Warning: Pet Peeve Ahead
In the winter of 1998, my “Children’s Literature” professor stated that Dick and Jane books weren’t considered literature, and therefore had no business being used in schools. I disagreed, but felt that I had to respect the virtue of her opinion, no matter how misguided I thought it was.
I was innocently reading a Writer’s Almanac e-article about Dr. Seuss’s birthday, when I discovered that the literary companions of my youth had not been victims of literature purists, but instead had been steamrolled out of the curriculum by a sneering education specialist and his love of phonics.* Rudolph Flesch.
The March 2, 2010 Writer’s Almanac article (read the whole thing at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/) read in part, “A big study came out in the 1950s called “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” It was by an Austrian immigrant to the U.S. [Rudolf Flesch], an education specialist who argued that the Dick and Jane primers being used to teach reading in grade school classrooms across America were boring and, worse, not an effective method for teaching reading. He called them “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers,” which went “through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading ‘Look, look’ or ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘Come, come’ or ‘See the funny, funny animal.'”
Humph! Obviously, in addition to being just plain irritating, the man never read a Dick and Jane book when he was little. (If he had, he might have become a nicer person. 🙂 ) After his study was published in 1955 and Flesch was written up in Time magazine, the educational establishment reacted like lemmings on a warm day, and Dick and Jane were sacrificed in the name of a biased theory. Unfortunately, the condescending Mr. Flesch doesn’t seem to have considered child development in his diatribe treatise.
For a beginning reader, pictures, repetition, sounding out words, and sight words are all important, as are enjoyment of the story and empathy with the subject matter. Children are going from their birth “language” of visual images to coding/symbols and the visual clues are important to link with the words they are learning to encode/decode. Sort of like training wheels. Dick and Jane books are filled with silly humor, have engaging pictures, are easy to read, and the repetition cements the words in a child’s brain. Oral reading at school is not a trial because once a child has heard the words while reading along, he/she can easily recognise and repeat them.
When I was little, I loved Dick and Jane. I learned to read in kindergarten, but recall using Dick and Jane through first grade. I still remember some of the stories. One, in particular, was about when Dick and Jane were at school on a rainy day and had to draw pictures of things they saw on the way to school. One student held his picture up for the class, and it looked like the arm on a metronome. None of his classmates could identify it, and it turned out that it was the single (centered) windshield wiper on his father’s car. I think it stuck with me because I had only seen cars with two windshield wipers, and thought it was interesting. Apparently Mr. Flesch didn’t read that one. I also recall a great fondness for Puff the cat.
In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of Dick and Jane books on the market, compilations of various early readers. I have purchased the ones I’ve seen, and my sons have appreciated them, too. They clearly enjoyed a feeling of mastery at being able to read a “book” with so little experience, and they liked the stories. My younger son used one for a first grade book report, displaying for the class his newfound confidence in reading, and was not shy to read aloud (the foundation of public speaking).
In 1980, Flesch published another book: Why Johnny Still Can’t Read. Apparently he finally realized that Dick and Jane weren’t the real problem, but the damage had already been done. I have read the little books that my sons bring home from school for “reading homework,” and to paraphrase former senator Lloyd Bentsen, they are no Dick and Jane.q
* I’ll discuss the benefits of combining phonics with whole language learning in a future post. Also the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tool in Microsoft word.