displays characteristics of formal rationality. The reality that everyone is different in all aspects, including learning, is evident. Why teach under the theory that everyone is identical and learn the same way?

Determinants of Content and Skills

Publishers create state adopted versions to accommodate the hierarchy of authority found in each state. The state standards for the content and skills are molded into the curriculum; this permits the state to be the determiner of appropriate curriculum. These state standards require the classroom teacher to teach according to prescribed goals, designated procedures, and stated standards made by a higher level of managerial authority. A teacher receives ongoing state standards training through in-services and workshops. A teacher is capable of determining and designing lessons that ensure student success with state standards. Preparing curriculum designed by a secondary source to reflect state standards is actually preparing teachers for the process of despansion.

Causes of Despansion

Commercially produced instructional reading materials are designed and created by secondary sources outside of the classroom. The content and teaching framework is based on the publishers' theories of learning and teaching philosophies, not the classroom teacher who is implementing the lesson in the classroom. This separation of curriculum planning and implementation decreases the innovative curriculum design and curriculum critique of the classroom teacher. Goodman (1988) declared that prepackaged curricula separate teachers from their own occupation. The publishers' theories of learning and philosophies of teaching are embedded within these commercially produced reading materials. These materials are created for classroom teachers; ironically, these materials may not reflect the teachers' theories of learning nor the teachers' teaching philosophies. These opposing or conflicting theories and philosophies contribute to the process of despansion.

The following section will explore how the behaviorist theory, the constructivist theory and the thoughts of the New Literacy Studies are embedded into commercially produced reading materials.

The Behaviorist

Several commercially produced reading materials have repetitious lessons or multiple exposures of the same reading skill. Based on the repetitious lesson, a behaviorist model of learning is evident. The structure of several commercially produced reading materials emphasizes particular skills in multiple exposures. This is achieved by introducing a particular skill, practicing implementation of that skill in activities, completing workbook sheets featuring the skill, and reinforcing the featured skill through take-home activities. According to Artley (1980), behaviorists contend that there are three elements in the act of learning: stimulus, response, and the connection or bond between the two. It is assumed that if the stimulus is presented often enough the response will become automatic. Therefore, if a particular skill is presented often enough, the child will master that skill.

For a teacher who does not share this repetitious style of teaching, this particular method of teaching may disengage the teacher from his or her occupation. This repetitious manner may become a mechanical movement that requires less intellectual engagement. The teacher may experience despansion as a result of this mechanical method of teaching.


According to Kearsley (1999), Bruner defines constructivism as a learning theory in which learning is seen as an active process. Learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge. An opportunity to discuss prior experiences is provided in a majority of commercially produced materials. This use of prior knowledge to construct new knowledge reflects a constructivist view of learning. There are different emphases: Piaget emphasizes psychological changes to schemata, Dewey emphasizes the Tran formative possibilities in experience, and Vygotsky emphasizes the role of social interaction in reconstructing the relationship of structures to experience. Cunningham and Duffy (1996) identified two foundational similarities among all constructivist theories. They are that 'learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge and instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather that communicating knowledge' (p. 172).

Commercially produced reading materials that practice the Constructivist model of learning, ask the classroom to provide opportunities for learners to expand their knowledge in an active and engaged format. The teacher cannot assume that all learners have the same background knowledge or experiences on which to build new knowledge. Students are encouraged to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. Learners are engaged in experiences that go beyond factual responses and provide opportunities to hypothesize, to analyze, to interpret, and to predict.

New Literacy Studies

As a reflection that literacy is a set of practices within a social network, Ewing (2003) reports that the New Literacy Studies support the idea that literacy must be learned within a community. The New Literacy Studies are based on the view that reading and writing only make sense when studied in the context of social and cultural practices. Many commercially produced materials support a social network of learners.

Many commercially produced materials provide prompts for discussion or scripts as a prescription of discourse. These scripts are prepared outside the classroom by the publishers. These discourse scripts demonstrate the publishers' beliefs that discourse is not created entirely by the members of the discourse community. The discourse scripts even remove the teacher from the discourse community by placing the publishers' words in the hands of the teacher.


Teachers are trained to create, critique, and implement curriculum. Separating curriculum planning from curriculum implementation causes teachers to experience despansion. Despansion is the shrinking of skills instead of the expansion of skills and refers to the actual process of the deskilling of teachers. The paradoxical effects of despansion include the lost financial expense invested in extensive teacher training, the alienation of students, the separation of teachers from their occupation, and the separation of teachers from the discourse community that is held within the classroom. Ironically, the means created to produce effective teachers and skilled readers produces deskilled teachers and alienated students. Teachers should use their training to create, critique, and implement curriculum for their student's individual needs.


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