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There was a lot of controversy in the 1960’s and 1970’s about the efficacy of the “Dick and Jane” readers. Johnny, who was “taught” to read with these textbooks, couldn’t. In the 70’s, more and more students were graduating from high school without the rudiments of literacy. Reading was no longer a pleasant pastime for most Americans by the end of the 70’s. Today, it’s rare to find an avid reader amongst the general public. Ask any adult on the street the title of the last book he read, and I’ll wager it was a book he was forced to read in high school and he can’t remember a thing about it. Was it the “whole word”, “look and say” method that failed them? Was it the lack of phonics?
I have not done an official study on this subject; I haven’t done a lot of interviews or administered a battery of tests. But I have done a lot of research on ways to teach children to read, and I have drawn my own conclusions. Why did “Dick and Jane” fail to teach American children to read? “Dick and Jane” is boring.
The first sentence of this blog entry is mildly amusing for the short line that it takes up. Imagine forcing yourself to read page after page of such drivel! The repetition, the constant tone of command, the entire lack of imaginative or interesting content is mind-numbing. I remember as a six-year-old being forced to wade through this stuff in school with only the knowledge of an exciting “Bobbsey Twins” mystery waiting for me at home to keep me going. How did anyone expect children to learn to enjoy reading when they were forced to endure such boring (I use this word in its broadest possible sense) “stories”?
Yes, the pictures are cute. I admit to a nostalgic draw towards the colorful pictures of white, middle-class American suburbia. They’re pretty. But pictures are not words. Words are the most important part of any book. (Do I really need to point that out?) Not, admittedly, the most marketable part, but the most important. I have in my home a number of readers from pre-Great War times, and these contain few or no color pictures, but are filled with interesting, educational, and imaginative narrative. Were our Victorian-era forefathers better readers than modern Americans? You bet they were! What made the difference? Were they smarter than we are? Did they have access to better schools? Did they have more well-funded government programs? No, the real difference is simpler than that. They WANTED to read!
I was a lucky kid. I had access to a houseful of good books to choose from, and parents who took me to the library every week. Books were considered the best presents to give and receive for Christmas and birthdays. My parents read to me when I was too young to read, and they spent their spare time reading in front of me, showing by example that reading is fun for everyone. But what about kids who aren’t so lucky? What about kids who grow up in homes with few or no books, and whose parents do not have time for frivolous trips to the library and do not have the money to purchase books as gifts? What about kids whose parents don’t read and whose only exposure to books is in school? Shouldn’t we offer them books that are at least as exciting as the TV programs they watch every day? What draw is there to reading when books are presented as bland and boring?
There’s a resurgence of nostalgic interest in the old “Dick and Jane” books lately. I’ve seen copies in book stores, and they are just as pretty as I remembered them. And the earnest message they send to me is: “Run, kids, run! Go fast! Run to Dr. Seuss! Read, kids, read!”